“Koala Massacre”: Australia Brings Hundreds of Animal Cruelty Charges

MELBOURNE, Australia – An Australian landowner and two companies have been charged with animal cruelty after a clearing operation killed 70 koalas last year, an episode that lawmakers called a “massacre” .

Authorities discovered dozens of dead, injured or starving koalas on private property in Cape Bridgewater in southwest Victoria in February last year, after the landowner and a logging and forestry company cleared land their habitat, the state’s conservation regulator said in a statement on Wednesday.

The operation wreaked havoc on more than 200 koalas, causing “unreasonable pain or suffering to dozens,” the regulator said.

Animal rights activists said the trees were razed with the koalas still inside.

“Some were killed instantly, their bodies found trapped under heavy branches or strewn among piles of downed trees,” according to conservation group Animals Australia, which sent vets to the scene. “Some have suffered traumatic injuries and fractures. Some were orphans and others were found huddled together in the few remaining trees on the property.

Authorities found 21 koalas dead at the site, and 49 others found starving, dehydrated or suffering from fractures had to be euthanized. Seventy other koalas were treated for injuries and 120 more were released into the wild.

The deaths sparked national outrage when they were first reported by a resident on social media, and the Victoria state government has vowed those responsible will be punished.

The owner and business have been charged with more than 250 animal cruelty offenses, including 36 counts of aggravated cruelty for causing fatal injuries. Another contracting company was charged with a cruelty offense. Authorities have not identified the owner or the companies.

The case is expected to be heard in court in February. The maximum penalty for an aggravated animal cruelty causing death charge is $ 157,000 for a business and $ 65,500 or two years in jail for an individual.

Andy Meddick, a Victoria state lawmaker and member of the Animal Justice Party, said he was “relieved” that “hundreds of charges have been laid for the Cape Bridgewater koala massacre.” He added, “I visited the site myself and saw the aftermath, and it was one of the worst things I have experienced.”

Koalas are a protected species in Australia, and marsupials are listed as vulnerable in the states of New South Wales, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory. Their numbers were severely affected by the catastrophic fires of 2019 that burned millions of acres across the country. Many have been saved from the wild, burned and dehydrated.

As koalas have evolved to adapt to forest fires, animals face new threats from climate change and human development, which have dislocated local populations, compromising their ability to survive the fires. In some areas, scientists say, the number of koalas has declined by as much as 80%, although it is unclear how many are left in Australia.

They are also susceptible to chlamydia, which can lead to infertility and death. Some surveys of Queensland’s koala populations have suggested that at least half of wild koalas are infected with the disease.

This shared sensitivity with humans has led some scientists to argue that studying and saving koalas may be key to developing a chlamydia vaccine for humans.

Last year, the Australian government set out to count the native marsupial population and record where they live – a daunting operation, as koalas are not easily spotted in the wild. When marsupials are high in trees, standing still and obscured by the canopy, they are easy to miss with the naked eye. The government has therefore deployed thermoguided drones, acoustic surveys and detector dogs.

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