Koalas, head lice and the great green deception

While we were in Narrandera for a few days before the COVID-19 lockdowns last March, we went on a lovely walk along Talbots Lake and the Town Common. It is within a river red gum forest (E. camaldulensis) near the Murrumbidgee River.

River red gums at Talbots Lake, Narrandera

The area has a fascinating history. The attraction was an opportunity to see koalas in the trees as the Town Common (or Koala Reserve) is a renowned koala habitat area. We not only gazed up at the trees as we walked along the track, but also looked for tell-tale koala presence – distinctive claw scratchings on the tree trunks, footprints in the mud after the rain the night before, and scats on the ground. We spotted four koalas perched in the trees along our walk as a reward for our keen observation.

Koala at Narrandera

This experience reminded me of my time working in northern New South Wales as a forester in the early 1990s. I learnt a lot about native fauna managing state forests of the Bellinger and Nambucca Valleys out of the Urunga District office.

In a landmark court case in 1991, environmentalist John Corkill bought proceedings in the Land and Environment Court of New South Wales. He sought declarations and orders against the Forestry Commission to prevent it logging a section of Chaelundi State Forest in the adjoining Dorrigo District. Corkill claimed that logging of the forest would likely kill, injure or disturb certain endangered and protected fauna species in breach of section 98 and 99 of the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1974. The argument was based on intent as foresters argued there was no deliberate action to kill the animals as harvesting plans outlined prescriptions to minimise any impacts. Justice Stein handed down his decision in favour of Corkill. He agreed that while the Forestry Commission would take steps to avoid injury or death to animals, it was likely to disturb and injure certain protected and endangered species and that the Forestry Commission was obliged to comply with sections 98 and 99. The Forestry Commission unsuccessfully appealed the decision the following month, and thus the Chaelundi decision imposed a new regime on foresters in regards to the protection of endangered species. From that point onwards we had to know a lot more about the endangered animals that inhabited a logging coupe – their favoured habitat, eating habits, breeding patterns, what time of the day they were active and where they lived – in tree hollows or burrows under the ground.

We amended existing harvesting plans to include prescriptions to protect the powerful, masked and sooty owls, the yellow-belied glider, the koala, the spotted-tail quoll, and the feather-tail glider, among other species. Some of these animals I had never heard of before. We have such unique animals in Australia, and we know nothing about them. How many of you have heard about the Brush-tailed Phascogale?[1] Even today, kids know more about lions and tigers. They are taught nothing about the unique Australian native fauna because teachers do not know anything about them and even the land managers that manage conservation reserves know little about them.

After the Chaelundi decision foresters had to become ‘fauna experts’ over-night. I first reached out to the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) for advice about these cryptic animals. No-one could help me. They didn’t know anything about these animals either. I turned to our library and sought articles on the endangered animals in our forest and read copiously.[2] We attended fauna training classes, run by ecologists employed by the Forestry Commission.

I learnt how to identify the animals, what trees or habitat they occupied, how to recognise signs of their presence, what they ate, and their scats. The best part was travelling to the forest at night (it had to be a calm, clear night) to do some spotlighting.  To find out if any of the owls were present, we used a tape recorder and megaphone and played pre-recorded owl calls and waited for their response. You had to pick the right habitat that supported their roosting areas.

I also learnt other things such as which type of tree hollow supports which type of animal; the difference between koala and possum scratches on trees; the tell-tale yellow-bellied glider ‘v-notch’ on a tree trunk; quoll latrine sites; how to tell the difference between a koala and a possum or glider scat; and the cryptic life of a forest-dwelling bat and where to find them.

Koala scat

In the middle of the forest at night, a whole new world opened up for me, and it was exhilarating. Without realising it at the time, my colleagues and I quickly became experts on endangered forest species.

I loved my trips into the forest at night. For those of you who listened to the ABC radio in the good old days,[3] we used to listen to, and play the quiz with Julian de Stoop between 7-8:00 pm while driving slowly through the forest with our spotlights. We were looking for the red glow of the greater glider’s eyes. I also learnt that a pair of powerful owls, the top of the food chain, consumed a possum or glider each night. Our job morphed from assessing a coupe to locate log landings and where to build roads, to  evaluating the forest for the presence of endangered species. As I walked through the forest, I spent a lot of time looking at tree trunks and canopies, and on the ground for signs of animal presence.

Later on, I encountered a blockade at one of our forest coupes in the Bellinger Valley, overlooking New England National Park. Protesters blocked the road into the logging area via a tripod. They accused us of killing koalas. Since it was my logging operation, I had the pleasure of joining the foreman on-site to confront these people. As I politely explained that koalas were not present in this forest, a wonderful lady thrust her face a few inches in front of mine. She had jewellery in every orifice I could see and was in dire need of a shower, deodorant and some essential grooming. The air was full of a sweaty, oily smell and I could see small grubs crawling out of the dreadlocks on top of her head.

I tried to step back to gasp some fresh air and avoid any head lice landing on my scalp, but she maintained the minimal distance between us. She spoke in a way that deliberately propelled saliva onto my face, while a video camera filmed her. She tried to provoke me into taking some form of action (such as grabbing her by the throat and removing her from my personal space) that would immediately be sent to the media and used against me as evidence of violence and threatening ‘peaceful’ protesters. I was trained on how to handle these situations and kept my counsel and took it on the chin, literally. Sensing I was undaunted by her intimidating behaviour, the lady became bored and walked away. Almost immediately one of the perched activists began to pelt me with balloons filled with urine.[4]

The next day I received a phone call from a local vet. He advised me that he had just treated an injured koala found at the blockaded logging coupe near the bulldozer. It had a broken jaw and a bullet wound. He intimated that the bulldozer had injured the koala. I immediately smelled a rat. My wildlife training helped me a lot during this exchange. I explained to the vet that if he were an experienced local, he would know such an injury was commonly suffered by koalas when hit by cars as they stand up to headlights while crossing the road at night. I also told him that I didn’t believe the koala came from the logging area, but he was adamant the koala came from that area. The alleged gun-shot wound was intriguing.

This ‘incident’ was reported widely in the media. I had to take a koala ‘expert’ from the NPWS to visit the site the following week to assess whether the area was koala habitat and thus determine whether logging could continue. In my opinion, this ‘expert’ knew little about forest ecology and koalas. For a start, he tried to tell me that tallowwood (Eucalyptus microcorys), a favoured food tree of the koala in the Bellinger Valley, was present in the forest. I had to point out as politely, and as respectfully as I could, in front of others to minimise any embarrassment to him, that the trees were a different species called narrow-leaved white mahogany (E. acmenoides). While they may appear similar from a distance, they are a different tree and not favoured by koalas. I showed him the leaf, the fruit and lack of sponginess of the bark to prove it was not tallowwood.

He also claimed animal claw scratches on these trees were koalas. Again, I had to point out to him the typical climbing pattern of a koala when climbing a tree as opposed to a possum. After endlessly searching for koala scats underneath these ‘Tallowwood’ trees without success, and on the verge of calling it a day, this ‘expert’, while unsupervised and off by himself, miraculously found a koala scat. The scat was later sent to Barbara Triggs  for examination. She confirmed it was from a koala and said the koala had been eating tallowwood leaves.[5]

Koala tracks in the mud at Narrandera

When I heard this, I knew the ‘expert’ produced the scat from his trouser pocket and dropped it on the ground when he had the chance. Despite searching for a long time in that area after his ‘find’, we found no other koala scat. This is unusual as koalas sit in the same spot for about 20 hours a day and can produce a lot of pellets in one place. You could argue with me, as he did, that it was from a moving koala on the ground, but I knew from the understorey structure and the size and species of the trees, that no koalas were in that area. This incident reinforced my life-long distrust of conservation management agencies and their motivations. As I relate below, my suspicions were justified.

The following day there was a front-page story in the local paper with a photograph of the protesters (and the NPWS ‘expert’) holding the sick and stressed koala. Nonetheless, the protesters had a win as logging ceased and the protesters duly left the area. Meanwhile, I learnt the fate of the koala. It didn’t survive the stress packed in a cardboard box from media stunt to media stunt and died the next day. The bullet wounds did not exist.

A few months later, a truck driver I knew caught up with me. He casually told me about a female hitchhiker he picked up on the highway about a week after the blockade. She said she had travelled from Victoria to take part in the forest blockade. She also said the protesters took the koala to a wildlife carer after being hit by a car on the Pacific Highway. From there they transported the koala to the logging site, some 40 kilometres inland as the crow flies, to attract media attention and stop the logging operation. This deception worked.

[1] The Brush-tailed Phascogale (Phascogale tapoatafa) is a tree-dwelling carnivorous marsupial characterised by a tuft of silky hairs on the end of its tail. They occur east of the Great Dividing Range. When I found a dead one in the forest, I was fascinated as wasn’t sure exactly what it was. I put it in a small plastic bag and took it to footy training that night to show a team member who was a vet. He didn’t know what it was. Suffice to say no one else in the footy team knew what was in the bag.

[2] This was the beginning of my professional library which now numbers over 2,000 articles, all referenced through Endnote and digitised.

[3] No one in the right mind would listen to their polemic and highly biased discourse these days right.

[4] Anyone who believes activist protests are peaceful and non-threatening is delusional. I challenge anyone to ‘face the music’ I and many other foresters and forestry workers had to at our workplace, the verbal abuse, physical threats and intimidation, and still agree these protests are a friendly, peaceful and calm experience.

[5] Barbara Triggs is the foremost expert in Australian native animal tracks and scats. Her best-selling field guide ‘Tracks, Scats and Other Tracks’ is a must for any land manager, conservationist and nature lover. She famously claims to know what species of eucalypt a koala has been feeding on from examining and smelling the scat.

15 thoughts on “Koalas, head lice and the great green deception”

    1. Thanks Danielle. You don’t have to wait for me. I am sure there are foresters still working in your area who could pass on their knowledge to assist you in your career.

  1. Great article Robert. Unfortunately for some activist organisations the end justifies the means and not even an injured, innocent koala can get in the way of that. This is by no means restricted to your green activist “friends” but they certainly have perfected the model.

    1. That is right Chris. I only found out about what really happened by chance but it did reinforce my suspicions and proved my assertion about the lack of koalas as correct.

      1. Well written Mario, your imagery takes me back quite a few years doing the same fauna surveys around Kempsey, hoping to be swooped by a powerful owl (still haven’t seen one in the wild but I’ll keep trying). Unfortunately, your writings about your lady friend also invoked strong memories of similar blockades. Until recently, I’ve often said you don’t find extreme environmentalists chaining themselves to dozers anymore, as over the last 20 years they have insidiously infiltrated the bureaucracy and are writing the rules, setting government policy or ensuring native forest land managers never get FSC certification

        1. Hey Dobbo. Your comment about powerful owls brought back a memory of when I was working with the Air Photo Interpretation unit at Eden. I had been making my way through the bush at the base of Mt Imlay for a few hours when I stopped for a break in one of those cool temperate rainforest gullies you get in the south east. Sitting on a log enjoying a sandwich I got that strange feeling of being watched. I looked up and there it was. An adult powerful owl perched motionless above me looking down with that steely eagle stare and incredible massive talons so close I could almost touch. Each of us stood our ground for what seemed an eternity, me mesmerised by the experience and the owl, not willing to move from its favourite roost. Eventually I finished my sandwich and left. The owl barely moved but kept a close watch as it saw me off. As you know they are very territorial and there was no doubt in either of our minds that day who was in charge of that patch.

  2. Shared many common experiences in the Mackay valley out of Kempsey. As District Forester I also had numerous unpleasant experiences with ignorant protesters who thought they were “saving the world” and were justified in any deception or action. However I am pleased that environmental concerns made us better Foresters by requiring us to improve our understanding of all aspects of forestry not just wood production. Foresters skills were much improved in the fields of wildlife, archeological, soil and flora conservation by actively surveying and monitoring our work. In the end we were better experienced and knowledgeable than most of our regulators.

    1. Good to hear from you Steve. You are right, we certainly developed some additional skills in those heady days. It was challenging times for all of us working in native forest in NSW at the time.

    2. Too true Bish, I particularly enjoyed your reminiscing with Dr Jimmy Shield (may he Rest In Peace) about waking up in Alaska every morning, looking down over the covers and observing Mt McKinley between your thighs!!

  3. Great stuff Mario. This is a great read for so many of our urban friends who think the conservationists are saving the environment.

  4. Entertaining read Mario, struck a few chords from experiences in the West a few years ago ! I am sure Erica can relate to her experiences down at Eden as well !!! Say hello to Mel for us.

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