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Bluesfest koala claims not supported by science

We note with alarm that there have been claims by Dr Phillips that ’…of 20 surveyed koalas initially found close to the site of the northern NSW festival in 2010, none were alive today’. He said ’the noise from the festival, which stressed the animals and forced them to move, was the main cause of the deaths.’

Phillips also said ’subsequent studies showed reports to council demonstrated the initial population had almost been wiped out’.

Dr Phillips further stated, of the seven koalas tracked with radio collars, that three who were close to where the amplified music occurred had moved outside of their usual home range.

Dr Phillips continued that two koalas died after the event. He says that their cause of death couldn’t be established, but that he thought it was caused by the music.

Management of Bluesfest are concerned by these statements, and feel the public has a right to know all the details so that they may form their own opinion. We say that there is no data that Dr Phillips can provide scientifically that backs up his statement. Artists who headlined Bluesfest 2010 and who’s music reportedly stressed koalas include Jack Johnson, Crowded House, Jessica Mauboy, John Butler, Xavier Rudd, Orquesta Buena Vista Social Club & The Gipsy Kings.

Dr Phillips group, Biolink did a study commissioned by Bluesfest in late 2009/early 2010 (the first full study done on the Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm site) and submitted a scientific report which states the following;

  • 11 koalas were captured and collared. Further koalas were sighted but not captured, and so details were not logged for future information of those koalas, and identification could not be determined.
  • We note that this was the first ever koala study done on the land of this nature and that a high number of the koalas were found at the time of capture to be diseased. One previous study occurred a number of years prior to Bluesfest’s purchase of the site in 2007 but koala capture and collaring were not a part of this study.
  • Six of the eleven captured koalas died during the study (five from disease and one from stress as a result of being captured). Since that time, one more koala of the original eleven died. Although Dr Phillips states that he thought there were 20 koalas potentially living around the site, no exact counts were made and there is no data available on any level that allows any scientist to make a statement as to those koalas survival (or otherwise). Therefore we do not understand how Dr Phillips can make the statement that an additional 13 or more koalas died as a direct result of stress caused from the festival. A scientist operating from data collected could not make such a statement, it simply does not exist. Furthermore Dr Phillips has not provided any data regarding the five koalas that died from disease, outlining what killed them from examinations done on the carcasses. It is basic fundamental Science 101. that autopsies are performed, and cause of death determined.

Although he states that four koalas were found to be already compromised by disease prior to the 2010 festival and another’s carcass was found with puncture wounds, prior to the event, suggesting wild dog attack and another one in the report is listed as having died from stress of capture. All prior to Bluesfest 2010, yet Dr Phillips states that they died due to stress from the music that occurred a number of months later. Please note that the capture methods since 2011 until now have not resulted in the loss of any koalas.

Although we acknowledge that the level of disease occurring on the site in the koala population in 2010 was disappointing it is not to be unexpected in a first time study involving capture. The next five years of study by the Koala Research Centre at the University of Queensland and the data provided, does not have the same outcomes as Dr Phillips report in 2009/2010.

Dr Phillips reports that three koalas went outside of their normal range exhibiting aversive behavior during the 2010 event, while another two went to the outer limits of their range which, although they were within their home ranges as defined by Dr Phillips, he describes their movements as aversive. Please note that one of the three koalas was only captured one week prior to Bluesfest 2010 meaning that under accepted scientific standards a home range could not be determined as more sightings needed to occur over a period of time to determine the area the koala is utilising.

We also note that Dr Phillips failed to report that a collared koala came closer to the area where amplified music was occurring during Bluesfest 2010 that is listed in his 2010 study.

There are an acknowledged scientific studies that determine the number of koala sightings that must be made in order to establish an individual’s home range, which is not possible to establish within a one week period from initial capture. To state that the three collared koalas displayed aversive behavior is impossible under these recognised scientific guidelines that determine a koala’s home range. Dr Phillips knows this as he is a scientist.

We note that the movements of the two koalas reported to have moved out of their home range showing aversive behavior, were in both cases, located less than 100 metres outside of their estimated home range. Four subsequent year-round studies by the Koala Research Centre show through GPS tracking that the resident koalas use much larger areas than Dr Phillips states in his study, which occurred over a 6 month period.

Dr Phillips report also stated that koalas on the Bluesfest site exhibited smaller sized heads than is normal, showing potential inbreeding. We note that subsequent work by researchers from the University of QLD Koala Research Centre over a number of years failed to find one koala as described by Dr Phillips. In addition, DNA testing of all koalas located on the site and captured shows that the koalas are normal and that there is no scientific basis for stating that inbreeding occurs.

We are concerned that Dr Phillips is citing a six year old study, when a number of subsequent year-round studies have been done which do not support his assertions. However, of much more importance to the public interest is that Dr Phillips’ recent media statements are not supported by the 2010 report undertaken by him.

The ongoing studies by the Koala Research Centre over a number of years at the site have found that the koala ranging is much larger than in Dr Phillips 2010 report , where it states that ranges may be as small as 0.9 of a hectare. Note the ongoing studies by the Koala Research Centre are privately commissioned and are year-round studies using GPS tracking of koalas.

We also note the 2014 Draft Byron Coast Comprehensive Plan of Management (BCCPoM) prepared for Byron Shire Council by Dr Phillips’ company, Biolink. It states that in a coastal area within which the Bluesfest site exists, that the average home range for each koala is five hectares. Obviously, this is a much larger area of ranging that Dr Phillips states occurs on the Bluesfest site in his study. Dr Phillips is using two very different ranging area sizes to support his statements. One for his report for BCCPoM and one altogether different for the Bluesfest study. We wonder why, unless each is designed to suit a different purpose by the proponent. Both cannot be correct.

We agree that the koala ranges in the Bluesfest site are much larger than what Dr Phillips found in the one report he did in 2010. This has been established by GPS tracking of collared koalas from 2011 through until December 2015.

The study undertaken in conjunction with the Koala Research Centre from late 2011 and ongoing is not about counting koalas on the Bluesfest site. It is about improving the health of the koala population through capture and treatment. In 2013, motion sensor cameras were installed around our site, which are regularly monitored. As a result 12 wild dogs have been trapped and humanely destroyed, and in the past two years not one koala has died as a result of wild dog attack. Other native wildlife on the site has also increased dramatically in numbers since that time.

The goal of our study is to have a healthy population of koalas, which breeds healthy young and increases in numbers of a healthy colony. We are advised that this study shows healthy koala populations can be created on fragmented bush land. What we would like to see is our governments invest into more koala programs of this type, as they are proven that they work in supporting local threatened koala populations.

Land owners should be encouraged to say ’I have koalas on my site and I am doing the right thing’, as Bluesfest does. For in the end, negative attacks solve nothing except to make hysterical media reports that are not based on scientific fact and for motives easily disproved by data which must be called suspect.

The statements by Dr Phillips are not supported by scientific data including that from his own report in his 2010 study.

The koala population on the Bluesfest site has stabilised and there are koalas with pouch young living in an area that Dr Phillips previously stated that they will never reside in as a result of the volume occurring from Bluesfest stages. We also note that there are three to four other koalas living in that area that Dr Phillips states no longer can live in that habitat. This is information from a study as recent as December 2015.

The Bluesfest site has an approved Koala Plan of Management issued by the NSW Department of Planning and Environment. We have met all of their requirements to cause this to occur, and as far as we know, we are the only event site in Australia to have achieved this.

It is also important to take into account the lifespans of Koalas – an 8 year old Koala is deemed old, a 10 year old koala very old, 12 year old koalas are fairly rare.

We are proud of our work to stabilise our koala population and of what we have done to improve the health of koalas on our site. We are disappointed by Dr Phillips statement as they are disproved by his own 2010 study. We believe approximately 10 koalas live today on the Bluesfest site. The difference today is that they are healthy and if they contract disease it is soon discovered and they are treated.

Peter Noble & Bluesfest management team, Tyagarah Tea Tree Farm


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