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Life Koalas are stripping forests - is it time for a cull?

The Australian koala, that cute, teddy-bear-like marsupial, is stripping bare entire eucalyptus forests, destroying one of the country's most well-preserved native ecosystems, and conservation groups want them shot.

Thousands of tourists flock each year to Kangaroo Island to view the parade of kangaroos, wallabies, emus, seals, sea lions, miniature penguins, platypuses and some 243 species of bird life. But about 30,000 seemingly harmless koalas are eating their way through several hundred hectares of the animal sanctuary's trees in the state of South Australia. They're leaving vast tracts of dying, claw-scarred eucalypts next to rivers and creeks. Without the trees, many koalas will starve and native plants and species such as the endangered black cockatoo will suffer.

"No one wants to see animals being shot," said Nicole Lewis, a scientific officer with the Nature Conservation Society, which is leading the call for the cull, "but no one wants to see dead koalas at the bottom of dead trees either. We need to be thinking more about sustainable ecosystem management rather than appeasing tourists."

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The group wants the state government to stand up to international pressure to preserve the animals and abandon a new $4-million sterilization and relocation program in favour of a slaughter.

As many as 20,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island need to be killed before population growth can be controlled by sterilization, Ms. Lewis said.

She believes the current sterilization program will only defer a crisis and that the government will be forced into a one-time cull.

The state government, which in May announced a four-year program to sterilize 8,000 koalas on the island and relocate some to the mainland, said it will make the plan work even if it has to boost the budget.

Since 1997, when a cull proposal was rejected, 4,000 koalas have been sterilized, yet the koalas have flourished partly because they have no natural predators on the island.

Experts are skeptical the new program will be any different.

Hugh Possingham, a professor of ecology and mathematics at the University of Queensland, said that 70 per cent of the animals must be sterilized or the population will keep swelling.

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If the state sterilized 8,000 animals this year, there could still be 44,000 koalas on the island by 2010 because they can double their numbers every five years.

The only other option, a one-time koala kill, is controversial.

When the state government was looking at ways to control koalas last year, they were overwhelmed with e-mail, letters and phone calls from around the world, most of which threatened a tourism embargo in the event of a cull.

"Logic says it's the right thing to do, if you look at it in a cold-hearted way," said John Hill, state Minister for the Environment and Conservation.

A cull would be a cheap, simple solution but it would "generate huge negative worldwide publicity. The image projected across the globe would be horrendous," he said. He likened it to the international outcry against the seal cull in Canada.

The koala is the only Australian animal that prompts such a reaction. Conservation groups are baffled by the opposition to shooting koalas, which were introduced to the island in the 1920s, while no one minds that thousands of the island's native kangaroos, wallabies and possums are killed every year to control their population.

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Ms. Lewis attributed public empathy for the koala to the "cute and cuddly factor." However, she urged tourists to recognize the complexity of the issue. The animals can't be easily moved to other states because they're inbred, not resistant to a mainland koala disease and probably wouldn't survive, she said.

Besides that, wild koalas aren't exactly the teddy bears so fondly imagined by tourists. Although they may look docile because of their nutrient-poor diet of eucalyptus leaves, with their long, sharp claws they can be quite aggressive if they feel threatened.

Other groups find it difficult to support a cull when the animals are listed as "vulnerable" in two other states. Koalas are still suffering the effects of early 20th-century fur-trade slaughters. Also, the spread of residential housing and agriculture is pushing them out of their natural habitat along the east coast.

The Australian Koala Foundation estimated there are fewer than 100,000 wild koalas in native habitat (which excludes places such as Kangaroo Island), although that number has been contested as too low.

Still, the Koala Foundation, which opposes a cull, called sterilization a "Band-Aid approach."

Replanting native habitat is the answer, it says, but government and conservation groups question the practicality of this.

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So while it seems contradictory for groups such as the Wilderness Society to support a cull, they see no better option.

"The situation is getting desperate," said Greg Ogle, state campaign co-ordinator for the society, which has worked to protect koala habitat. Mr. Ogle, who's keen to conserve other species on the island, criticized the government's motive.

"The koala question," he said, "is all about tourism rather than conservation."

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