Koalas can’t seem to catch a break these days.
Just two months after record-breaking fires in south Australia left the marsupials burned and helpless, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation is reporting that hundreds of koalas in Victoria were targeted by wildlife officials in a “secret” campaign of mercy killing.
The “secret cull,” which claimed the lives of nearly 700 koalas, was conducted during multiple operations in 2013 and 2014. The goal was to alleviate “overpopulation issues,” which included mass starvation, said Victoria’s environment minister, Lisa Neville. The marsupials were rounded up and sedated before being euthanized by officials.
“It is clear it’s an overpopulation issue, and it is clear that we have had koalas suffer in that Cape Otway area because of ill health and starvation,” Neville said. “That’s just not good enough, and that’s a terrible way to treat koalas…I don’t want to see koalas suffer.”
Neville also pledged to be “transparent” with the community about any future action after revealing details of the government’s reportedly covert mass murder of the cuddly, tree-hugging animals. (However, it seems that at least one koala specialist in Australia is disputing the characterization of the orchestrated koala killing as technically “secret.”) A special koala management program is forthcoming.
So why would officials hide details of the koala euthanization campaign from the public? The same reason Richard Nixon tried to keep the carpet-bombing of Cambodia a secret: fear of public backlash and uproar.
People love koalas. The iconic marsupial helps generate hundreds of millions in tourism revenue (PDF) for Australia annually. Killing scores of them, however humanely or justifiably, at a cost to the taxpayer isn’t an easy pitch to constituents.
In 1996, the South Australian wildlife service warned that 2,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island needed to be killed or relocated due to overbreeding and potential famine. The government proposed hunting and gunning down the koalas—a plan that did not sit well with many people.
“We don’t think there are too many koalas,” Deborah Tabart of the Australian Koala Foundation told the Associated Press at the time. “We think [there] are too few trees.”
“This is outrageous and [a] national disgrace,” said Pam Allan, New South Wales environment minister. “Koalas are a national icon.”
Outcry from activists, politicians, and the public led officials to scrap plans to form koala death squads just a few months later. “There will be no shooting of koalas under our government,” National Environment Minister Robert Hill promised. “Let there be no doubt that whatever the officials might advise…I am not going to endorse any suggestion of humane destruction…”
Allan said she was pleased with this assurance. “We don’t want the community becoming unnecessarily alarmed,” she said in a radio interview. “They will think governments want to shoot koalas.”
Clearly, times have changed since the ’90s.
Now go enjoy this BBC segment on koalas being all cute and “making animal babies”: