Koalas, Black August and the long bloody history of the fur trade

This August saw the 90th anniversary of one of the most shameful periods in the history of the fur trade, an industry that has left a trail of blood, death and extinction in its wake for centuries.  ‘Black August’, as the month has been since notoriously remembered, occurred in 1927 when the Queensland Government declared ‘open season’ on the iconic marsupials.

During Black August, 600,000 koala pelts were collected, but the actual number of individual koalas killed is likely to have exceeded 800,000.

Even prior to Black August, koalas were butchered with intense cruelty across Australia for decades. The following testimony comes from German biologist Richard Semon during a visit to Australia in 1899:

“My shot wounded the creature — it hung for some time suspended by its paws trying in vain to draw up its hind paws and swing itself onto the branch,

“I aimed once more and struck its head.

“Still it clung to the tree for a while with its right forepaw, then fell down heavily and died a few minutes later.

“It was a strong, fully developed female, carrying a half-grown young one on its back.

“The poor little thing clung to its dead mother with its sharp paws, and would not be torn away.

“I thought of taking it into my camp and rearing it, but the next morning it had left its mother’s cold body and disappeared.”

In the weeks leading up to August 1927, the Queensland Government collected licence fees from 10,000 potential koala hunters. The pelts were sold at an average price of 56 shillings and 9 pence per dozen.  38 Queensland companies were involved in the fur trade and the furs were popular in the coat, glove and hat industries in the United States, where most of the pelts from koalas killed in Black August were shipped to.

Although shocking to people today, the fur trade showed no remorse or even awareness about the cruelty of killing koalas for their fur.

In ‘The Fur traders & Fur Bearing Animals’, published in 1914, koala fur is recorded in the following way:

‘.. the skins of koalas are used extensively in the manufacture of sleeping bags, coats and other articles where a durable, reasonable priced fur is desired.’

Similarly, in Max Bachrach’s ‘Fur: A Practical Treatise’, it is noted that the fur trade confusingly refers to koala fur  as wombat in the US, then complains that one section of a koala’s pelt ‘is very tough and unyielding, especially after dressing, a fact that creates a manufacturing problem that is not easily solved’. The section goes on to describe how ‘the better grade of Koala peltries is used for ladies’ sports coats, and the cheaper grades find a market among makers of men’s outdoor cloth coats, on which these peltries are used for collars.’

The fur trade only sees animals as money-making resources and not as the sentient, beautiful beings they really are.

In 1927, as the devastation of Black August became apparent, the killing was finally banned after a massive public backlash in what ABC described as possibly Australia’s first large movement of citizens for a conservation issue.  However, koala populations have never really recovered.

Australian Koala Foundation spokeswoman Deborah Tabart has been fighting for a Koala Protection Act for almost 30 years and she has spelled out the shocking cruelty and desperate legacy of Black August:

“They used to skin them alive and put them back up the tree with no fur,”.

“I believe that all of the (population) problems today are as a result of the shootings from that time.

“We have got a shocking history and I do not believe there is one government in this country that is interested in protecting them.”

According to research by Australian National University, the current koala population represents just 1 per cent of the population before the fur trade caused such devastation.  This is nothing new.  The fur trade has a long history of inflicting population declines and even extinction on fur bearing animals.

The following section from The Endangered Species Handbook explains this well:

The history of the fur trade, past and present, is evidence that no animal, no matter how abundant, is immune to possible extinction should its pelt become valuable to the fur trade.  A pattern develops as fur pelt prices rise, and the species becomes rare from overtrapping.  These pelts become more avidly sought out.  Commercial extinction can result fairly quickly if animals with valuable pelts are killed at a rate greater than they can reproduce.  Animals whose populations numbered in the millions and whose ranges extended over entire continents have been reduced to near extinction within the space of a few decades, as demonstrated by the trade in spotted cats.  For those animals that are naturally rare in the wild, or rare due to ecological or geographical reasons–the Falkland Island Wolf (Dusicyon australis), the North American Sea Mink (Mustela macrodon) and the Rufous Gazelle (Gazella rufina), for example–extinction came quickly when their pelts were in demand by the fur trade.