THE GREAT KOALA SCAM: Green Propaganda, Junk Science, Government Waste and Cruelty to Animals
by Vic Jurskis
Connor Court, Cleveland, Qld.
Paperback: 138 pages
Reviewed by Brian Coman
Let me begin with a declaration of non-objectivity! Any retired scientist who quotes Miguel Cervantes on the first page of his work is almost certainly worth reading.
There! I’ve exposed my bias. And like the great Don Quixote himself, Vic Jurskis has suffered “the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune”. Well, not fortune exactly, but rather the slings and arrows of hostile reviews, publication knockbacks from scientific journals, and deliberate snubbing from many other scientists engaged in his line of work – the relationship between forest ecology and bushfires.
Part of that ecology led Jurskis to undertake a study of the koala and, especially, the link between koala population fluctuations and bushfires.
I think he might agree that, in retrospect, it was a bad choice of animal. In the first place, Jurskis was a forester (NSW Forestry) – one of those evil people whose entire career is dedicated to the destruction of the planet.
To even suggest that a forester could carry out valid scientific investigations is a heinous crime. To suggest that he could do so when the focus of his investigation was koalas makes him subject to an anathema sit.
After all, this is Australia’s most emotively charged species, with its teddy-bear face and “cuddle me” demeanour. Jurskis would have been far better off if he had chosen to study tiger snakes, blowflies or dog ticks.
And, of course, to study the koala without the mandatory background “fact” that the species is on the brink of extinction, is a form of lèse-majesté, a capital offence against the majesty of the Australian Koala Foundation and its various fellow travellers.
But that is precisely what Vic Jurskis did. He made no prior assumptions but rather delved into the historical records and carried out his own studies on the animal. This led him to a series of conclusions that can be briefly summarised as follows.
In pre-European Australia, koalas almost certainly existed in low densities. They are solitary animals with large territories and they can move large distances within these territories. One of the reasons they occurred in naturally low densities (as do many other Australian mammals – especially smaller ones) is that their preferred food is fresh, succulent gum leaves and, in stable, mature forests, these are in short supply. The young leaves they need for proper nutrition are more commonly found (in quantity) in regrowth after bushfires or in other interventions favouring the growth of new, soft leaves.
When major disturbances such as megafires occur, the fresh, young regrowth that is a natural consequence causes huge population irruptions of koalas and overpopulation often occurs, with the obvious consequence of high mortality through starvation and disease.
Now it is quite possible that Jurskis is wrong in his observations and analyses. It could be that some other explanation better suits the available evidence. But his opponents need to demonstrate his errors and put forward valid scientific evidence in support of any such demonstration. That, after all, is what allows science to flourish as a discipline.
Now, as far as I can see from Jurskis’ extensively referenced work in this book, such a demonstration has not been proffered. Instead we get what C.S. Lewis once termed “Bulverism” – a logical fallacy in which judgement is made on the basis of perceived motives. You assume your opponent is wrong because of his or her perceived motives. But, as Lewis points out, “you must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong”.
Where supposedly “scientific” evidence is massed against Jurskis, most of it is of doubtful provenance. You cannot do proper population surveys on koalas by mail-out surveys, for instance, because not many people spend their days looking up into the foliage of gum trees.
Some of the “science” is not just doubtful, it is genuinely hilarious. Jurskis quotes such a “scientific” paper, with the title: “Use of expert knowledge to elicit population trends for the koala”. It has seventeen authors! One of those authors is an “elicitation expert”!
“What the hell is that?” I hear you say. The paper explains: “A quantitative, scientific method for deriving estimates of koala populations and trends was possible in the absence [my emphasis] of empirical data on abundance.”
Say no more. I have visions of an elicitation expert conjuring up data via his or her Ouija board. I want you to imagine just how his opponents would have regarded Jurskis if it were he who used “elicitation” as a scientific technique. He would have been derided. Welcome to the post-truth world of science!
In order to prosecute his case, Jurskis has presented a good deal of data in this book, which makes for slow going for the lay reader. Much of it relates to his repeatedly unsuccessful attempts to get his work accepted and published. Other of it deals with the overt politicisation of the whole koala scene.
As Jurskis points out, the koala has been an extremely useful “leverage” animal to prevent the commercial utilisation of forests and, indeed, to prevent their proper management.
Underlying the whole of Vic Jurskis’ account is a first-order philosophical question. He does not specifically pursue this in his book, but it is implied. That question has to do with the role of humans in nature and, more specifically, what the term “management” means.
In green philosophy, humans are just another species – a trousered or skirted ape – that has gone haywire, and is now doing its best to destroy the planet. I can speak with a little experience here. Many years ago, I was lecturing to a group of young people studying resource management at the tertiary level. Just to try them out, I set this question: “Humans are the greatest pest species on the planet. Do you agree or disagree. With only two or three exceptions, all agreed!
If you are serious about management, it implies that you will actually manage, not just put up signs, write management strategies, position papers, etc etc. Management means hands-on interference, hands-on manipulation of an ecosystem.
To date that seems only to occur, in the case of koalas, at the tail end of population explosions when the animals are easily seen, their destruction of habitat is obvious and they are sick or dying. Then, the useless strategy of relocation is employed, at great cost, and yet another “scientific” review is commissioned. As Jurskis is able to point out, with data, a big percentage of the relocated animals die.
Jurskis’ approach to management is the judicious use of fire (his earlier book is titled Firestick Ecology) and livestock grazing where that is feasible. Both these approaches are vehemently opposed by green ideologues.
The reader must make up his own mind as to the validity of Jurskis’ arguments and claims. I, for one, think his arguments are valid and backed up not only by historical data (there is a great deal of it in the book) but by his own extensive observations, gleaned from a working lifetime in the bush.
His stand is courageous and defiant. He knows that he will never defeat his detractors and this book is therefore something of a parting shot.
He reminds me somewhat of Dr Johnson who, when he exposed a literary fraud (The Ossian poems), received a threat on his person. He replied with these words: “I hope I shall never be deterred from detecting what I think a cheat, by the menaces of a ruffian.”
Reviewer Brian Coman is the author of Tooth and Nail: The Story of the Rabbit in Australia (Text Publishing).