Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Friday, 13 December 2013

The trees fight back...

Two weeks ago, a tinge of green started creeping into the manna gum canopies at Cape Otway. A week later, that tinge has now turned into thick epicormic growth. Even the trees along Manna Gum Drive are fighting back. The only problem is, there are still lots of hungry koalas around so these trees had better put on a LOT of growth over the next few months if they are going to survive the autumn/winter dormancy period.

Trees turning green again.... beautiful!
Our eight surviving koalas are still going strong and given the increase in food supply, I think they will continue to do OK for a while.  It has been interesting and sometimes frustrating to track their movements.  Sally (still with joey), Scarface, Beast and M1187 have not roamed far from their November locations, but the others keep me walking in circles and introducing me to new landholders.  Bella moved over 1km to the north in a 1-week period. M1189 also moved about 500m north.  Buffy has chosen to move back to her original site (the photo above), and last week, Dave was in Bush Block.  All of these koalas will be captured for GPS refit and condition checking late next week.

On other news, the Save Cape Otway Alliance is moving forward in leaps and bounds.  They have bulk-ordered more metal sheets so that landholders can put bands on some of their trees, contacted the local Landcare group about ordering seedlings and getting information about planting/seeding etc, contacted VicRoads about the traffic issues on Lighthouse Road, and are encouraging landholders to do koala surveys (using my protocol) so that we can get a better idea of koala density and distribution, and tree canopy condition across the whole Cape.  This information will be really useful to DEPI when they return again in February.

And finally, this will be my last blog for 2013.  It has definitely been a challenging year and I have no doubt that there will be more challenges in 2014.  But, in the meantime, I wish you and your families a safe and happy Christmas and New Years.

Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Seeing the positives....

The last few months have been tough and it is only too easy to dwell on the negatives of the situation we have been dealing with.  However, in looking at the ‘negatives’, I’ve also realised that there are many ‘positives’….
. The passion of Earthwatchers

Earthwatch group, November 2013
I am humbled by your passion for the environment and willingness to give up your time and money to help with this research.  To my latest Earthwatchers (Doug, Pam, Deb, Lynette, Jim and Annie), you witnessed some unpleasant stuff and we shared some tears along with the laughs, but you soldiered on and helped collect some really important data.  Nine sites surveyed, daily radiotracking, eight koalas caught, seed and koala poo collected, data entered…. lots accomplished! You are truly wonderful and inspirational people.  THANK YOU!  I am glad that you each got to ‘mind’ Sally’s joey for me.
'It's a boy'. Annie with Sally's joey

. The support of Earthwatch
Kirsty, THANK YOU for helping with this latest trip.  It wasn’t an easy situation to have to deal with on your first koala trip but you were a rock for me.  Always smiling, and willing to do whatever had to be done.  I’m guessing that you might think twice about volunteering for the Aire River survey again?  Cass, THANK YOU for listening to my rants, and for waiting patiently for the revised briefing.

Kirsty didn't sit down often...

. My Bimbi Park family
I love you all (including Jak of course!), and thank you for welcoming me into your family.  Frank – I am still chuckling over our early morning koala catching during this last trip.  I’m not sure that the vet liked arriving each day to find six or so koalas already in bags for them J
Frank's pizzas are always a highlight

. DEPI staff who have come to our aid
You are working incredibly hard and I know that like the rest of us, you have found the reality of this situation difficult to deal with.  THANK YOU for caring.  You have given us hope.

. The landholders of Cape Otway

The old saying ‘when the going gets tough, the tough get going’ comes to mind.  You are an incredible group of people and I’m honoured to join you as a member of the ‘Save Cape Otway Alliance’.

. Our koalas
We are now down to eight koalas: Dave, Scarface, Beast, Buffy, Sally, Bella, M1187 and M1189.  I have mourned the loss of each of our collared koalas, but also smile at the memories:  Lucie was my favourite and I have a LOT of photos of her and her various joeys.  Princess was always such a little drama queen.  Cranky Frankie didn’t get his name for being sweet-natured.  He will go down in history as the most aggressive koala I’ve ever met.  I don't think he liked me much? And the list goes on and on…  It certainly has been a privilege to work with these beautiful animals.

Dave is still going strong :-)

. The future
I have about 600 little mannas growing and these will be ready to plant next autumn.  There are also numerous little seedlings growing in the control burn areas.  There is much work to be done but together, we can rebuild.


Tuesday, 5 November 2013

The death toll rises to 5

Trying to make sense of a senseless situation 4 Nov, 2013

Yesterday we lost another four of our radio-collared koalas to starvation: Lucie, Princess, Lison and Austin (Lucie is the little female with the joey featuring in this blog).  Six weeks ago, these animals were deemed healthy enough by vets to be released.  Their GPS tracks show how desperately and widely they've been searching for trees that have some leaves left on them.  Some like Dave and Scarface have been successful in finding some decent trees.  Beast has managed to find his way past a tree collar and is enjoying a decent meal or two.  But most are only finding dead trees and resorting to gnawing on the bark.  One koala and a joey nearly launched herself at us to get the few leaves we felt compelled to hold out to her.

These animals are just the few that we've been tracking for the last few years.  There are countless others suffering the same fates.  In the process of tracking yesterday, I came across the carcasses of five others, and I wasn't even searching for them.  And this is just the koala death toll.  The tree death toll is even greater.  Well over 400 hectares (about 1100 acres) of manna gum woodland is now dead and what remains is rapidly being defoliated by ravenous koalas. 

We are pleading with the government to intervene.  While they can't turn back time, they can put an end to the koala suffering, help any remaining live trees recover, and assist landholders rebuild the habitat.  You can help by emailing your view to Mr Ryan Smith (Minister for Environment; or Denis Napthine (Premier;

Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Feeling a bit helpless and a lot sad.....

On Monday, I collected the carcass of the first of our study animals to die of starvation.  Ruby was one of our original females collared in April 2011.  Weighing in at 10.4kg, she was also one of our biggest girls.  She successfully raised joey 'Benjamin', and several months ago, joey 'Kevin Jr' emerged from her pouch.

Ruby with Kevin Jr (September 2013)

Ruby was captured during the government's 'Wildlife Intervention Plan' in September and was in good health at the time so simply given a hormone implant and released.  Unlike our other koalas, she did not move once all the trees in that patch died.  Two weeks after her health check, she abandoned her joey (I searched to no avail). Three weeks after that, she was dead.  She had lost 3kg in just a few weeks.  This is just the beginning.  I have no doubt that I will find more dead animals next week

Although I understand the complexities of koala management, I question policies behind decisions that allow healthy koalas to be released back into unhealthy habitat.  I would have preferred to see Ruby euthanased rather than released back into habitat that could not support her and her joey.

..... And the manna gums also continue to die, and the government still does not provide any support to landholders who are frantically trying to save at least some of their trees.

I have written to our state government pleading for help.  If you would like to write too, Victoria's Minister for Environment is Ryan Smith (

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

Loving trees to death

Once a beautiful manna gum woodland....

These last few months have been difficult for me.  I have helplessly sat by and watched a forest die.  Not just any forest… OUR forest… the forest in which we have spent hours catching koalas, tracking koalas, measuring trees, sharing stories and laughs, and appreciating the beauty of nature.  The sad part is that it is the koalas that have caused this.  There is only so much koala browsing a tree, and a forest can bear (pardon the pun).
I predicted years ago that this would happen but the end has been very sudden.  Earthwatchers in the September trip still saw some leaves on the trees and counted around 130 koalas within our site.  At the moment, that number would be around 10 or 20, and by November, I’d be surprised to find any koalas there.
This koala struggles to get the last leaf on the tree
Also as predicted, our koalas are moving in search of food… well, all but Ruby have moved and I hope that Ruby will follow while she still has the energy.  Following their movements and condition over the next few months will be a major focus of mine.  I am hoping that they will not only find their way to the blue gum forest, but that they will survive there.
Dave, sitting in a tree on Station Beach Track
SO… a big question I get and maybe one on your mind is “Why can’t someone do something about it?”
I’ll give you a few bits of information and see if you can come up with an answer:

1.       There are probably thousands of koalas in the area and a lot more in the neighbouring blue gum forests, so ‘no’, we can’t ship them all off to wildlife parks;

2.       Translocation is highly stressful on koalas, especially if they are being moved to a different type of forest.  Studies elsewhere have shown that 100% koalas can die after being translocated;

3.       Fertility control is slow acting (we’re talking years) and the trees are dying now;

4.       Culling is illegal under Commonwealth policy.

So sadly, I don’t think there is anything anyone can do other than try to protect some trees to save the habitat, do what we can to reduce koala suffering, and learn from this situation. 
Bimbi Park has done an amazing job of collaring trees and other landholders are starting to do the same.  Some say that it is cruel to keep koalas from the few trees left, but no trees = no koalas = no other wildlife = no ecosystem services!   We’re also going to be doing more tree planting.  Bimbi Park planted about 400 trees this year and put a burn through some areas to promote natural revegetation.  I’ve germinated some of the seed collected by Earthwatchers and have about 600 baby mannas that will be ready to plant out next April/May.

Our government environmental department has also become involved and recently sent a team of vets to check on koala health.  I caught 30 koalas in 2 days!  Our radiocollared koalas were assessed as part of this and interestingly enough, all but one (Nelly) were in excellent condition.  Nelly had been dropping in condition even when food was abundant.  She was just old!  Based on her condition and age, we made the decision to euthanase her; much more peaceful than what would have been ahead of her.

I'm currently tracking the others on a weekly basis.  They move so much that it takes me much longer than normal to find them.  Austin has headed towards the lighthouse; Bella, Claire and Ned are sitting on the top of Big Hill; Scarface is up on Manna Gum Drive, and the others are on Station Beach Track (even Cranky Frankie!), and in paddock trees. At least if these ones start to suffer, I'll be there to help them.  I'm a softie!
Lucie and her new (camera-shy) joey

Saturday, 24 August 2013

On the brink

We are 'on the brink' in many ways.  The field season is almost upon us, and a lot is about to happen at Cape Otway.  It is definitely time for a blog update.

Our koalas
In May, I captured 15 koalas wearing VHF collars, for health checks and to attach new GPS devices to their collars.  Thanks to some wonderful volunteers (Samantha, Teagan and Lisa), we accomplished this in just two days, and also managed to plant some trees too.  We had to be extra careful and gentle with the girls because most of them had large pouch young.  Claire's joey, one of the first to be born this season, was actually out of the pouch (but hid inside during the catch).

Claire and joey, May 2013

Our catch list was:
Females: Lucie, Claire, Ruby, Buffy, Nelly, Sally, Lison, Bella, Elena (Katrina's dropped her collar).
Males: Ned, Beast, Austin, Stevie, Scarface, and of course, Cranky Frankie (Tony Parker is MIA... AGAIN!)

Bilko, Erik, Al, Dave and Mac were wearing the GPS collars so didn't need to be caught, although we did track them.  Sadly, we found Mac dead.  A week earlier, a small control burn was put through part of the site to help regenerate the Manna Gum.  Mac must have been in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Since May, Bilko has also departed us.  He was one of my first koalas to be caught at Cape Otway (in 2010), and was looking good in May.  I can only guess that age and his difficulty in obtaining good nutrition caught up with him.  I retrieved and cleaned off his skull - I have never seen such an odd-shaped skull or such a poorly aligned jaw in a koala.  I'm surprised he was able to eat at all.

Bilko's mishappen skull

Bilko in May 2013 - happily feeding

Our trees
On a very sad note, trees at Cape Otway have taken a rapid change for the worse.  The green flush of growth from December - March provided a bit of hope, but with the trees entering a dormant phase over winter, koalas have stripped many of them bare.  Some trees in our site have died and many are barely hanging on.  The koalas have shifted their ranges slightly as a result.  Most of them are sitting in trees that still have some leaf, along the fenceline, while others have moved out into the paddock trees.

Trees in our site take a turn for the worse


The trees we planted (germinated from seed collected by Earthwatchers in April 2012), are looking good, and there are young seedlings emerging in the burnt areas.  I have already started germinating seed (collected by Earthwatchers in February 2013) for trees that can be planted in Autumn 2014.

Mannas are germinating in areas burnt in May

Manna from seed collected in 2012

Plans for the 2013/2014 field season
A focus of our work this summer will be assessing habitats (tree condition, regrowth, etc), and taking action to ensure that our new trees (planted and naturally germinated) have the best chance of survival.

Koala censuses and tree condition assessments will be conducted in all of our sites across Cape Otway (Aire River, Lighthouse, Parker Hill, Bimbi and Bimbi West).

We'll also be doing some behavioural studies to further our understanding of mate selection.  I will be replacing VHF radiocollars with VHF/proximity collars which will record who is near who, and the length of time they stay together.  We suspect that males guard females until the females are in oestrus and receptive, so this will provide detailed and continuous information on that throughout the breeding season.  I will also be deploying some accelerometers for analysis of the frequency of an individual male's bellows during the peak breeding period.  This will provide insight into testosterone cycling as well as mate selection (are females really attracted to the males that bellow the most?).  Some of the catching for these studies will occur during the November Earthwatch trip.

Dave likes to bellow when I'm around

Radiotracking will occur in all trips and help us understand the daily movements of koalas and tree selection, especially with respect to the changes in tree condition.

Scat collection will also feature as an activity.  The nutritional value of koala food can be determined from scat.  We will therefore be able to see if there is a relationship between tree cover decline and koala nutrition.

We will continue with camera trapping in February.  Koalas aren't the only ones using manna gum woodland.  This will tell us what other species are also present, and how they are being affected by the changes in habitat.

So, lots to do, and exciting times ahead.  Alistair will be leading the September trip and I will be leading the November and February ones.  For those of you who will be joining us, THANK YOU in advance.  I hope you have a fun and rewarding experience with us.


If you didn't catch it, ABC Catalyst did an episode on us.  Check it out at ABC Catalyst - Cape Otway koalas and Deakin/Earthwatch research program

And, the study on koala bellows conducted at Cape Otway (lead by Ben Charlton), is now in press and can be accessed at: Koala bellows (Charlton, Whisson and Reby 2013)

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Is 6 a lucky number?

If not, it should be.  This was my 6th Earthwatch trip, there were 6 participants, and we had at least 6 days of sunshine and days of making good memories.  We may have had more of the latter but I want to go with this theme of ‘6’.  Oddly enough, the number ‘6’ featured in Frankie’s, or should I say “Cranky Frankie’s” collar frequency, so maybe the number ‘6’ isn’t so lucky afterall.  Frankie will go down in history as the most terrifyingly aggressive koala to ever grace the trees of Cape Otway.  I have never known a koala to feel such a need to attack his catchers… and this time, we had to catch him not once, but twice!
"Cranky Frankie" - don't be fooled by this photo. He has a nasty streak a mile wide!
But, I digress….

To my February band of koala-ers: Anndy, Krystal, Kelly, Tim, John and Robert, and staff Viki and Jo, a huge THANK YOU for your hard work, good company, and pulling me out of the field trip doldrums I was feeling at the beginning of the trip.  I had already spent so many weeks in the field prior to this trip that I was tired and feeling a little grumpy.  You guys soon turned that around though.  I can’t believe I even laughed while battling the prickles and general nastiness of Aire River?!  The food was also sensational.  My favourite was the Mexican fajitas, although the risotto was a close second.  Nothing like a hot fudge brownie or apple crumble with vanilla ice cream to finish off a meal either.  I will have to post some of these recipes in a blog to follow this one.
The amazing February 2013 team including Jessie and Kara
We accomplished so much too:
1.       Census at the Bimbi site
Sadly, we are now at around 22 koalas per hectare.  It appears that many of them are youngsters that have just been weaned.  Those ones seem to be having a difficult time finding a place in the already crowded trees.  During the week, we came across some that were very weak, and others that were turning to humans for comfort.  The little female I moved off Manna Gum Drive twice(!) pulled at my heart strings.  It is frustrating to observe this population increase and not to be able to do anything about it.  Culling to reduce the population is out of the question (banned at the Commonwealth level), translocation has its own negatives in terms of animal welfare, sterilisation will not work quickly, and habitat works are also long-term options. It appears that nature will have to sort it out but in the words of a former colleague “Nature…. She’s a cruel bitch”.

2.       Radiotracking

Trying to find Frankie

Each day my band of warriors headed out, armed with receiver and antenna to find our koalas.  Sometimes, I think these koalas like to play tricks on us and switch places to see if we’re paying attention.  Dave headed out to Katrina’s tree, and Mac and Austin traded places a few times.  Cranky Frankie simply headed into the thick scrub of the National Park where he hid in Casuarinas.  Wally remained in the same tree but his arm looks to be mending which made us all happy.

Wally - often in the strangest of positions

3.       Tree canopy assessments at Bimbi and Aire

Nothing like a mum and joey to distract
from doing tree assessments

We managed to find and assess most of the permanently marked trees at both sites.  There were a few distractions that slowed us down: at Bimbi, Krystal, Anndy and I got distracted by a mother and her joey who were creating beautiful photo opportunities for us.  At Aire River, prickly vegetation and the difficult terrain made it hard.  Krystal – I can’t believe you kept smiling that day, and then volunteered for finding Stevie, playbacks, AND spotlighting afterwards. Superwoman!

4.       Spotlighting
Three sites were surveyed, the most interesting being Aire River.  We saw koalas, ringtail and brushtail possums, boobooks, tawny frogmouths, bats and a hotly discussed sleeping ‘red wattle bird’.  The moon was sensational too!

What is that you see Tim? Odd how those spotlights look like bananas.

5.       Camera traps

What does this fox have in its mouth?
Our 20 traps captured some great photos of wallabies, possums, koalas, rats (all black rats!), an echidna, a fox with something in its mouth (sorry guys – I don’t think it was a rabbit afterall), lots of birds, a skink (no snakes!), and a horse.  Despite the quantity of photos, there was little diversity. 

Unfortunately, these woodlands are quite disturbed and offer poor quality habitat to most small mammals.

6.       Seed collection
An amazing amount of seed was collected (under the supervision of the horses).  I have it drying in a big tub at home and will start sifting it soon.  Frank and Katrina (owners of Bimbi Park) have given me loads of seedling containers and I plan on building a greenhouse so that I can get some new trees going in early spring.  In the meantime, I have some trees ready to plant from seed germinated last year and Frank has a lot he purchased so I plan on heading down in April for a planting weekend. Let me know if you want (and are able) to join us.

7.       Bellows
Three males caught (including Frankie) but only Beast gave us any bellows. BUT, I am pleased to report that those 2 bellows have given me a data signature on the accelerometers. I’m now working out how to search for that pattern in accelerometer data collected in the last couple of years. I also have found a student who wants to look at this for his honours’ project. It will be interesting to investigate the link between bellowing and reproductive behaviour.  
Each coloured line represents an axis of the accelerometer.  Beast gave two short bellows in succession.  The movement of his head up and down resulted in a regular pattern on two of the axes.

Tim with Dave
8.       Koala catching
Because most of the koalas had been caught in January, we only needed to catch the three boys for bellows and Lucie, Katrina (and joey ‘Manya’), Sally, and Buffy for gps switch.  Lucie was the sweetest of all (as always), but it was Katrina who got to be the film star again.  This time it was a German film crew.  They seemed to realise that we could only do the capture once, but I lost count of the number of retakes they did of me walking to the car, putting poles in, taking poles out etc.

9.       Leaf sampling
Kara and Jessie joined us for most of the trip to do some leaf sampling for a project on leaf chemistry of trees throughout the national range of koalas.  So, we got to help collect some leaves for them.  Tim deserves a special thank you for spending 3 days collecting leaves.  He tells me that shooting the ‘Big Shot’ slingshot in the blue gums made it worthwhile

And I think that just about wraps it up for February.  Did I miss anything? I suspect so but this seems like such a long list of accomplishments already, and I don’t want to scare off future volunteers.  They already have a hard act to follow.
Nothing like an amazing sunset to top off a hard work day!

RIP Kevin

Kevin - in better times
I have been meaning to post this for some time.  In mid-January I was sad to find the remains of Kevin.  I had not predicted his death. We attempted to catch him in December for a health check but he simply glared at me from his distant perch (barely within my reach) in a dead limb and refused to be persuaded down.  He always seemed to be in the thick of any action at the site so I’m guessing he simply wore himself out.  I will miss you my grumpy, stubborn friend.
The exciting news though is that In January, Ruby had a jellybean joey in her pouch.  By its size, I reckon it might just be Kevin’s.
Wally is also still with us.  He is now in a tree near the gate from the paddock into the site.  As much as I would like to get the accelerometer and GPS off his collar, we won't be catching him until he's in a much improved state.

Wednesday, 9 January 2013

'Beast' to be a movie star

On the 18th December, Cass, Vic and I headed back down to Cape Otway for some catching and to meet with a film crew from ABC Catalyst.  The crew had been on the road since early November, travelling from Perth to Melbourne to collect as much material as they could for episodes to be aired in early 2013 (see  They wanted to do a story on the overpopulation of koalas at Cape Otway, landholder views, and our research studying the issue.

I think we were all a bit nervous about being in front of the camera, and the fact that they wanted to film us catching a koala didn't help.  As some of you know, koalas aren't always the easiest animals to deal with and I've never been able to predict an 'easy' catch.  At first, I think the reporters wanted to be my catching team but thankfully, I was able to talk them out of that. So, just prior to their arrival, Cass, Vic and I searched for a koala that might be 'easy' to catch.  We really wanted a female to add to our sample of collared koalas.  We found a female with a joey in an isolated tree out in the paddock.  'Beast' was in the same tree and quite low, but given his size and usual mean temper, we decided to leave him alone. 

The crew were happy with our choice of filming location and koala 'talent'.  They loved 'Beast' with his grumpy look and battle-worn face and took loads of footage of him.  As for the catch.... our little mum and joey behaved beautifully. The only thing that would have made the catch more perfect was if they'd walked into the catching bag themselves.  The mum put up a fight once in the bag though which made the noose tricky to remove.  I ended up having to restrain her on the ground to get it off.  The mum was tiny although big enough to collar.  The joey was only about 700g so provided the 'cute' factor.

The crew was a bit disappointed that we wanted to work fast so as to reunite mum and joey, and release them quickly.  But, they were excited with the turning on of a collar (about 5 retakes of that) - there's something exciting about a machine that goes 'bing'; and happy to take footage of us looking into a catch bag and pretending it contained a koala.  After multiple retakes of us watching the koalas back in the tree, and some goofy comments about koala behaviour, rain forced us back to Bimbi Park.  I then was interviewed with my laptop opened so I could look 'scientific'. 

It was a looooooonnng day and we didn't get back to Melbourne until about 10pm.  My fingers are crossed that it comes out OK.  It will air sometime in March.  I'll post a blog when I have the exact details.