Monday, 15 March 2021

Koalas at Yannathan

In the last post, which was about a report of a trip taken from Berwick to Yannathan in 1887 (see here), the unnamed writer of the report said that Yannathan was 'swarming' with koalas or bears as they were called - At Yannathan my business was completed and left me a day to look about the locality. The place swarms with "bears.'' In nearly every other tree they are to be seen. The name "bear" quite intimidates the "new chum," but no need of fear, for they are truly harmless beasts living on the gum leaves, and I am told are rapidly killing the gum trees as effectually as if they had been "rung" (1).

Six years later there was another account of koalas at Yannathan, this one painting a far bleaker picture of their numbers. This was a letter published in the Weekly Times on July 1, 1893, addressed to Uncle Ben the editor of the children's section.
A Bear. — Yannathan.
Dear Uncle Ben,
This is my first letter to you. I am going to tell you a story about a bear. One morning early about three o'clock when my sisters were in bed they heard something scratching. They thought at first that it was the rats, but soon they knew that it was too loud for them. They looked down towards the window where the noise came from. Seeing a shadow like a man's hand, they got out of bed, went to the window and looked out. Then they saw a bear which had climbed up the wall and was trying to hold onto the window, but could not. Mother, who was in another room, heard them laughing. She asked what was the matter, and they told her, so she got up and went outside, and took the bear off the window and put him on the ground. In the morning when we got up it was in a pear tree in the garden. The bears that are about here are quite harmless. They are very scarce, but when we first came into Yannathan there was a great number.
I remain, your affectionate niece, Sarah Aitken, aged eleven years and  eight months (2).

The Koala or 'Australian Bear'
Australian Bear, c. 1880-1890. State Library of Victoria Image H29682/3

The cause of the decline in koala numbers in Yannathan can be attributed, mainly, to habitat loss due to the clearing of land for farming.  Dr Niel Gunson in his book The Good Country: Cranbourne Shire writes that early settlement in the Yannathan district started on the western boundary in 1875 and by 1878 all the dense forest country had been selected (3). Clearing at Yannathan began as soon as the settlers could undertake the work,  it has been said of this thick bush country (paperbark, tea tree, blackwood, silver wattle, musk tree and clematis) that 'when cleared it proved to be the best land in Gippsland' (4). 

The koala was also killed for 'sport'. There was a report in March 1882 about a fishing and hunting trip to the Bass [River] district which mentioned the amount of sport they were going to have! Ducks, swan,
hare, native bears, 'possoms and fish were to be got without the least exertion (5).  Given that the koala was also called the 'Australian sloth' it is no wonder that they could be got without the least exertion. 

The koala was also a component of the fur trade, not, however, the high-end garment segment of the market. This is part of a report from 1880 -  Another numerous marsupial is the native bear, or Australian sloth, possessing a short matted wool, and a thick pelt unamenable to softening influences. These inoffensive creatures are most tenacious of life, and when they are killed, sorely test the patience of the skinner. The best of the skins are made into carriage rugs, but the majority are only fit for mats (6)

The 'Australian Native Bear' was considered cute enough to feature in this postcard from c. 1908, even if some people still thought they were only fit to become a mat.
Australian Native Bear. Study by Muir. State Library of Victoria Image H42748/12

In Victoria, koalas gained some protection in December 1898, when they were deemed to be native game and thus protected (7).  This gave them year round protection, though this was objected to by the Fur Buyers' Association who thought koalas should only have protection for part of the year. As a matter of interest in 1899 the Fur Buyers' Association spokesman, Mr Coles said that last year on the London market a total  of 176,000 skins were offered. New South Wales sent 134,000 and Victoria and Queensland 51, 600. This showed that there was not such a slaughter going on here as there was in New South Wales (8).  The Government did not alter the year round protection for koalas and in 1938 strengthened their protection by including injuring and molesting the animals as well as destroying them within the scope of the bill (9). 

Of course protection from slaughter did not protect the koala from habitat loss, and one solution for this was to re-locate koalas from one area to another such as in the 1930s from French Island to Quail Island.  Quail Island is at the northern end of Western Port Bay - I have written about the Quail Island koalas, here.

(1) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, June 8, 1887, see here.
(2) Weekly Times July 1, 1893, see here.
(3) Gunson, Niel The Good Country: Cranbourne Shire (Cheshire, 1968), p. 112.
(4) Gunson, op. cit., p. 114
(5) South Bourke & Mornington Journal, March 15 1882, see here.
(6) The Argus, December 9 1880, see here.
(7) Victoria Government Gazette, December 9, 1898, p. 4238, 
(8) The Herald, July 11 1899, see here. The Fur Buyers' Association was also referred to as the Furred Skin Buyers' Association (The Herald, July 3, 1899, see here) I am not sure which is correct, and it doesn't really matter now, 120 years later, however I do like to be historically accurate.
(9) The Argus, December 14, 1938, see here.

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