By Sarah-Jane O'Connor 14/01/2020


It’s been hard to miss the extreme fires raging across Australia and the tragic plight of the animals – human and otherwise – affected by the fires’ insatiable spread.

I know I’ve been captivated and concerned by the tales of how Australia’s famous wildlife has been coping. Koalas approaching cyclists to beg a drink of water, kangaroos seeking sanctuary on golf courses, and wombats apparently sharing – deliberately or otherwise – their burrows with other creatures.

These stories and images have, of course, spurred huge amounts of fundraising and donation. But among the weirder attempts to help was a petition to introduce koalas to New Zealand’s eucalypt plantations, which currently has over 8,000 signatures.

Look, I love koalas as much as the next person – but this is a terrible idea, and New Zealand knows it better than anyone given the veritable Noah’s Ark of species that have been – or at least, attempted to be – released in Aotearoa, in many cases wreaking actual havoc.

Now, koala might seem rather benign, and I could see that it could be relatively easy to keep tabs on these slow-moving, (relatively) slow-breeding marsupials. But there are other ways new species can cause chaos in a novel habitat, for instance by eating species they weren’t expected to: possums are a key example as University of Auckland conservation biologist Dr James Russell told Newsroom.

“If possums in New Zealand behaved liked possums in Australia they would munch a few plants and be at low density. The problem was they got to New Zealand and suddenly started eating all of these other things they didn’t eat in Australia because [those] didn’t exist in Australia.”

Maybe koalas only eat eucalypts in the absence of other delectable New Zealand flora. Researchers could find out – there are ways to test what something will feed on before it’s released, for instance, a biocontrol agent – but is that really a question we ought to be our scarce and in-demand science funding on?

Secondly, who knows how koala diseases could affect New Zealand’s native taonga. A chlamydia-ridden koala has never had occasion to meet a short-tailed bat or a native bird. Maybe they would remain benign, but we’d need to be very sure of that before it was even considered.

Yes, it’s devastating to see these spectacular species suffering in the midst of this event, especially knowing how much of a role humans have played in climate change, which in turn is thought to be fuelling wildfire risk while the Australian Government continues to drag its feet on climate change mitigation.

But Dr Andrea Byrom, director of the Biological Heritage National Science Challenge, says the answer isn’t bringing them to New Zealand.

“The way to solve another country’s ecological problems is not by being some ark that we randomly bring these species into,” she told MagicTalk on Monday.

“We just don’t know what the wider impacts of introducing species like the koala into New Zealand would bring – even if it’s into introduced eucalyptus forests. And I’m sure the forestry sector would probably have something to say about it as well.”

And finally, as Dr Russell says:

“Should New Zealand really be a conservation estate for Australia?”

After all, we can barely keep up with conservation spending for our own native taonga.

But I have one final point to bang on about. The petition story broke over the weekend and I saw ecologists on Twitter complaining that the media hadn’t talked to … ecologists! There were very interested journalists who wanted to follow up on the initial story, looking to talk to experts who could weigh in on whether it was a good idea or not. At the Science Media Centre, we fielded queries from Newsroom, TVNZ and MagicTalk, plus RNZ also talked to Dr Byrom. In total, we found three experts willing to discuss the topic.

So please, researchers, scientists and other experts: next time you’re frustrated that the media isn’t covering the angle you know is the accurate, evidence-based one – call a friendly journalist! Or send them a tweet letting them know you’re available, or give us a call (04 499 5476). Who knows, maybe you’re exactly the expert the media needs on that story and can offer the precise angle you’re frustrated isn’t being covered.