WWF report finds 71pc decline in koala numbers across northern NSW bushfire-affected areas – ABC

By September 6, 2020 September 21st, 2020 Archive

ABC Mid North Coast

By Kirstie Wellauer and Kerrin Thomas

Posted 6 Sep 20

The decline is being described as “devastating”. (Supplied: Pat Durman/NSW National Parks)

A report released today shows a 71 per cent decline in koala populations across six locations in northern NSW, burned in last season’s bushfires.

Key points:

  • The study compares koala populations before and after the bushfires over Black Summer
  • At one site near Taree no koalas were found and at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline
  • The study found the severity of fires had an impact on survival rates

The study was commissioned by the WWF (previously known as World Wildlife Fund) for Nature Australia and chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said the findings are devastating.

“Seventy-one per cent is a massive figure; three-quarters of the population in these areas have been hit by the fires and lost,” he said.

“Seventy-one per cent is an average so in some places we lost nearly all the koalas, which of course is devastating.”

Specialist koala ecologist Stephen Phillips undertook the study, which he said was the first study to quantify the impact of the bushfires on koala populations.

NSW ecologist Stephen Phillips in the Lake Innes State Conservation Area.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

It compares population data collected before the bushfires to data collected following the fires.

“We’ve now got the tools [so] we can find these populations and we really have to wrap them in cotton wool,” he said.

“If we don’t and we just proceed with our normal activities, whether it’s logging or development in peri-urban areas, and we’re having direct impacts on the relic koala populations, then we could simply be exacerbating the problems for these remaining populations.”

Survival impacted by severity of fires

In total, 123 sites across six locations from Ballina in the north to Forster in the south were examined as part of the study.

The 123 sites surveyed stretch from Forster to Ballina.(Supplied: WWF Australia)

The team looked for unburnt droppings below koala food trees to determine if koalas had survived the fires.

Some koala populations fared better than others.

Koala occupancy survey:

  • Wardell: 70 per cent decline
  • Busby’s Flat at Royal Camp State Forest: 72 per cent decline
  • Busby’s Flat at Braemar State Forest: 47 per cent decline
  • Lake Innes State Conservation Area: 34 per cent decline
  • Hillville Road at Kiwarrak: 100 per cent decline
  • Hillville Road at Khappinghat Nature Reserve: 87 per cent decline

At Kiwarrak, south of Taree, no koalas were found and nearby at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline in occupancy.

At Lake Innes State Conservation Area near Port Macquarie the decline was 34 per cent.

Dr Phillips said the study also found the severity of the fires had an impact on survival rates.

“Koala survival was five times more likely in areas that only were partially burned,” he said.

“It meant that in areas that had perhaps a light fire, or the fire had just gone through the understory and didn’t really scorch the canopy, that animals were surviving and that’s the key to recovery.”

A burnt koala dropping, known as scat.(ABC Mid North Coast: Luisa Rubbo)

An ‘international’ tragedy

Dr Phillips says koalas now need to be reclassified as an endangered species to ensure the species’ survival.

“Given the events of last spring and summer, and given the events leading up to that, the drought, we’re in no doubt now that koalas in NSW are an endangered species,” he said.

“And they really need to be listed as that.

“Not that it will necessarily make any difference but what it goes in to how much of the population we’ve lost in the last decade or so.

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“If we don’t take action we will lose this animal and I think that’s going to be a national and international tragedy.

Mr O’Gorman also raised concerns legislation passed in the Lower House of Parliament a few days ago would “fast-track extinction”.

“The chance to put strong environmental laws when Parliament resumes in October is going to be a critical part to saving these koala populations and others as well,” he said.

The report has been submitted for peer review.

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Queensland’s koala conservation strategies need to broaden beyond south-east, researcher says – ABC

ABC Capricornia      03-09-2020

By Jasmine Hines and Rachel McGhee

Researchers say koala populations in central Queensland have dramatically declined.(Supplied: Emma Sutherland)

A leading koala researcher says koala populations in regional Queensland, outside of the south-east, are being largely ignored and need conservation strategies.

Key points:

  • Koala populations have been declining in central Queensland since the 1980s
  • They were significantly impacted by the Millennium Drought
  • A koala researcher says better conservation strategies are needed for koalas outside of south-east Queensland

The Queensland Government has launched multiple koala management programs for South-East Queensland, the most recent on August 29, which recommends actions to address the decline in koala population densities in the region.

But ecologist Alistair Melzer said populations around the rest of Queensland were starting to face similar challenges, such as development and clearing, and deserve attention.

“There has been a significant investment into the management of the south-east koalas, and rightly so,” Dr Melzer said.

“That population is in peril because of the conflict between koala’s needs and growing human populations.

“However, the reality is that the majority of the koalas aren’t in the south-east and the mistakes that happened in the south-east are starting to happen here.”

Focus needs to move outside south-east

Dr Melzer works Central Queensland University and started his PhD on koala ecology more than 30 years ago.

He said while it was important that populations in the south-east were conserved, it was disappointing that there has not been any strategic investment for the rest of Queensland.

“The focus for the Queensland Government has been on the fate of the koalas in the south-east Queensland planning district, like greater Brisbane and the surrounding shires,” Dr Melzer said.

“Outside of that, there is really no strategic investment in koala conservation, koala habitat recovery at all.

“That’s a little bit disappointing … the greatest opportunities to achieve conservation outcomes for the koalas are in fact outside of south-east Queensland and outside of areas where the intense population growth has been occurring.”

He said solutions include better government-funded education for landholders and better management of urban encroachment across regional Queensland.

“There needs to be some investment in working with landholders and land managers to facilitate their own management of the koala habitat on their properties, or their lands that they’re managing,” Dr Melzer said.

Koala researcher Dr Alistair Melzer said the greatest opportunities to achieve conservation for koalas are outside of south-east Queensland and outside of areas where the intense population growth has been occurring.(Supplied: Alistair Melzer)

A spokesperson said the Department of Environment and Science was supporting a study of koalas on St Bees, Rabbit and Newry islands off the coast of Mackay.

“The $500 million Land Restoration Fund (LRF) is also investing in projects that will restore and regrow koala habitat in areas outside the south-east corner,” the spokesperson said.

The department disagreed with Dr Melzer, and said policy and strategy efforts were focused on the south-east because a majority of the koala populations in Queensland lived in that area.

“Koala habitat mapping outside of the south-east corner already exists, along with a range of koala conservation measures such as the Queensland Government offsets framework, which engages landowners in koala habitat protection and threat mitigation,” the spokesperson said.

“Local councils have the power to protect vegetation, such as corridors, under their own planning schemes.”

‘Beware you’re entering Koala country’

Dr Melzer began his research in the small central Queensland town of Springsure, 300 kilometres west of Rockhampton.

The entry sign to the town reads “beware, you are entering koala country,” but researchers said the local population had seen a dramatic decline since the 1980s.

Researchers were drawn to the region in the 1980s as it was one of Queensland’s most abundant koala populations — with more than 40 animals per square kilometre in the nearby Minerva Hills National Park.

But Dr Melzer said the Millennium Drought, which lasted more than a decade during the early 2000s, decimated the population.

“Koalas used to wander through town all the time at that stage,” he said.

“People in the caravan park used to complain about the noise, and if anyone wanted to see a koala, the neighbours used to take their visitors down Arcturus Road to the koala tree and take a look.”

Today, Dr Melzer said that numbers of koalas in the Springsure region are low, but that it was difficult to determine exact figures as the animals were hard to detect and their habitats were widespread.

He said the last survey of the park in 2009 found only three koalas and it has not been surveyed since due to the low numbers.

Dr Melzer said there were parts of central Queensland which offer koalas refuge during drought which have maintained low density populations across the region.