Crowded Australian koala colony may lead to cull

MAY 29 (Reuters) — An overcrowded colony of about 1,000 koalas in Australia is being assessed this week for possible ill health, in a survey that could lead to a cull, raising objections from animal welfare lobbyists.

Australian media reported that the Victorian state government is concerned many of the koalas may be undernourished because the colony at Cape Otway has grown even as the supply of the koalas’ staple diet of manna gum leaves has diminished.

“You see dead koalas at the base of the trees, stripped trees, the whole forest and just the koalas sitting at the bottom of the trees dying, the whole Cape smelt of dead koalas,” said Frank Fotinas, the manager of a Cape Otway camp site.

“Sustainable density is thought to be about one per hectare and what we’re observing on the ground is about three to four as a minimum and up to about 20,” said Mandy Watson, a spokeswoman for the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning.

A team of experts will examine a sample of the population, ear-tagging and implanting fertility control in the females prior to release.

Koalas are a protected species in Australia, where they serve as a major tourist attraction and fulfil the odd diplomatic role – world leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama were pictured cuddling the docile animals at a G20 summit in Brisbane last year.

The government says culls are sometimes necessary, but campaigners are concerned there will be a repeat of a crisis in 2013 when 700 sick or injured koalas were euthanized and about 1,500 more died unaided at Cape Otway, a tourist spot along the Great Ocean Road.

The colony has risen to unsustainable levels in recent years as the indigenous animals consume about 1.5 kg (3.3 lb) of gum leaves each a day. Another 3 kg (6.6 lb) are lost to damage each day.

“There has to be a management plan put in just to make sure that the forest survives because without the forest the koalas aren’t going to be here,” Fotinas said.

There are about 43,000 koalas left in the wild in Australia. (Cape Otway, Australia)