Conserving Koala Country

Conserving Koala Country

Monday, 25 July 2016

Taking stock...

I have not blogged since January. Sadly, this reflects the lack of blog-worthy news about Cape Otway’s koalas. The government’s plan to address the problems at the Cape has met with partial success. Most of the radio collared koalas that were translocated in September have survived which leads us to hope that the 300+ koalas translocated through to December also have prospered in their new home. However, tree condition at Cape Otway continues to decline under the feeding pressure of ~1000 koalas and other than inserting some hormone implants into a small proportion of the female population (most of which would have already had pouch young), the government has not taken any more action. And there don't appear to be any plans to.

It is frustrating to sit by and watch Cape Otway manna gum woodlands continue to decline in condition. It is concerning that there don’t appear to be any plans for more translocations. Fertility control is a long-term approach for reducing population density and will not reduce the current unsustainable browsing pressure on trees. Data collected by our February Earthwatch team showed that tree condition in many sites is critically poor. I expect further declines by our next data collection in September and November. On the positive side, it is awesome to see the local landholders and the Conservation Ecology Centre actively planting trees, but of course, this also is a long-term approach.

Plenty of females with young in February.
So, what does this mean for the future of koala research at Cape Otway? Sadly, the Cape has become a difficult place for field research. I will continue to undertake some monitoring at our long-term sites, but it is no longer possible for me to continue the Earthwatch trips and conduct research there on koala behaviour and ecology. On a number of occasions in 2015, my research was compromised by government management actions – study animals (identified with eartags) were euthanased or given hormone implants without my being notified. I can’t take the risk that the same won’t happen again.

I now have started projects in other locations. On the Mornington Peninsula, students and I are working with the local community of Somers to understand the ecology of their urban koalas. If you are interested in learning more about that project, please join our facebook group We have radio collared some koalas there and have been fascinated to see how widely they roam. Other projects (and students) are considering southern koala populations and threats more broadly. In many locations, koala populations appear to be declining. We need to gain a better understanding of those situations.

Tracks of one of our boys in Somers.

Friday, 15 January 2016

2016... off to a blazing start

Translocating koalas always will be a risky business. Although many of the risks can be mitigated through careful choice of animals and translocation site, it is impossible to make accurate long-term predictions of extreme weather events, and where lightning may strike and cause out-of-control wildfires. We can't hold decision-makers responsible for these events and how they affect translocated animals. In the case of the Cape Otway koala translocations, DELWP did their best to time the program and select a release site that would give translocated koalas the best chance of survival. They now also have implemented a monitoring program which addresses one of my earlier concerns about their program (see my last blog).
In Victoria, there is always potential for extremely hot weather in December and January but I don’t think anyone could have predicted the severity of the heatwave that hit Victoria in late December 2015. This weather undoubtedly would have affected survival of the 400 koalas translocated from Cape Otway in Nov/Dec but also would have affected survival of those remaining at Cape Otway too. As for fire, neither Cape Otway nor the area where the translocated koalas were released have been affected… yet.... but, Victoria’s fire season is far from over.

The Great Ocean Road fires that have been reported widely in the media were sparked by lightning strikes on the 19th December ( Despite hard work by CFA crews, these fires burned out of control, eventually claiming many properties in the townships of Wye River and Separation Creek. Thankfully, no human lives were lost but the impact of these fires on all wildlife (not just koalas!) will have been considerable.

More heat waves and greater frequency and intensity of wildfire are increasing threats to the conservation of many wildlife species. Research already has indicated that koalas have poor tolerance for dry, hot conditions and in parts of Queensland where heatwaves are becoming more common and last longer, koalas are disappearing. Although our current focus in southern Australia is managing the impacts of high-density koala populations, we should not forget that many of our koala populations are threatened by warming climates and therefore must consider how we can manage these populations more effectively too.  
Location of the fire affected area relative to the translocation
area in the Great Otway National Park