Koalas: Not all Gloom and Doom

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The plight of the koala in Queensland, Australia, is a major news focus right now. With a declining koala population in the wild, the Australian government is currently engaged in a political discussion regarding the protection of some of this habitat. In the meantime, habitat continues to be lost and koala numbers continue to decline. This makes for difficult times for koala researchers: we are caught in the middle, trying to collect enough information to inform and support moves that will protect koala habitat, but trying not to get caught up in the political friction or lose sight of our research aims along the way. So it is great to get some good news.

I am in the middle of another of my many field trips, on the way to St. Bees Island via Clermont in central Queensland, where I am assisting my colleague, Dr. Sean FitzGibbon, at his research sites. Sean is also using GPS tracking collars on koalas (as we do at St. Bees), but he is investigating whether koalas will use rehabilitated land. His research takes us onto disturbed land that has been mined for coal in central Queensland and where the land has been replanted with koala food trees to recreate koala habitat.

In the past, we have found that some male koalas have made forays into the rehabilitated areas, probably looking for new food areas or maybe searching for mates. When we download the GPS data from the collars, we can tell where the koalas have been and for how long they have used areas in their range. On this trip we have found something extraordinary: a female we caught and collared last year well away from the rehabilitated sites has moved into the new habitat and spent the summer producing a joey whilst living on rehabilitated land!

In the photo you can see this koala, named Hillary, and the coal mine’s environment officer, Clare Foley, who is in charge of developing the reconstructed areas of the mine once the coal has been removed. The rehabilitation where Hillary lives was replanted in 1996, and you can see that many of the trees are still quite small, and there is plenty of long grass as a result of recent rain. While walking through this land we found many other animals—particularly frogs, kangaroos and lizards—that have re-colonized the once-cleared areas.

This tells us that not only is the recreation of koala habitat possible, but that by doing this we will recreate habitat for a range of other species. Finding koalas living in revegetated land means that in other places, like Southeast Queensland, we could be planting more trees and turning cleared land back to what it once was: habitat for many native species. It can be done, so in the long term we can increase, not decrease, the land available and suitable for koalas.

We are off to St. Bees Island now, a special place if for no other reason than that it is protected from any development, so the koalas can exist without the fear of habitat loss. It has its own management problems, but they are a far cry from trying to recreate homes for koalas amongst cleared bush in central Queensland.

Bill Ellis is a Clark-endowed Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow for the San Diego Zoo’s Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Urban Koalas.