Monday, 7 January 2008

Tower Hill is a nested maar type of dormant volcano, notice it isn't extinct. More here. The treed area in the centre of the picture are a number of volcanic cones, the flat area in the foreground is part of the crater, and in wetter times is a large lake. Apparently the area was occupied by humans at the tme of the most recent eruptions between 20 and 30000 years ago. This area is part of a significant volcanic zone stretching from the south east of South Australia to central Victoria, within which the most recent eruptions were around Mt Gambier in SA about 4800 years ago. Tower Hill was declared a National Park in 1892. It was painted by a number of important artists including Eugen von Guerard, whose painting of 1855 is considered accurate enough to be used as a document of vegetation types, and which has guided revegetation from the 1950s onwards. Some where along the line they introduced this little animal.
This koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) is sitting in a tree in the Tower Hill National park near Koroit in Victoria's south west. I climbed the highest of the peaks in the park one day and on the way down was directed by some other visitors to this rather cute sight. We all take great pleasure in watching these animals, which are protected both by the law and national sentiment. Even when they piss on Ministers of the Government and ruin their expensive suits, we laugh, then hand a few over to zoos elsewhere in the world.
Koalas like a small subset of the 800 odd species of eucalypts and related trees. Manna gum (E. viminalis) and Swamp gum (E. ovata) are the main components of their diet, although they are known to browse up to 50 species and even eat from other tree species. They are fairly territorial and have favourite trees, they are social, but they eat up to a kilogram of leaves a day, and eucalypts are not thickly leaved trees, so they can quickly denude a tree. They were not in the park in an earlier European incarnation as grazing land and quarry. They now have eaten out the trees they like, there are vastly greater numbers and the park authorities are playing the ring a roses game of moving numbers to other locations to ease congestion. This is a common problem. I grew up on Kangaroo Island, where a colony of koalas was established in the early 1920s from French Island in Victoria, where, according to Tim Low in his book The New Nature, ISBN 0143001949, they had been taken in 1898. When I was a kid we had to drive a long way over some very rough dirt roads to see a koala, and I remember seeing a couple on one such excursion in the 50s.
This is the environment the koala (centre of picture) is living in. The light coloured trees are food trees. This animal is eating itself out of house and home. Further to the French Island and Kangaroo Island stories, where the animals have also eaten themselves out of trees, according to Lowe one person
on French Island in the 20s counted 2300 koalas on a 5 miles stretch of road. 15000 animals have been relocated from French and adjacent Phillip Islands so far, with little net result. The 18 koalas taken to Kangaroo Island had multiplied to more than 5000 70 years later. The locals wanted a cull, they got expensive and selective sterilisation. Koalas were then released up a tree, still eating their way out of house and home. The problem is two fold, political and sentimental. The pollies are gutless, they don't want to do the sensible thing, cull, because it would look bad in the media especially overseas. They won't fund the awareness campaigns to raise the level of debate above the cuteness and national icon level, so we can deal with the problem we created by not managing animal numbers. These animals were food once to the original Australians, they kept numbers in check by roasting them. Kangaroos, emus, possums were also eaten, and now they are all largely protected. I have eaten roo and emu meat, nutritious, low cholesterol meats both. Possums? Give us an open season on the buggers, three days is all we need, let me shoot fat Freddy who lives in my roof, pisses on my ceiling, shits in my nice warm insulation. Save the kangaroo? Save the koala? Only by managing the numbers, like humans once did.Thanks to Tim Low, who opened my eyes.

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