Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Feeling uneasy....

Two weeks ago, the government started translocating koalas from Cape Otway to a location somewhere near Lorne. I have observed this with mixed and somewhat uneasy feelings. Translocation is the only way to rapidly reduce the Cape Otway koala population and give some koalas and trees a chance, but is it too late? And what is the cost to the translocated koalas and habitat at the release site?

Unfortunately, we will never really know the answer to those last two questions. While it is correct that the government conducted a trial translocation of 37 koalas, at the time of making the decision to translocate hundreds more, only about half of those 37 koalas had been found and their health reassessed. And, it was only four weeks after they'd been moved. Research suggests that the effects of chronic stress associated with translocation may not be seen for at least three months. Furthermore, no females with back young were included in the trial group yet many of the koalas being translocated now have large back young. I suspect that those back young will be abandoned by their stressed mothers. So are all these koalas just being moved to suffer a slow death out of sight? With no plans to monitor even a small sample of these animals, we will never know.

The risks to the habitat in the release area also may be high. Although all female koalas will be given hormone implants to stop their future breeding, it is likely that most are already pregnant. Peak breeding activity this year occurred in late October and with around 90% of females producing young each year, if the koalas survive the translocation, they will be producing fertile young. Will this result in a koala problem at the release site?

I was shocked and more than a little disappointed to learn that the government has no intention to monitor the success/failure of this translocation program beyond checking on the trial animals once every three months. Here they have a prime opportunity to learn whether this approach is effective in terms of koala welfare and risks to the release site. If they believe that this is the last time that translocation will be needed, they are being very short-sighted. So why not learn from this program?

And, what of the manna gum habitat at Cape Otway? Even the removal of 400 koalas and sterilisation of others won't be enough to save habitat in the long-term. More translocation and significantly more effort to catch and sterilise female koalas will be needed, and even then, it is probably too late for many trees.
 

Will this joey and ones like it survive translocation? Without monitoring, we will never know.




Friday, 16 October 2015

Culling koalas? Who would dare suggest such a thing?

Interestingly enough, some Queensland and New South Wales researchers have just published a paper suggesting that koalas be culled. Not just any koalas though; just those that are suffering terminal effects of Chlamydia and transmitting this disease to healthy koalas. Using computer simulations, they showed that this 'selective culling' approach would result in an increase in population size in 'The Koala Coast' population in Queensland as a result of reduced disease incidence.

Not surprisingly, their suggestion resulted in a little confusion in the media. Afterall, it wasn't that long ago that everyone was upset about 'culling' starving and extremely ill koalas at Cape Otway.

Today, I published an article about 'culling' koalas in The Conversation (http://theconversation.com/a-cull-could-help-save-koalas-from-chlamydia-if-we-allowed-it-49195). In short, I believe that culling should be available for managing koalas whether it be for disease management OR to address overabundance issues. The current 'no culling' policy has resulted in many koalas at Cape Otway suffering slow deaths due to starvation. Watching koalas die like this is horrific to witness. Although the thought of 'culling' healthy koalas doesn't entirely sit well with me (I love these animals), I would much prefer to see a few culled than to see an entire population suffer and a unique ecosystem disappear.

This is not to say that 'culling' should be used indiscriminately though. It should only be used when other approaches fail or aren't viable. Governments need to be more proactive in assessing management options in advance of problems occurring. If that had happened at Cape Otway, the population needing management would have been much smaller, fewer animals would have been affected, and a crisis situation averted.

Thursday, 1 October 2015

Eavesdropping on koalas

Thanks to the generosity of Wildlife Acoustics, we will soon be eavesdropping on koala conversations. Wildlife Acoustics has provided me with some Songmeters that I will be deploying in a number of sites in the Otways. Songmeters are recorders that can be programmed to record whenever you want them to. These ones will be programmed to remotely record for 5 minutes per hour for up to a month, and capture the 'song' of any koalas vocalising at the time.

Queensland researchers already have shown that systematic recordings can be used to determine the timing of the breeding season. Our project will build on that by examining if there is a relationship between the frequency of bellows in recordings and the density of koalas (from visual surveys) in a site. If we find that there is a relationship, using Songmeter recorders may be a less time-consuming and more systematic way of monitoring koala populations throughout Victoria.

video
Koala 'Dave' singing

Many thanks to Wildlife Acoustics for supporting our research!

Thursday, 24 September 2015

To translocate or not to translocate?


This is a question that is currently in the spotlight.

In my opinion, translocation should ONLY be undertaken as a last resort when:
  • reducing the koala population in an area is critical to saving habitat, and
  • it is likely that translocated koalas will have a high probability of survival.
The better option would be for governments to implement long-term management actions (fertility control and habitat management) prior to emergency situations arising. That advice was ignored for Cape Otway so unfortunately, translocation of koalas is now the only option for saving some of our manna gum woodlands and all of the wildlife it supports. It also may be the only option for avoiding more koala starvation and more koala euthanasia.

  video
When a situation is allowed to get this bad, translocation may be the only answer

But do translocated koalas survive? It depends on a lot of factors. A few key things to be considered are:
  • Koalas should be healthy and relatively young,
  • The receiving habitat should contain koala food trees in healthy condition,
  • The receiving location should have a climate similar to the original site (that's why interstate translocations should be avoided),
  • Will there be any impacts of translocated koalas on the receiving habitat (including the resident koala population)? For example, koalas should not be translocated to areas like South Gippsland where koalas have more diverse genetics or to areas where there is a high incidence of disease.

Other translocations

Translocation has been a component of other long-term koala management programs. While working on the Kangaroo Island Koala Management Program, colleagues and I conducted research trials out of concern for the welfare of koalas being translocated to the south-east of mainland South Australia. We radio collared a number of koalas that were surgically-sterilised and translocated, and also radio collared some surgically-sterilised koalas remaining on the Island.

If you are interested in the full details of our study, we published the results in The Journal of Wildlife Management (Whisson et al. 2012. 'Translocation of overabundant species: Implications for translocated individuals', http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/jwmg.401/abstract).

To summarise our main findings:
  • We observed low mortality in the first three months following translocation but 37.5% translocated koalas were dead after 12 months compared to none in the control group that remained on the island.
  • Translocated koalas moved greater distances than those that remained on the island. Some individuals moved up to 10km within the first three months post-translocation.
Clearly, translocated koalas were negatively impacted and this is why I believe that translocation should be a last-resort action only. An 'acceptable' level of mortality also should be decided on prior to large-scale translocations occurring.


So what about translocation of koalas in Victoria?

Obviously koalas can survive translocation (most koala populations in Victoria have resulted from koalas translocated from island populations) but under what conditions and how many koalas survive the process? Surprisingly, despite the tens of thousands of koalas that have been translocated in Victoria over the years, to my knowledge there only have been a few studies of koala survival and the results appear only in draft reports. In some cases mortality has been high (around 90% translocated koalas dying) and this is why the government has been reluctant to use the approach for management of koalas at Cape Otway.

However, the reasons for such high mortality in some translocations aren't clear. Is it that koalas can't adapt to new food sources (when moved from manna gum to other forest types), or is it that they have been stressed by their treatment (surgical or hormone implant), or are they being moved to unsuitable habitat?

Hopefully some of these questions will be answered by the current trial being conducted by the government, and that the koalas in the trial survive. I also hope that the government learns from this situation and develops long-term management strategies for koalas and their habitats to avoid having to use translocation as a last-resort management tool.

Monday, 14 September 2015

Government announces imminent management actions for Cape Otway koalas

Today, the Victorian government issued a media release about upcoming management actions for koalas at Cape Otway. The program will involve checking the health of 300 to 400 koalas, euthanasing any koalas found to be in poor condition, and initiating a study to examine the potential to translocate koalas to other forest in the Otways.

This is welcome news!

Habitats at Cape Otway are continuing to decline under the browsing pressure of so many koalas. In one of our study sites, koala densities have climbed back to 9 koalas per hectare, and the trees are showing considerable stress. Although it may be too late to save much of the manna gum woodland, it may be possible to prevent the suffering of many koalas. A lot depends on koalas surviving the translocation trial. If there is high mortality of koalas in the trial, then the only option is fertility control which is too slow acting to avoid another population crash.

Manna Gum Drive - trees continuing to decline

Without translocation, this mum and joey are unlikely to survive for long


Our research which is generously funded by Earthwatch Australia and supported by Earthwatch volunteers, continues to provide important information on koala densities and habitat condition across the Cape, and has been critical in informing the government's management actions. In fact, as I write this post, a team of Earthwatchers are surveying our long-term monitoring sites. Future teams will continue to monitor those sites and participate in studies of koala behaviour and their response to their ever-changing landscape.

Planting by Earthwatchers to rebuild koala habitat


Saturday, 15 August 2015

Choosing mates.... size, age, or persistence?


Remarkably little is known about the love life of koalas. Are they fussy about who they mate with, or is it simply a case of a male being in the right place at the right time?…. and by ‘right time’ I mean when the female is receptive. This breeding season we are hoping to find the answer. We are deploying proximity collars fitted with GPS loggers to every koala we can find in a woodland patch. These collars record the time and duration of interactions between collared koalas. So far, we have 19 koalas collared but still have another 17 collars to deploy.

The study is the basis of an honours project by Deakin student ‘Darcy’. Darcy has already done an amazing job of preparing the collars, and has proven to be a capable koala catcher and handler. He will now have the task of tracking and observing these koalas, mapping resources throughout the site, and in January retrieving the collars for data download and interpretation.

Darcy bonding with the joey of one of his study animals
 

Thursday, 18 June 2015

Beast

RIP Beast
I was sad to learn that 'Beast' was one of the 29 koalas euthanased during the last round of health checks of koalas at the Cape. Sad, but not really surprised.

Beast was an old fellow of around 12 years of age. He was looking a bit the worse for wear at the end of the last breeding season but I had hoped he would survive to the next. He was a legendary animal; not necessarily the prettiest koala I've encountered but he had loads of character. He showed the most aggression out of all the males in our study of responses to bellows. He survived the population crash of 2013, finding ways into banded trees and constantly wandering in search of good food (and female koalas). The vets didn't think he would survive then because he was so old. He knew the drill when it came to being caught too. He grumbled but seemed to realise that resisting would only make the process longer.

Beast always sat low in trees so he would have been a prime target for the catching crews looking to sample 10 koalas from that site. I was told that his condition was poor and that the vets did not give him more than a 10% chance of survival. I think they may have underestimated him!

I was disappointed that nobody thought to tell me at the time, or save his carcass for me. I would have loved to take some samples and save his skull.

I wonder how many of the other koalas euthanased were in poor condition due to age? When DELWP reported 29% koalas euthanased, we immediately assume that it's due to poor habitat condition but is that really the case at the moment?

Wednesday, 27 May 2015

Finally.... a management program for koalas at Cape Otway

This week, the Department for Environment, Land, Water and Planning (DELWP) began assessing health of koalas at Cape Otway as the first part of a long-term management program for koalas and manna gum woodlands at the Cape.

This is an extremely positive action to inform management actions that are likely to include fertility control and translocation. Such management is necessary if we are to avoid a repeat of late 2013 when thousands of koalas died of starvation.

However, the media appears to be intent on stirring up the public with headlines like 'Killing to resume at Cape Otway koala colony' (The Australian), and 'Koala cull on the cards' (Sky News Australia). I spoke with a few of the reporters and advised them on the consequences for koala welfare if health is not monitored. Obviously those stories don't sell papers and reporters/editors don't mind if their poor reporting results in animal suffering.

I respect Victoria's Minister for Environment (Hon Lisa Neville) for listening to scientific advice and requesting the development of a long-term management strategy for this issue.

If you would like to hear more about koala management at Cape Otway, you can check out DELWPs facebook post or see them on twitter;

DELWP discuss this management action (Facebook)

DELWP on twitter about Cape Otway koalas


Friday, 6 March 2015

Getting the facts right

The misinformation in the media over the last few days has been frustrating to read. I am writing this blog to set the record straight, clarify the need for the actions of late 2013 and early 2014, and answer a few questions about koala management.
 

Around 75 koalas were relocated from French Island to Cape Otway in the early 1980s. Most of these probably survived because they were hand-picked healthy individuals that were relocated from manna gum woodland to manna gum woodland. In addition to being similar habitat, the Cape Otway manna gum did not have a resident koala population. These are important points to remember!

In manna gum woodlands, koalas become manna gum specialists and their behaviour is different to what is seen elsewhere. Their ranges are small (less than 1/2 hectare), they tolerate other koalas in close proximity, fecundity is almost 100%, and joeys survive to become breeders themselves. This results in population growth and densities that are seen nowhere else. In addition, in places where fire is suppressed (human intervention) there are no natural regulators of population growth.

These koalas seem to tolerate other koalas in close proximity

This koala (joey on belly) struggles to find enough food
In 2008, there were about 450 hectares of manna gum at Cape Otway adjacent to the vast blue gum/grey gum/mountain ash forests of the Great Otway National Park. By September 2013, there were around 200 hectares of manna gum left. Koalas had defoliated and killed trees to the south and numbers had increased in the north due to koala movement from the south and breeding. Trees began to die but most koalas showed no sign of moving. Female koalas abandoned their joeys and all koalas started eating bark, grass and sometimes dirt. 


On a personal note, I dreaded my weekly visits to Cape Otway because each week I would have to pick up yet another carcass of one (sometimes several) of my study animals. The day I picked up 4 and took another emaciated one to a carer to have euthanased was my lowest. I have not seen anything like it in 25 plus years of working in wildlife management. 



There was a smell of rotting koala in the air. Landholders were suffering extreme stress watching both koalas and trees die. 15 of 20 of my radiocollared animals died, most of those before the government finally stepped in and started putting animals out of their misery. 

I applaud the government for making the difficult decision, especially knowing that there could be significant negative media. Had the media of this week happened back then, 686 koalas would have still died, but their suffering would have been for much longer. I felt incredibly sorry for the team that had the difficult task.

It was not a cull. It was euthanasia of irreversibly sick animals. Healthy animals were released, females given a hormone implant. 

It was not done secretly. It was done in a very public place and hundreds, if not thousands of people were there to witness it. Landholders knew. Prior to the euthanasia, I had tried contacting the media. The few times when my call/email was actually returned, it usually was to say something like "we don't want to get in the way of what needs to be done".

Perhaps if the government had taken action sooner we may have avoided having to take such drastic but necessary action. But in 2013 it was too late for hindsight: the problem was there and needed to be addressed. 

This animal was too weak to climb.
I found some leaves for him


So what are the options for dealing with overabundant koalas at Cape Otway? The following are the only ones that are permitted:

1. Relocation to other forests or zoos? In 2008 there would have been between around 4000 koalas in manna gum. In 2013 there were likely more. These koalas are manna gum specialists and there are studies that show that between 90 and 100% of koalas relocated from manna gum to other forest types die. There is no manna gum left in Victoria that doesn't already have a large number of koalas so there is no manna gum to relocate koalas to. Zoos are not interested in taking adult koalas. Adult koalas straight from the wild are difficult to handle and feed and are stressed around people. Zoos only want joeys or young subadults that they can hand-raise and habituate to people.

2. Fertility control? Very expensive and may only have low effectiveness. However, at this point it really is the only option to stop koalas increasing in number again. It may be more effective than first thought. Results from some of my tracking work suggests that high site fidelity means that there is little movement of koalas within some areas. The government would need to commit to a long-term plan though to address issues of koalas moving in from the neighbouring forests of the Great Otway National Park.

3. Plant more trees? The landholders have been doing this for years and have plans to continue.

4. Let 'nature take its course'? Loss of the manna gum ecosystem may be the final outcome despite all our efforts. Personally, I would like to do whatever possible to avoid that. I hope you agree!

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Taking a breather

Today, koalas are in the media and I've been forced to take a breather from writing lectures for interviews with radio, newspaper and TV. So what is all the fuss about? After more than a year since the koala population crash and government welfare interventions of late 2013 and February 2014, the media has decided that it is a story worth reporting. It's not often that the media is that slow is it?

My day started at 6am when the bellowing of koala 'Dave' woke me. For those of you who don't know, Dave is my ringtone on my mobile. It is not pleasant to be woken by a koala bellowing in your ear! The caller was 3AW radio wanting to talk about the 'secret cull of koalas at Cape Otway'. Apparently 'The Australian' newspaper had written an article titled that and discussing the government's program to euthanase starving koalas in 2013/14. I suppose government conspiracies and cover-ups get people's attention because I have since spent my day in interviews and taking phone calls to set up interviews.

My only hope is that this media interest will result in a positive outcome for long-term management of koalas and their habitats at Cape Otway. The problem has not gone away and our November and February counts suggest that koala numbers are beginning to increase again in areas where manna gum survived the 2013 events. Without management, there will be another population crash. I definitely do not want to witness something like that again.

Here is the opening of The Australian article that triggered chaos today:

"ALMOST 700 koalas have been secretly killed by lethal injection near Victoria’s Great Ocean Road and thousands more are in danger of starvation due to an ongoing crisis caused by overpopulation in one of the nation’s key habitats. The Australian can ­reveal that wildlife officials conducted three euthanasia operations in 2013 and 2014 to kill 686 koalas, in what was a covert campaign to avoid any backlash from green groups and the community."

Despite the title and opening sentences, they at least got some of the story right:

"Deakin University koala expert Desley Whisson was part of the team that dealt with the problem a year ago and warned that the problem would continue. Dr Whisson said the density of koalas on the cape was potentially the greatest in Australia and that some of the ­animals were in such poor health that euthanasia was the only ­option.

“It was a blessing when the vets came,’’ she said. As well as invading the Bimbi Park campground, the koalas stripped stands of manna gums, virtually wiping out the trees and making it difficult for the 8000-strong group to find food. Only the fittest specimens were able to survive, leaving the oldest and, in some cases, smallest koalas to starve. Dr Whisson said the reduction in numbers had nothing to do with thinning out the population and was all about dealing humanely with sick koalas."