They are one of Australia’s most loved native animals, but how many of us have ever actually seen one in the wild? Well look up! A team of researchers and ecologists has discovered there is a world of koalas living above our heads, and now it’s working to document and protect this special treetop population, and bring conservation tourism to the Highlands.
JOE Stammers vividly remembers the first time he saw a koala jump. It was during the release of two injured animals last year. One had been hit by a vehicle on the Hume Highway; the other was thought to have fallen from his tree.
‘The koalas were released with a WIRES carer into the Box Vale Walking Track area which was further than where they were found but safer,’ says Stammers, an environmental projects officer with Wingecarribee Shire Council.
‘This particular koala who had been hit by a car was in a very bad way. He’d had metal plates in his head and had been rehabilitated over 12 months. We released him out of the metal box and he shimmied straight up the nearest tree and started doing a bear call, which is like a pig’s grunt and bellow. Then he moved to the top of the tree and jumped to another, which I guesstimate was three to four metres away. It was just fabulous and surprising to see, because people often have the impression koalas are docile stupid creatures. They aren’t.’
Stammers is something of an authority on koalas. Since initiating and beginning work on the Southern Highlands Koala Conservation Project (SHKCP) in 2014, he and his team have collected and correlated baseline data that estimates there is a population of more than 3000 koalas living across the Wingecarribee.
‘The shire is about 2700 square kilometres in size, with 60% of that area being remnant bushland. Our research shows we have the biggest koala population in southern NSW and 10% of the estimated population in the whole of NSW. We have calculated that overall there is likely to be just one koala for every 50 hectares of bushland. If you want to maximise your chances of finding a koala, look east of the Hume Highway as it is significantly easier to find a koala in the fertile basalt-soil eucalypt forests in the east, than in the dry, sandstone country in the west.’
The SHKCP came about after a pilot study following the Balmoral and Bargo bushfires of 2013.
‘We started getting a lot of anecdotal evidence from people calling Council and saying, “I’ve got a koala in my backyard,” says Joe.
‘I grew up in Appin and koalas have had a long presence there, but people I spoke to locally kept saying, “No, we don’t see koalas about here.”’
Joe’s theory is that the fire, which destroyed homes and burnt out many hectares, pushed surviving koalas further south.
‘Koalas are very territorial, so those moving south to escape the fire would have had a knock on effect, in turn pushing others south and bringing them into closer contact with humans.’
Koalas are classified as a threatened species. This is significant when it comes to local government planning because they have their own piece of legislation. State Environmental Planning Policy 44 protects koalas as well as their preferred habitat, which includes 65 species of eucalypt throughout the Southern Highlands.
With local knowledge sketchy at best, Joe’s team set out to ascertain the koala population here. Working with students and researchers from the University of Sydney, wildlife ecologists and volunteers from Conservation Volunteers Australia, they fitted collars to 20 koalas. They also spent 12 months surveying more than 700 sites all over the Highlands in a widespread monitoring program that involved spotlighting koalas at night. Their efforts, which were locally funded as well as through the State government, uncovered an extensive koala network running throughout the Highlands.
Joe says that thanks to the study we now know over the course of a year koalas are most active during breeding season which runs from August through to February,, that the males work hard to protect their home range, and that they certainly are not stupid creatures.
‘They have evolved in a very unique way, with an innate ability to choose the right tree. If it’s cold, they’ll choose trees on a ridge top to keep warm, even if it’s not a eucalypt but is in a better spot,’ says Stammers. ‘We’ve seen them in banksias warming themselves.’
He believes the research, which is ongoing, is beneficial not just for the resident koala population but for the Southern Highlands community.
‘Conservation tourism is a huge growth area,’ he says, ‘but I can’t see it’s been very developed here at all yet. Port Macquarie, which has a koala hospital, does a great job treating sick and injured koalas and gets more than 200,000 visitors a year.
‘Many people would love to see koalas in their own habitat in the Highlands, and maybe get involved in conservation activities like helping with the ongoing monitoring program, and doing something meaningful.’
And a final word of warning if you do come across one of these wild natives.
‘Do NOT attempt to pat a koala,’ says Joe. They may look cuddly but koalas have sharp claws and can be aggressive if threatened. Stay a safe distance away to take photos.’
*Report your koala sightings to the WSC’s koala hotline on 4868 0888 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For injured or sick native wildlife to Wildlife Rescue South Coast 0418 427 214 or WIRES 4862 1788