Bluesfest director Peter Noble has rejected a koala expert’s claim that noise from the festival could be killing local koalas through stress, saying disease and wild dogs were most likely the cause of their deaths.
Ecological consultant Dr Stephen Phillips said this week that of 20 koalas surveyed in 2010 initially found close to the Tyagarah festival site in 2010, not one was alive today.
Dr Phillips told Guardian Australia the noise generated from the festival, which stressed the animals and forced them to move, was the main cause of the deaths.
But Mr Noble has described the claims by the scientist from Tweed-based Biolink ecological consultants as ‘hysterical’, saying the Byron shire event site was the only one in Australia with a koala plan of management.
He told website theMusic that festival staff were ‘doing world’s best practice and our study of our koalas on our site, which is not about counting the numbers so that we can say it’s not so bad, is about improving the health and we have now gotten to a point where we are having minor losses.’
Dr Phillips was contracted by the festival to study the animals in 2010 when it first moved to the Tyagarah site but since then, the festival employed other ecologists.
He told The Guardian that those consultants’ reports to Byron Shire Council demonstrated the initial population had almost been wiped out.
‘What used to be a very robust population is now no more,’ Phillips said.
The Guardian report said that in a paper published in Australian Mammalogy this month, Dr Phillips showed the koalas were disturbed by the noise of the festival and uncharacteristically moved outside their home area, away from the noise, during the festival.
‘Of the seven koalas tracked with radio collars, the three that resided within 525 metres of the stage moved outside of their usual home range – something koalas tend not to do. And three other koalas that lived slightly further from the festival also moved away from the music, but stayed within their home range,’ the ecologist wrote.
‘Those sorts of actions are very costly for a marsupial like a koala… koalas don’t tend to move large distances because their diet of eucalyptus contains very little energy.
‘The stress from the noise and being forced to move can make them more susceptible to disease’, he said.
‘In addition, moving out of their home area along the ground can make them prone to attacks by wild dogs as well as aggressive interactions with other koalas.’
Mr Noble was scathing of the scientist’s claims, saying his company was passionate about the well-being of all koalas in the surrounding area’.
‘We have met all the stringent conditions and unfortunately Dr Phillips does not like the fact that his previous submissions to the NSW Department of Planning were overruled,’ he told theMusic.
‘What you’ve got here is someone with an axe to grind. It is unfortunate and I know he cares for koalas, but it is not fair to attack the ongoing good works of people who actually also really care about koalas, which is my company,’ he said.
‘Obviously any sick or diseased koalas would have been discovered at that time and there were plenty,’ Noble said of the study.
‘But since than we have implemented through the koala research centre at the University of Queensland headed up by Dr Bill Ellis, Australia’s pre-eminent koala researcher, photo cameras and motion cameras to detect wild dogs, and we’ve pretty much eradicated them from our property, we have not found one koala as a result of dog strike.
‘What we are doing is proving that on farmland which is divided by roads and other areas that you can develop a healthy stock which will then breed more healthy koalas.’
Dr Phillips said in his report that after the 2010 festival, two of the surveyed and tracked koalas died, one named ‘Renee’ and one named ‘Sonny Boy’.
Their cause of death couldn’t be established, but the scientist said he thought it was caused by the music. To confirm that, he said the animals’ stress hormone levels during the festival needed to be studied.
Mr Noble told Guardian Australia the festival’s wild dog eradication program over the past few years had ‘produced zero attributable deaths we believe as a result of dog attacks’.
He said the festival was improving the koala habitat by planting trees and treating sick koalas with antibiotics.
Mr Noble says the University of Queensland’s research centre had fully refuted Dr Phillips’s claims.
Its wildlife researcher Dr Sean FitzGibbon told The Guardian he agreed there had been a high rate of mortality among the koalas, but said it was mostly due to disease not necessarily attributable to stress.
Dr FitzGibbon said he believed the next most serious cause of death was wild dogs, as dogs had been seen in the area.
‘I totally agree there are some effects of the festival but you need to keep them in context,’ Dr FitzGibbon told The Guardian.
‘They’re short and insignificant and they’re not the things we should be focused on for the longer term management of that koala population.’
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