THE death of dozens of koalas on a property near Cape Bridgewater has sparked a government investigation, a demand for justice “without lenience” by the Environment Minister, and an outrage from near and far.
As of yesterday, at least 30 koalas had been humanely destroyed – as well as more having been found already dead – at the farm property.
Another 50 koalas have been sent to wildlife carers for further treatment and rehabilitation.
The land, a former plantation, was being returned to pasture by the landowner, with gum trees bordering Bridgewater Rd being cleared.
Deer-proof fencing was also set up around the site – something authorities believe has contributed to the koalas’ current condition.
The Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning responded to a call last Wednesday in relation to the koalas after 17 were initially spotted by local Helen Oakley over a stretch of about 200m.
“There were a lot of baby ones, as well as kangaroos and wallabies in there,” Ms Oakley said at the time.
She in turn contacted the Observer and local wildlife carer Sharon Webster, who contacted DELWP.
“This is the flagship species of Australia and look how they’re being treated,” Ms Webster said.
“It’s just ridiculous.
“It’s not a good image either. People come along here, like tourists, they’re animal lovers, and this is just maltreatment as far as I’m concerned.”
The Observer took some of these photos at the same time.
At that stage though, no-one had any idea of just what lay behind the fencing.
After providing the koalas with water on Wednesday night, Ms Oakley got permission from the landowner to enter the property and provide any further help the next day.
“I counted 20-something koalas in one clump and then walked along the fence line and counted another 55-60, including babies without mothers,” she said.
Ms Oakley said she was also contacted by DELWP and told she should not tell the media. She also posted images and video on social media.
DELWP sent carers to the site on Thursday, but the heat delayed their own rescue efforts until Friday.
Chief conservation regulator Kate Gavens said since then more than 80 koalas had been assessed.
“Wildlife welfare assessment and triage will continue this week with qualified carers and vets on site,” she said.
The matter was being taken “very seriously” with the Office of the Conservation Regulator’s major investigations team looking into how the incident happened and who was responsible.
Animals that were considered to not require immediate removal had been provided with food and water while assessment and treatment would continue with qualified carers and vets.
DELWP was working with those concerned on the long-term requirements for the remaining koalas, including possible relocation to suitable sites.
The Observer has attempted to contact the landowner for comment, without success.
Prior to the landowner taking over, the property was a bluegum plantation.
This led to environmental group Friends of the Earth claiming on Saturday that the clearing was the responsibility of local timber company South West Fibre.
That claim was picked up and run in other media, which saw the story spread nationally.
However, South West Fibre said it was engaged in October last year to remove trees from the land in a legitimate DELWP-approved harvesting operation, consistent with the company’s koala management plan.
The land was then handed back to the owner in November.
“(South West Fibre) left an appropriate number of habitat trees for the existing koala population and provided details of such in a letter to the landowner noting that the koalas were uninjured and in good health,” the company said.
The current situation was “particularly concerning to the foresters and staff who worked assiduously to protect the koalas during the harvesting operation”, the company said.
Also concerned was Victorian Environment Minister Lily D’Ambrosio, who said she was “appalled” by the reports.
“There are significant penalties for killing, harassing and disturbing wildlife and additional penalties for animal cruelty,” she said.
“I expect the Conservation Regulator to act swiftly, decisively and without lenience to those responsible for this devastating situation.”
Glenelg Shire Council said it was “shocked and disturbed” by reports of the deaths.
“Any act of animal cruelty is abhorrent; council condemns any behaviour that would result in an animal death or injury,” it said.
“Council urges the State Government to undertake an immediate independent investigation into this matter to ensure such an event does not occur in the future.”
State Member for South-West Coast Roma Britnell said the incident was “horrific and unacceptable”.
“I will work to ensure this type of thing does not happen again and that appropriate policies and procedures for the management of koala populations are put in place and adhered to,” she said.
Ms Webster pointed out that the issue was wider than plantations.
“They are a protected species and people need to know they can’t take these matters into their own hands,” she said.
“Private property owners in urban centres are doing similar things, even one or two trees make a difference.”
All wildlife in Victoria is protected under the Wildlife Act. Killing, harassing or disturbing wildlife can attract a penalty of up to $8000 and an additional fine of more than $800 per head of wildlife. Members of the public who see wildlife that appears to be injured or distressed as a result of this incident can call 1300 356 687.