South Australia’s environment minister says her department and the RSPCA are investigating after “horrific” vision emerged this week of koalas scrambling up trees and falling through the air during logging operations on Kangaroo Island.

WARNING: This story contains images that may be distressing to some readers.

The footage, which aired on commercial television, shows koalas clinging to trees as others are felled, and one animal is seen climbing up a tree before the trunk below is cut, causing the koala to fall to the ground.

Minister Susan Close has told ABC Radio Adelaide that she was “rushing” to implement a regulation change to the National Parks and Wildlife Act to give her the power to halt logging activity that was not undertaken in accordance with a management plan.

Under the standard protocol used by the forestry industry, spotters should be in place to locate koalas before trees are felled. If a koala is found, its tree and the eight surrounding it should then be left in place.

A koala lying on the ground inside a Kangaroo Island planation.(Supplied)

Ms Close said that although concerns had been raised with her department on a number of occasions since 2021, “comprehensive investigations” had found no evidence of non-compliance with this protocol.

The ABC raised concerns about koalas with crush injuries with the department last August. 

The minister said the new footage showed the protocol was not being observed.

“I think everyone is horrified by seeing animals suffering like that. Seeing the distress and the pain is just absolutely appalling,” she said.

Kiland, the owner of more than 18,600 hectares of plantations on the island, and its contractor, Australian Agribusiness Group (AAG), voluntarily ceased operations this week after the footage was released.

Ms Close will meet with Kiland’s chief executive in Sydney on Monday and said her department was continuing to work on a plan to manage the increasing numbers of koalas including what the disappearance of the plantations would mean for the animals.

Susan Close (left) wants a regulation change to give her the power to halt logging activity.(Supplied)

In a statement, Kiland said the koala welfare policies being employed on the estate had been designed with the relevant government agencies.

“We believe they provide some of the highest levels of protection to the local koala population,” it said.

“The devastating bushfires of 2020 condemned the island’s plantation forestry estates, and therefore a large swathe of Kangaroo Island’s koala habitat, to ruin.

“Kiland is continuously evaluating further options to enhance koala welfare including additional spotters, additional specialised detection and care equipment, and dedicated habitat.

“The company is actively engaged in constructive dialogue with local conservationists to contribute to a sustainable solution and is in the final stages of providing, on favourable terms, some of Kiland’s best land on the estate to establish a koala sanctuary.”

AAG, which has cleared more than 2,000 hectares, said it had had productive meetings with the government and RSPCA and was continuing to support their investigations.

“AAG is also continuing to conduct its own investigation. To date, this has found that while some of the footage shown by Channel 7 in its original story is from our plantations, it has become clear that some of the most distressing footage shown isn’t from the plantations being harvested by AAG.

“We have suspended harvesting pending a review of our koala management plan.”

Footage shocks people around the world

Opposition Leader and former environment minister David Speirs described the footage as embarrassing and said it could have a big impact on the tourism industry.

“It’s just shocking and there were no surprises here. These forests were full of koalas. It was well known when I was the minister that was the case before this felling started.”

Kangaroo Island tourism operator Craig Wickham said it had been known for a long time that the koalas dislocated from the plantations would be an issue for the local environment and that he often showed visitors the result of over-browsing on the island’s remnant native vegetation.

More than 18,000 hectares of plantation trees will be felled and the land returned to pasture.(ABC South East: Caroline Horn)

He said it was important to note that the setting of the footage was not known.

“I’m not defending it in any way, but there is a risk, even with the most well-meaning people that they miss one,” he said.

“But it was very confronting and very upsetting. It may have been callous, careless or maybe someone has been caught out when someone happened to be around with a camera.”

Mr Wickham said he had been contacted by industry colleagues who wanted to find out the context of the footage but had not yet encountered questions from visitors. 

“The koala story is really complex,” he said.

Tour operator Nikki Redman hopes Kiland will plant nature corridors to help stranded koalas.(Supplied: Nikki Redman)

Wildlife photographer and tour guide Nikki Redman works for two companies on the island and said she was not aware of any cancellations as a result of the release of the footage.

However, her social media page and a Facebook group she manages have been targeted, particularly by overseas users. She said she had been spammed with pictures of dead koalas and messages for her to “do something”.

“This is hurting us as locals,” she said.

“It’s horrific; I can’t handle [seeing] the footage, but people keep spamming it with me. I am sickened and disgusted by it but I am just one person.”

Ms Redman said it was widely accepted on the island that the plantations needed to go but that there should have been a plan to manage the koala numbers following the devastating 2019-20 bushfires.

“I just hope Kiland plant nature corridors,” she said.

Wildlife worker overwhelmed by support

Katie Welz from the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Network said she had been overwhelmed by local, national, and international support since the footage aired. 

She said that while the island’s koala issues were vexing and divisive for locals, the issue was “completely about animal welfare and nothing else”.

Katie Welz wants the community to come together and find solutions.(ABC South East SA: Caroline Horn)

“If we can promote the other wildlife that’s also being injured and displaced, I think we are doing our job.”

“We want the blue gums gone like everyone else. We understand how horrific they are … but you can’t just forget that when a forest has been left it’s going to become habitat.”

Ms Welz said wildlife workers wanted to “sit down at the table” and talk about what was going to be done to protect the animals before logging recommenced.

“There’s a lot of work to still happen but this is certainly a wonderful outcome for the wildlife.”

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