A petition currently circulating on the internet advocates the introduction of koalas to New Zealand, in response to the horrific scenes of native animals suffering in the Australian bushfires. New Zealand has more than 23,000 hectares of eucalyptus plantations, why not? Isn't that the cooperative spirit of the Australian and New Zealand Armed Forces (Anzac)?
This is not the first time that an Australian marsupial has been introduced to New Zealand. In 1837, the brush-tailed possum was brought in, and that introduction worked extremely well.
Presumably unimpressed by the lack of eucalyptus in New Zealand at the time, the opossums quickly switched their diet to the more defenseless native trees and then to birds.
This flexitarian diet kept them in good stead and in a short time they had dominated the country, driving its population to densities much higher than in their native Australia. They are now commonly hit by cars in New Zealand, which currently has a campaign to eradicate them by 2050.
But this is not always the case. Wallabies introduced in the 1870s from Australia to the 2,000 hectare island of Kawau off the New Zealand coast also thrived, becoming so endangered in Australia that some of them were removed 15 years ago. Unfortunately, the reverse translocation, at great financial cost, did not work and the wallabies died.
When considering moving a species beyond where it naturally developed for whatever reason, it should be borne in mind that species can adapt and change rapidly in their new environments as they break free from biological factors that previously limited them.
The history of animal introductions to New Zealand confirms it: possums, kangaroos, stoats. There are many technical questions confronting such a proposal. What else would koalas eat in New Zealand? Would they survive outside the eucalyptus forest? Who would be responsible for managing them and how much would it cost (and who would pay the bill)?
These are all the standard questions that the New Zealand Environmental Protection Authority should ask whenever a new species introduction is proposed. I also suspect that owners of eucalyptus plantations worth between NZ $ 30m- $ 50m will want to weigh in and get their money back. trees eventually.
If koalas were moved to New Zealand for conservation, who would own those koalas and be responsible for them? Although the intention is born out of compassion for koalas, what about compassion for New Zealand's species and ecosystems that koalas could have a negative impact on?
And of course, these are questions that apply to more species than just koalas. While the koala is this week's poster for the biodiversity victims of global change threats, if we move them, should we move other species affected by climate change to new locations where they will find a new thermally appropriate home? Or is it just playing Russian roulette with potentially invasive species?
If the very goal is for these relocated species to thrive in their new homes, isn't that precisely the definition of an invasive species? These are ultimately big questions about what we are conserving and by whom. Is a koala hiding in a forest in New Zealand really conserved, or does it just transform itself into a displaced refugee unable to return home?
Ultimately, the best place to keep koalas is Australia, and the people best placed to do so are Australians. New Zealand should not become an offshore conservation estate for other countries; after all, New Zealand has its own conservation challenges. As much as the koala can pull the strings of the heart, no one wants them to go the way of the transported possums, destroying New Zealand's ecosystems and ending up like a slaughterhouse, dotted along New Zealand's roads.
Author: James Russell, Associate Professor at the University of Auckland, New Zealand.