A recent resurgence in “Yowie sightings” and reports of alarming noises in the bush at night beg the question: how much can a koala bear?

By Sarah Harris – Photography by Patrick Kavanagh
Of the many myths that have sprung up from the bush in the Greater Bendigo Region the biggest fiction is that there are no koalas in these parts.
There are most assuredly ‘bears’ out there, with estimates varying between 200 and 500 animals within a 30km radius of Harcourt – the epicentre of the contemporary Goldfields koala story.
“People only really identify koalas with the Grampians, the Strzelecki Ranges and Phillip Island, where they are iconic,” ecologist and Natural Newstead wildlife blogger Geoff Park explains. “But they are to be found across much of Victoria including the box ironbark forests around Bendigo. There are quite regular sightings around Newstead and Castlemaine, and you will hear them at night far more often than you would see them. There are islands of population which increase in good times and crash in the bad. Koalas are definitely part of the arc of local wildlife.”
Similarly, according to the myth, koalas eat only one or two types of eucalypt, whereas of the 700-plus species of tree in Australia they will eat around 50 but, if you are offering a smorgasbord, really prefer just 10 types.
The Phascolarctos cinereus, the tree-dwelling herbivore that counts the wombat as its closest living relative, was widely distributed across Victoria in the early days of colonisation but, by the 1850s the population had been decimated by disease and indiscriminate shooting from which the species was not offered full protection until 1885.
A good percentage of the current local population are likely descendants of the ill-fated Mt Alexander Koala Park Reserve, which was one of the region’s earliest examples of eco-tourism.
Perhaps it was intended as a pleasant distraction from the absence of many of Harcourt’s much-loved sons when the park was established at the height of World War II. The 38 acre (15ha) reserve was stocked with koalas transferred from Phillip Island which seemed to take happily to their new location, with the population reportedly doubling within three years. This was in stark contrast to their distress at removal from their original territory with “grating cries filling the air” as they were lassoed out of gum trees by long ropes attached to poles — a process with saw many hundreds of koalas relocated from Phillip Island and French Island to various inland sites.
As the Mt Alexander population started to munch through available resources the park was extended by a further 10ha. Through the ‘50s, the ‘60s and much of the ‘70s the park remained a great attraction with cars winding their way to the Mount carrying folk keen to get close up and personal with the marsupial. Harcourt’s most prominent citizens took turns sitting on the gate of the park at weekends collecting donations to support the hamlet’s furry friends.
In keeping with the times there was little thought of limiting interaction, with visitors being allowed to cuddle the more obliging animals. (My own mother-in-law Hylda is pictured below nursing a ‘bear’ in 1964). Eventually though demand outstripped supply and by the late ‘70s some koalas were actually transported back to Phillip Island to prevent more of them dying from starvation as they literally ate themselves out of house and home.
As fast as the Mount Alexander Koala Reserve Committee (MAKRC) tried to plant new trees with metal rings round the base to try to protect them, the koalas ate them. It was decided a new park was in order, but when it came to allocating funds and land too many bureaucrats and politicians had become involved and no one listened to the MAKRC, which warned the proposed new site would be an unmitigated disaster.
The new sanctuary was expected to house 80 koalas and anticipated to become “one of Victoria’s top tourist attractions”. To this end there were modern toilet facilities, paved roads and as more ‘bears’ were shipped, they were held aloft by beaming politicians like babies on the election hustings. But sadly within 18 months of the new park opening in 1978 more than 70 per cent of the residents had either escaped or died, many of them suffering from pneumonia. There would be more groups of koalas and their young introduced from offshore, but Leanganook Koala Park as the new site was named, was a flop.
The last chapter of the story is not at all cuddly as George Milford, a locally born stalwart of the Harcourt Valley Heritage and Tourist Centre recalls.
“I remember as a little boy being taken up there and literally poking a koala with a stick there were that many of them,” the septuagenarian recalls a bit sheepishly. “Then when I was about 12 or 13 a friend and I camped up there in the picnic pavilion and the noise of the koalas overnight was just appalling and so thrilling at the same time. We went up there a couple of times after they built the new park to try and hear them and there was nothing, it was just totally silent.”
Just as the committee warned, the new park was a disaster. It was in totally the wrong spot on the wrong side of the Mount.
“The old park was on the east side and sheltered, but in the new site they either left and found a new home or died of pneumonia,” George recalls. “The lucky ones were blown out of the trees into the surrounding countryside and wandered into Harcourt and beyond. Everyone around here has seen a koala in a tree at some time, but they were all escapees from the Mount.”
The park limped on until the new millennium, but it really became the last place to look for koalas and in 2009 the fence was finally pulled down and a collective memory freed.
PS: Yes, we know koalas are not bears.