A petition calling for koalas to be introduced to New Zealand in order to save the species from extinction following massive wildfires ravaging Australia is being met with skepticism from ecologists.
“Bringing species to other countries and introducing them into places where they haven’t been previously is never a good idea,” Dr. Andrea Byrom, an ecologist and director of New Zealand’s Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, told The Current’s Matt Galloway.
“It never goes well when you isolate a species away from its whole ecosystem.”
The appeal, which was launched on Jan. 1 and has gained over 15,000 signatures, says the koalas could thrive in New Zealand’s introduced eucalyptus plantations that are located in the central North Island and are similar to much older forests in Australia.
Eucalyptus trees, which are the main food source of the koala, have been devastated by massive wildfires burning across Australia since October. The huge and unpredictable fires have killed 27 people and more than a billion animals are feared dead as over 103,000 square kilometres of land has been scorched, an area roughly twice the size of Nova Scotia.
“If we don’t act now, the extinction of the koala will be the fault of not just Ozzies, but also all us Kiwis…,” the petition said.
Struggle with invasive species
Byrom says while she appreciates the petition’s sentiment, New Zealand has had a long history of struggling with invasive species.
“We’ve had lots of species here in New Zealand go extinct due to the introduction of mammals,” she said.
New Zealand’s only native mammals are three types of bats and a number of marine species, including seals, dolphins and whales, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation. She adds that New Zealand is one of the strictest “biosecurity regimes in the world because we have a lot of things that we want to protect.”
Some of the most destructive introduced animals include the Canadian weasel and the Australian bushtail possum, which can carry bovine tuberculosis, a disease that impacts New Zealand’s primary industries, particularly the beef and dairy sectors, Byrom says.
“Invasive means that they start to cause problems for humans or for other parts of native flora and fauna in the ecosystem,” she said.
Focus on rehabilitating Australia
While not a good idea, Byrom says the chances of koalas surviving if introduced would be “quite high” because parts of New Zealand have relatively similar climates to the animals native habitat of Victoria.
But help should instead be focused on rehabilitating and regenerating Australia’s own ecosystem to support koalas rather than bringing the species to New Zealand, she says.
“I think it’s great that people care. And I think if the koala is a flagship for the other problems that this whole situation has highlighted, then that’s a really good thing.
“We should be sitting up and paying attention to the plight of the koala and all the other animals and all the other plants and all the functional parts of the system that we don’t think about — like this soil productivity and so on — that had been impacted in this terrible situation.”
Written by Adam Jacobson. Produced by Peter Mitton.