Australian officials are investigating how droves of koalas, iconic figures in the nation’s landscape and considered among the world’s most adorable animals, have been starved and injured on a private stretch of land under development.
More than 30 koalas in the Australian state of Victoria had to be euthanized due to their weakened conditions.
Victoria’s Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) on Sunday issued a statement saying it was investigating an incident involving “a significant number of injured and starving koalas on a private property.”
Approximately 31 koalas have been euthanized, Victoria’s Chief Conservation Regulator Kate Gavens, said in an email to USA TODAY. According to the Gavens, the property — recently returned to the landowner — was a blue gum tree plantation operating under a lease agreement.
DELWP arrived on the scene Friday and removed about 30 koalas from the property, according to its statement. Roughly 50 more koalas were removed Sunday, DELWP added.
“Unfortunately, a number of koalas have had to be euthanized on site due to injuries or starvation,” DELWP said in its statement.
Koalas are sought-after images for tourist photography, along with Australia’s other iconic resident, the kangaroo. Both are considered symbolic boons to Australia’s tourism industry, generating over a billion dollars a year in plush toy merchandise, toys, games, and cartoon appearances.
Gavens added a deer-proof fence stopped the koalas from leaving the property.
“The Conservation Regulator’s Major Investigations team is leading the investigation into how this incident happened and who was responsible,” Gavens said.
Some koalas starved to death and others were apparently bulldozed, the BBC reported.
“There are still an estimated 75 koalas left in the area and it is expected these will take another three days to capture and triage,” Gavens said.
Thirty-four koalas were released into local Mount Richmond National Park, which is nearby. The remaining koalas that have been processed so far are being “rehabilitated with a local wildlife carer,” Gavens said.
“The Conservation Regulator is taking this matter very seriously and is investigating the events that led to this incident,” DELWP said in its statement. “There are penalties for killing, harassing or disturbing wildlife and for animal cruelty under Victorian law.”
DELWP added, “Wildlife are protected under the Wildlife Act 1975. Killing, harassing or disturbing wildlife can attract a penalty of up to $8000 and an additional fine of more than $800 per head of wildlife.”
The Australian Forest Products Association (AFPA) put out a statement of its own calling the deaths of the koalas “senseless.” The AFPA “is the peak national industry body representing the resources, processing, and pulp, paper and bioproduct industries covering the forest products value chain,” according to its website.
AFPA CEO Ross Hampton said, “It is unclear as yet who bulldozed the trees with the koalas apparently still in them, but it is absolutely certain that this was not a plantation or a forestry company. “
“All those who work in our forest industries join with the community in appalled shock at what appears to be a callous act of animal cruelty,” Hampton said in the statement.
Hampton added the harvest of the area ended in November and the land was turned back over to the owner “before Christmas.”
Minister for Energy, Environment and Climate Change Lily D’Ambrosio said she was “appalled” in a statement on Twitter.
“The Conservation Regulator is investigating the circumstances that lead to this incident,” she said. “There are significant penalties for killing, harassing and disturbing wildlife and additional penalties for animal cruelty.”