The much-loved arboreal marsupial, Australia's best known wildlife symbol after the kangaroo, is dependent for its survival on the leaves of native gum trees which environmentalists say are being felled at an alarming rate. 

An open letter on Tuesday to Prime Minister John Howard and Queensland state Premier Peter Beattie, signed by more than 400 scientists from around Australia, has called for a rapid solution to the issue of land-clearing in the eastern state. 

For every 100 hectares of native woodland that was cleared, about 2000 birds, 15,000 reptiles and 500 native mammals would die either immediately or soon afterwards, the letter said. 

Land clearing

The Queensland government froze land-clearing permits in May pending agreement on a 150 million Australian dollars ($108 million) compensation plan that was still to be finalised. 

"Most people think when you clear a plot of land, whether it is small or large, the animals simply move off it and go somewhere else," said professor Hal Cogger, a biodiversity scientist at the Australian Museum. 

"The vast majority don't. They die either on the spot or they
die shortly afterwards." Cogger said research in the Brigalow area, which covered 15 million hectares from central Queensland to the neighbouring eastern state of New South Wales, revealed 100 million birds, animals and reptiles were killed every year by land-clearing. 

"That includes things like 19,000 koalas a year just simply
being killed by land-clearing," Cogger said. 

Compensation

Prof Hugh Possingham, director of the ecology centre at the
University of Queensland, said it was cheaper to compensate land owners for not clearing land than to have to restore it later.

He said that at present Australia was spending up to two billion dollars a year on land restoration. 

"At the moment the repair bill for Queensland is really quite small. But why destroy something if you are going to have to put it back," Possingham said. 

"It costs roughly 100 times as much to revegetate an area than to compensate somebody to not clear it in the first place."