Kath Handasyde: Charisma, Culling and Conservation

Koalas are gorgeous, no doubt. But does their overwhelming charisma mean that we forget about other species?

Koalas are gorgeous, no doubt. But does their overwhelming charisma mean that we forget about other species? (Image Credit: Erik Veland, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Australia plays host to a wonderful range of very endearing species. Tourists come from the world over to get up close with kangaroos or koalas. But the charisma of these animals can often lead to issues, whether it’s prioritisation of resources for them over other more endangered species, or even to the detriment of the species themselves.

Doctor Kath Handasyde of Melbourne University has been working with Australian field wildlife for almost 40 years, and is perhaps the most charismatic teacher I had during my Bachelor’s at the same institute. During my time in Melbourne, I had the chance to talk to Kath about the sometimes problematic role of charismatic species in Australian wildlife conservation.

Sam Perrin: Species like koalas and kangaroos are emblems of Australia. So why is there a push among some ecologists to cull populations?

Doctor Kath Handasyde, School of Biosciences, University of Melbourne: In the south-east we cull kangaroos in some areas, typically when we have an overpopulation, which leads animals to starve, and translocation isn’t possible. If we have kangaroos that are starving, as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t really matter whether it’s a native rodent or a kangaroo, they’re both equally worthy of our our protection in terms of animal welfare. So if we have overabundant populations that we can’t control in any other way, why on earth would we let them starve, that’s far more cruel.

SP: But we don’t apply this principle to koalas?

KH: When koalas are at very high density, and have overbrowsed their food tress and are starving, we still cannot cull them, so the answer is no, and it’s simply because they’re charismatic, on a world scale. Virtually everybody knows what a koala is and people love them. Many people also know what kangaroos are, so there’s a medium backlash on culling kangaroos. It is interesting that people in Europe and the USA cull or harvest deer, and it should be no different here. To me the argument should be more about how humane it is if the animals are suffering – to let animals starve when they’re overbrowsing their food at this level is not humane and not acceptable.

Also, it’s a bit contradictory, because in most places around the world including Australia, if wild animals get to abundances where they compete directly with livestock, mostly there’s a permit given to cull, and that seems to be quite acceptable.

In many parts of Australia, kangaroos are overpopulated and now starving. But there's backlash against the type of culling that is mandated for many other species

In many parts of Australia, kangaroos are overpopulated and now starving. But there’s backlash against the type of culling that is mandated for many other species (Image Credit: lifestyleextract, CC0)

SP: How do we get to a point where we can make people realise the extent of the problem here in Australia?

KH: It’s just ongoing public education, and it is complex also because there are different management issues in different areas. The issues have to be presented in more forms of media. There are extremely varied opinions out there, my view as a person who works with wildlife, and management, and animal welfare is that we should never let animals starve. To me starvation is unacceptable. If a farmer has sheep in a drought, and the sheep were starving, and he didn’t go around and cull those sheep, the RSPCA would prosecute him, because it’s illegal to be cruel to animals.

Also, some people say “oh just move them”, but that’s often neither pragmatic nor possible. For Koalas in South Eastern Australia, for instance, we’re simply running out of habitat to put them into, and so after incidents like the Black Saturday fires, a lot of the places that we might have used for translocations had no foliage. and they still couldn’t cull koalas, so some koalas starved.

SP: I live in Norway, and there you have a similar issue, whereby we’ve removed a predator (over there it’s wolves and wolverines, here it’s the dingo) from an ecosystem. Now they’re starting to move back in, but farmers are now worried about their livelihood. How do we get around this?

KH: We need predators in our ecosystems. Most people would have heard of the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, where Moose and elk were browsing down the trees, and had completely changed the forest structure, which then impacts on all of the animals in that system so the reintroduction of a predator was able to reverse that. However clearly farmers with stock wouldn’t want to have predators around. However so there are new ideas for smaller scale farming to manage the interactions between dingoes and farm stock. One of them is training herd-guarding dogs, which were traditionally used in places like Italy for a long, long time. That has actually proved to be quite practical on a smaller scale. It’s about moving farmers across to solutions like this and supporting them, with access to suitable dog breeds and the like.

But on really big open geographic scales, like you get in the outback, with sheep farming at low density, I think dingoes will always be shot by farmers. City communities somehow have to come to terms with the fact that we demand fresh food, so we have to look after farmers. It’s a difficult issue. Education helps. I think that the fact that some people in the city are so removed from their food sources is a problem. You have to have long and ongoing education campaigns, because every time we get a message through people learn, but ten years later it’s been forgotten. So it’s about changing society’s attitudes and thought processes. It’s a long job, but I don’t see any reason why we shouldn’t do it.

SP: There are lots of areas where koalas are going locally extinct, although their populations are thriving elsewhere. Meanwhile loads of less charismatic species are going completely extinct. How do we shift people away from the idea of that charismatic species?

KH: The flagship species idea is a problem in the case of koalas. An animal like a koala is happy if the trees are there, they don’t really require complex habitats. So if we’re using flagship species, we should find ones which require more complex habitats, because then you retain whole systems in a state that’s as intact as possible and therefore supports more biodiversity, and koalas can fit within that. Right across Australia you have the problem of habitat fragmentation. Koalas are more at risk if they’re moving on the ground, so if you are an arboreal mammal, clearly wild dogs become more of an issue, cars are an issue. So we need to set up robust systems for more species. We’ll need large tracts of land set aside, maybe we have to shift people across to different regions.

I think you’ve got to make the public more sophisticated in their understanding. Public communication in current media is short quick grabs that are sensational, and I think we should gradually move to a community concept of things that are a little more complex.

SP: Can we get the public to care about less charismatic species?

KH: We had a big campaign 15-20 years ago about Rakali, the water-rat. Nobody cared. It’s a rat! And yet when you take kids to the zoo or Healesville Sanctuary and show them baby water-rats playing together in a tank, they’re gobsmacked by how gorgeous these animals are. So if we can further that connection, we could change people to value their systems as a whole.

The name ‘rat’ in and of itself was a problem, and that’s why they moved to the indigenous name, which is Rakali. Koalas are charismatic partly because they have round head, forward facing eyes, they always look slightly confused and calm. They have naturally endearing characteristics, and they are an amazing animal. But they’re not the only animal in the pond. Take invertebrates for instance, we have no concept of how crucial they are, in many cases they are undoubtedly contributing to environmental health. And we lose a lot of their habitat, but focus instead on koalas.

SP: Fragmentation is a huge issue in Australia. We looked at a paper recently that showed huge effects of land use on bird and mammal populations. But is the public as aware of the effects of fragmentation as they are of climate change?

KH: I think that climate change has had a lot more publicity. One of the things about climate change as a biologist is that they keep talking about these 1 or 2 degrees of warming, and those changes will be critical. But also, for animal populations, the one very big impact comes when their habitat is fragmented and you get five extreme heat days in a row, which can easily cause a population crash. And if the system is fragmented it’s not easy for them to recolonise.

Years ago we looked at mange in wombats, which is one of their biggest threats. What we worked out was that if we got a bad drought year we get a lot more mange. And mange causes mortality if the animals are under pressure from drought. Now if you look at the distribution of the common wombat, it’s very patchy. If you lose an isolated patch, then that little bit of the distribution is gone, and we get this incremental range contraction. When you combine that with climate change it could be catastrophic, partly because they’re more at risk of local population crash and there’s no possibility of recolonosiation.

SP: The way we focus on the critically endangered, while ignoring downward trends in populations, does that need to change?

KH: One of the big arguments in conservation is do we look at all the species that are in decline but not yet on the brink, or do we focus on those that are already nearly gone? The problem is you’ve got charismatic species, which are always at the forefront. You can always find funding for koalas, even if there’s other critically endangered species and koalas aren’t even on the brink of extinction. It’s really, really problematic, because again, whole ecosystems support more species. Understanding that we need bigger intact patches of forest is crucial. And we need to know which species are declining. But often we just don’t have data, there’s just not enough biologists around.

Think about invertebrates, some of them are so critical for nutrient recycling. The guys over at Latrobe University many years back did a study on native cockroaches. Just one road was enough to fragment the populations to the point where over a timescale of something like 20 years, there was total genetic structuring on the opposite sides of the road. And those invertebrates are key in nutrient recycling in forests. If we’re not careful we’ll lose things out of systems that are so subtle that we don’t even understand are there.

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Cockroaches play important roles in nutrient recycling, but it’s hard to get the public interested in cockroach conservation (Image Credit: Jean & Fred, CC BY 2.0)

SP: So what path do we take here? Do we use koalas to get people on side and then protect entire systems?

KH: We need much larger reserve systems. Across all habitat types. You look at some quite small nations that aren’t necessarily very well off, Tanzania for instance, people aren’t rich overall. But something like 35% of their land area is in reserve systems. Our government really needs to refocus the public on reserve systems large enough to sustain populations over time, with an understanding that some populations may push south as well in response to climate change.

SP: During the drought there was a lot of concern for the effects of climate change, but that’s died off now in the short term. How important are long-term studies in combating shifting baselines?

KH: Absolutely critical, but hard to fund. The idea of long term studies has multiple components. First of all we’re getting baseline data. After 37-38 years working on wildlife populations, I still go to different populations and find different information. Populations change over time, they’re not static. You have to expect things to go up and down, you have to expect periodic droughts, disease etc to occur. If you’ve got a population that creeps up to a high density, disease transmission rates can increase, and the population goes back down. Populations normally fluctuate fairly naturally.

But when you add the anthropogenic influences over the top, those fluctuations are harder to predict and sometimes more catastrophic. So what long-term datasets show you is, is this population just doing this, or ups and downs, or is there something more severe? Look at southern hairy nosed wombats, they’ll only breed after rain, so if you get three drought years they don’t breed for 3 years, but you can’t see that without 20 years of data. It’s hard to get those studies funded, but they’re critical.

We’ve just got to understand the value of long-term datasets, and comparisons across different populations. I’m gobsmacked by the fact that I still go into koala populations 37 years on and see populations doing things a little bit differently. That variation in biology is what informs our thinking the most.

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