Celebrating National Volunteer Week: Koala Tracking with S4W Volunteers

Even before the devastating bushfires of last summer, koalas were listed as a threatened species, vulnerable to extinction across most of their range in Australia. The drop in the number of koalas has been from 3-4 million historically to less than 400,000 today. This decline was a direct result of the koala fur trade until the early 1900s, followed more recently by habitat loss and fragmentation, disease, human threats in developed areas and from climate change associated phenomenon, including record-breaking drought, heat and bushfires on a scale and severity that we’ve never seen before.

Since 2014, Science for Wildlife has been uncovering the secrets of Blue Mountains koala populations. To conserve them we need to know where they are, what habitats are most important to them, and what the threats are that we need to address in each area. To achieve that, Science for Wildlife has been training and deploying fieldwork teams to find koalas, map habitats and radio-track koalas. Making up a critically important component of those teams are our committed and passionate volunteers whose work has been imperative to our ability to understand what resources and protection these vulnerable koala populations need to survive. They help our organisation track koala movements, discover habitats, identify suitable tree species for food and shelter, document mortality rates and the threats that koala populations face. Volunteers are paramount to the implementation of Science for Wildlife projects. Without them, many of our projects and initiatives would not be as effective and in some instances, not possible. Importantly, they also play a major role in sharing our discoveries with local communities, so that more people become stewards for conservation and our conservation impact can be scaled up.

This month we spoke to one of our much-loved volunteers about their personal experiences tracking koalas in the Blue Mountains region.

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Featured above: S4W volunteers tracking koalas in the Blue Mountains region

Interview with S4W volunteer Cale

Q. What is the purpose of koala tracking? How many koalas are the S4W team tracking at the moment? Why are you tracking these particular koalas?

“By gathering and analysing data collected through tracking surveys over a long period of time, we can learn things about koalas preferred habitats and tree species, daily movements, seasonal movements, territory size, breeding rates, and life expectancy. By regularly tracking koalas, we are helping to build an understanding of how they go about their lives in a particular area. Each study site is different, but the information collected is similar across the sites. At the Kanangra-Boyd site we have around a dozen koalas fitted with radio tracking collars. This allows us to regularly track down individual koalas and record information about their condition and environment. We also try to get photos of each koala and spend time observing them for signs of distress or disease. Sometimes we even see a young joey peeking out of the pouch for the first time!”

Q. Where are you currently conducting field work?

“We are currently conducting field work at the Kanangra-Boyd site. This particular location is really nice as it is a naturally open forest with a grassy understory and very little scrub, making it perfect for wandering around off track trying to find Koalas! The study site is centred on a long gentle ridge top with some relatively flat areas where most of the koalas are often found.”

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Featured above: Kangaroo appears in the fog (left), S4W volunteer using a VHF receiver to pick up signal

Q. Recount what it is like to conduct this type of field work

“I feel like tracking koalas uses similar skills our hunter-gatherer ancestors would have made use of daily, so it makes for a very rewarding day away from the stresses of modern life. You need to stay focussed and follow the clues from the radio transmitter, without knowing where you will end up or how far you will have to walk. You’re continually scanning treetops for anything vaguely koala shaped and sniffing the breeze in case you catch a whiff of one! Scanning the ground is helpful too. Many times, we have not realised we were so close to the koala until we smelt it or saw fresh scats in the leaf litter, then looked up and it’s right above us. After tracking the same koalas for a while, you get a sense for where they are likely to be, as well as an understanding of the landscape. You learn where the highpoints are that give good radio signal and avoid the gullies. Each Koala has its own personality and quirks too, which you get to know over time.

The young males are often the worst to track, as they reach maturity and start heading off into the wilderness looking for their own territory without other dominant males. Sometimes you can walk for hours up and down hills, across creeks, through patches of scrub only to realise it would have been an easy 10-minute walk in from a different fire trail. But that’s all part of the fun!

Koalas don’t exist in a vacuum either, you see lots of other interesting plants and animals when your senses are tuned in. Everything from tiny orchids hiding in the leaf litter, to huge eagles soaring above. It’s a very rugged and beautiful landscape out there, with some incredible views across endless wilderness that no doubt harbours many more koalas and other equally important endangered species. When there’s so much senseless environmental destruction occurring right across the country and the world, it’s really nice to be able to make a small contribution to protecting and understanding our unique fauna.”

Q. What are the processes involved with koala tracking and how many people are usually in a fieldwork team?

“Following the signal given out by a radio transmitter is not as straight forward as it sounds as you get interference from landforms and vegetation. It is always a process of narrowing down the area that a koala is in then scanning the canopy for it, rather than following a signal that leads you straight to it. Sometimes it’s straight forward, but other times you need to walk all over the place cross-checking signal strength and direction and just slowly working away at it. Even when you’ve narrowed it down to a small area, it can still take hours scanning thick canopy to find that little grey blob. They generally don’t do much during the day, so sometimes you’re looking for a motionless grey blob against a grey tree trunk in front of a grey sky, maybe 40m above you! Sometimes the mist rolls in and, you can’t even see the tops of the trees.

There are of course koalas in the area who don’t have radio transmitters fitted, and we often come across them randomly as we’re walking through the bush or driving slowly along fire trails. These are some of my favourite koalas to see as you never know where they will pop up, or who it will be. Sometimes it’s a young joey who has just left mum to start living independently, or it might be a big old male with battle scars on his face, bellowing from a hilltop to mark his territory. Every koala is different, but you can always tell the young ones because they just look so fresh and cautious, holding on to small branches with all four paws. The older ones, on the other hand are much more relaxed and often just kick back in a fork without even holding on! We’ve seen koalas huddled into a tight little ball with snow falling on their backs in winter and stretched out in the shade with their belly pressed up against the cool tree trunk in summer. The conditions out there are hugely variable, but the koalas just deal with it and adapt accordingly.”

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Featured above: Koala spotted in tree in the Blue Mountains region

Being a Volunteer with S4W

Volunteers can become involved in range of activities with Science for Wildlife, with radio-tracking being the most challenging. Due to increased risk in the burnt fire zone, followed by covid-19 safety concerns, we had to cut down our volunteer-work to essentials only and it has been focussed on tracking the koalas we rescued then released back after the bushfires. Our Field Ecologist, Brie Sloggett, has been coordinating those activities in Kanangra-Boyd.

“Science for Wildlife currently has around a dozen highly trained and dedicated volunteers that have extensive experience in bushwalking in remote areas, tracking in remote, mountainous regions and navigating the steep terrain off track. They are also trained in first aid and remote safety procedures. A typical fieldwork day consists of three teams in pairs so that we can track all of the koalas in one day. Before monitoring begins, we have a team briefing which covers safety procedures, recent koala activity and observations and the koala tracking plan for the day. We stay in regular communications with each team via UHF radios to make sure all team members are safe, and to change the koala tracking plan adaptively if needed. Since covid-19 we also go through a lot of sanitiser wiping down the equipment and our hands!”

– Brie Sloggett. Field Ecologist

 

How can you help S4W

If you have seen a koala in the last 12 months, let us know! You can use our online form or download our “Koala Spotters” app in the Google Play store.

To make a donation, head to our website and follow the links to our secure payment systems. All donations over $2 are tax deductible for Australian Residents. It’s going to be a long haul to find and conserve what is left of our koalas, the work has just begun, so please consider signing up to give a monthly donation if you are able.

For other projects updates and to learn more about Science for Wildlife community, visit our website here.