Koalas and Fire

Book Review

by Dr Neil Burrows AFSM
Research Scientist (retired), Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, Western Australia; former Director of Science, Department of Environment and Conservation, Western Australia.


‘The Great Koala Scam’, by Vic Jurskis (Connor Court Publishing, Queensland, 2020) is not just about the plight of koalas – it’s also about the pernicious side of environmental science, ideology and politics. Prior to reading this book, and some of the articles cited in the book, I knew very little about koalas – they disappeared from my home state (Western Australia) thousands of years ago. However, having recently retired after a 42-year career as an applied scientist, which included 14 years as science director of a state conservation agency, I am familiar with the worlds of environmental science and politics.

The scientific consensus about the plight of koalas, it seems, is that at the time of European settlement, they were widespread and abundant throughout mainland eastern Australia, with one estimate placing the population as high as 10 million. Since European settlement, the population has essentially been on a downward slide to extinction as a result of habitat loss, grazing, logging, disease, predation by introduced predators, roadkill and recently, climate change. The Australian Koala Foundation’s (AKF) website claims that since European settlement about 80% of koala habitat has been ‘decimated’ and of what remains, almost none is in the conservation estate. It would seem intuitive that there would be some decline in the koala distribution and population if for no other reason than predation by introduced predators and loss of habitat through land clearing and logging – at least until the logged forests regenerate. Jurskis claims that estimates of the pre-European distribution of koalas, and their numbers, are exaggerated and cites historical evidence to support this. Whatever the figures, the past can’t be undone and the challenge now is to conserve extant populations.

Claims of impending extinction of the iconic koala are headline-grabbing and cause great community and political concern, resulting in the expenditure of millions of dollars of taxpayers money on conservation policies and strategies. As far as I can gather from reading this book and referring to other sources including the AKF website, this primarily amounts to securing and ‘locking up’ thousands of hectares of bushland in the conservation estate but doing little by way of proactive management, other than monitoring the animals, possibly to extinction.

Jurskis considers this widely embraced koala decline narrative to be flawed and disastrous for koala conservation and forest health because it’s based on, in his words, “junk science”, and is ideologically driven. In easy to read prose, he presents a compelling and well-argued case with evidence to support his assessment. Jurskis argues that at the time of European settlement, koalas were at naturally low densities because their habitat was dominated by large mature trees with hard, dry, low nutrient leaves – their population was regulated by a limited food resource and rainfall. He contends that the forests were maintained in this condition by frequent mild burning by Aborigines, which suppressed the growth of young trees and thick scrubs. Since European settlement and the displacement of Aboriginal people and their age-old burning practices, periodic drought and severe bushfires, the koala population has gone through ‘boom and bust cycles’. Jurskis argues that populations irrupt because a lack of regular mild fire temporarily increases the koala’s food supply. Then comes the inevitable crash as over-browsing exceeds the capacity of trees to resprout and produce koala food. Crashes also occurred during severe droughts, which also limit the forests’ production of koala food. Jurskis presents a strong case for the reintroduction of frequent mild burning to restore forest health and maintain a sustainable, healthy but low koala population. Such a practice, he argues, will also mitigate death and destruction caused by megafires. In support of this, Jurskis cites documented historical accounts by early settlers, bushmen, naturalists and scientists, and draws on his considerable expertise in koala ecology, fire and forest health.

Jurskis also describes his failed attempts to publish critiques of the broadly accepted ‘scientific consensus’ view of the plight of koalas in scientific journals. His submissions have been rejected by journal editors, and he has been personally admonished and demonised for challenging the popularist view and for offering an alternative understanding of koala ecology and population dynamics. A sample of email exchanges between Jurskis and a journal editor is contained in his book, and it makes for intriguing but disturbing reading.

So how is it that “junk” science concerning the plight of koalas is published in scientific journals, but Jurskis can’t get his well-argued ideas published in the same journals? It’s possibly because the peer review process is corrupted by cronyism and ideologically driven cognitive bias, and seduced by that oxymoron, ‘consensus science’. Manuscripts that align with the ideas and ideology of journal reviewers, editors and mainstream academia are unlikely to be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as manuscripts that express ideas they don’t like, or which challenge the ‘consensus’ view. Such manuscripts are likely to be rejected, often for spurious reasons. Science is advanced by a contest of ideas and by scientific debate, and retarded by consensus, group think, shutting down debate and personal attacks. The test of ideas is conducted primarily through the science journals and to a lesser extent, via science forums such as symposia and conferences. Journal editors hold responsible and influential positions – they can shut down individuals and ideas they don’t like, so they can shut down scientific debate. It appears that Jurskis has been a victim of this – hence he has resorted to publishing this intriguing and important book.

If the consensus view about koalas is wrong, as Jurskis suggests, then expect forest health and koala populations to further decline, and the destructive bushfire cycle to continue in the absence of proactive fire management, namely, adequate levels of ‘wise’ prescribed burning. There will be a continuation of the ‘boom and bust’ bushfire cycle driven by cycles in the post-fire build-up of forest fuels to dangerous levels coinciding with drought and heatwave. To lay all the blame for bushfires on climate change, and to use this as a reason for not dealing with the fuel hazard, is dangerously naïve and irresponsible, putting human communities and our wildlife, including koalas, at great risk. Fire, used purposefully and skilfully, was crucial to the physical and spiritual well being of Aboriginal people. For millennia, they burnt much of the bush regularly with mild, cool fires. Jurskis suggests it is racism at worst, ignorance or arrogance and best, to deny or overlook the crucial role that Aboriginal people and their firesticks played in shaping and maintaining heathy forests and sustainable koala populations for tens of thousands of years. In contemporary landscapes, reintroducing frequent mild fires at the right spatial and temporal scales will not eliminate bushfires, but it will substantially reduce their size and intensity, making them less harmful to koalas, and human communities.

A lesson to be learnt from this book is that it would be folly for conservation and land managers to go out on a limb, to put ‘all eggs in one basket’, and rely solely on the ‘lock it up and leave it’ strategy to conserve koalas. Because of uncertainty, it would be prudent to take an active adaptive management approach and at least in some areas, adopt the management strategy suggested by Jurskis – reintroduce a regime of regular, mild burning together with introduced predator control. Given that managed fire has been excluded from so much bushland for so long, this will be challenging but not impossible, and we might learn something.

This book rejects widely held beliefs and consensus science about the plight of koalas and presents a well argued and ecologically plausible alternative explanation. If you’re interested in kolas, the health of our forests and the protection of our communities, then you should read this book because it will make you think. People with entrenched ideas will choose not to read this book because they will have pre-judged it as ‘offensive’. I challenge these people to show the same courage that it took to write the book, and read it with an open but critical mind.

Ironically, Jurskis, and those who disagree with him, have something very important in common – both want to see sustainable, healthy koala populations and healthy forests. But they are poles apart on how this should be achieved. Time will tell who is right.