Is the Planet Trying to Tell Us Something?

With the impacts of the recent bushfires and currently COVID-19 being felt around the country we must ask, is the planet trying to tell us something? These events have placed immense pressure on our environment, our economy, and our mental health. Sadly, the impacts of these unprecedented times have also been felt by our wildlife, in particular our koalas.

Stories of hope

Over recent years, in the lead up to the catastrophic bushfire season of 2019/2020, the Science for Wildlife team were sharing stories of hope and good news from our koala project. Some of these stories included:

  • Uncovering a large population of koalas in the Blue Mountains, a site where nobody thought they occurred in meaningful numbers.
  • We then went on to discover that the koalas in this region have the highest levels of genetic diversity in the country
  • We found a chlamydia-free koala population thriving on poor quality soils at 1100m altitude where it snows in winter. These koalas were breaking all the rules and obviously hadn’t read the science on koala ecology.
  • We had to build snow men instead of doing scat surveys!

These good news stories have sadly changed to bad news over recent months, as our koala populations were decimated in the fires and our global health has been threatened.

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Featured above: Koalas after being released back into the Blue Mountains region (Images: Ian Brown)

The recent bushfire crisis

During the pre-bushfire period, we were thrilled to locate five areas in the Greater Blue Mountains region which we knew supported koala populations. These quickly became our study sites and we began conducting surveys and field work. Unfortunately, we then had our first taste of more intense fires, as had been predicted by climate change scientists, at a scale we had never seen before. Four out of our five koala study sites were impacted during the devastating bushfires in December 2019 / January 2020. At all four sites, between 75% to 100% of our mapped koala habitats had fire run through them and we lost many of our koalas and other species.

Our teams worked hard for three solid months during the bushfire crisis phase doing emergency response work. During this time, we:

  • Rescued koalas before the fires hit
  • Carried out search and rescue for wildlife after the fires
  • Designed, built and deployed water stations
  • Put out food to mitigate the risk of dehydration and starvations for wildlife following the fires
  • Fast forwarded the release of our rescued koalas back into the wild
  • Began planning surveys so we could find out what is left of the koala population and put together an action plan to ensure these important populations can recover

Below are maps of the fires overlaid onto the two sites where we carried out extensive surveys and mapped koala habitats. Looking at these, it is extremely apparent just how much impact human-caused climate is having on the land and wildlife. Our team are still working hard to understand the full impact and scale of this disaster.

Wollemi Gospers fire January 2020 Final

Featured above: Gospers Mountain fire is at our Study Site 1 for koalas. Yellow shows fire coverage of mapped koala habitats, and there are a lot of koala habitats we hadn’t mapped to the east and west so this is a significant under-estimate of fire impact.

Kanangra Fires 21 jan 2020

Featured above: 2nd study site in Kanangra-Boyd National Park, showing fire coverage of that area.

Our next challenge – COVID-19

After a period of much needed rain in February, the catastrophic bushfire season finally came to a halt. Unfortunately, our nation’s relief was short lived as the global COVID19 pandemic reached our shores.

The global health emergency we now face has been fueled by many factors. These include human populations encroaching more and more into nature, higher rates of poaching, wildlife meat markets, and higher densities of human populations that are globally connected. Much like climate change, scientists have been predicting the risk of these types of viruses for many years. There is some basic ecology theory that we recommend which demonstrates how any species is more prone to disease when populations grow towards their limits.

The social, emotional and economic impacts of COVID-19 have been felt by everyone in our community. At a local level, this means we have had to scale back our field activities to minimize the risk to our staff and volunteers. Despite these limitations, our team will continue to conduct research and deploy resources, within safety guidelines, to ensure that our precious native species will survive. The wildlife crisis is not going to wait patiently whilst this human health crisis overwhelms us all.

What is the Science for Wildlife action plan going forward?

Science for Wildlife are actioning a number of plans to continue the job of restoring our koala populations:

1. At the moment we are revising our research program to focus on post-fire surveys. This involves raising extra funds to re-survey the sites where we previously mapped koala habitats before the fire. This will allow us to measure the true impact of the fire at these sites. Revising our research program also involves scaling up. Instead of looking at one site at a time, we aim to survey many sites in the next 12 months in an effort to find and conserve the remaining koalas. We know that koalas have appeared in new areas as they moved from fire fronts, so we have new locations to survey.

2. We will begin assessing if there are any refuges out there where wildlife, including koalas, survived the fires. Our team want to find out what those refuges look like and make plans to protect them. Refuges have landscape characteristics that make them less likely to burn, and they are critically important because wildlife can recolonise out from them, restoring populations over time. If we don’t ensure that we have refuges, we could see entire populations go extinct as fires become more frequent and intense under climate change.

3. Our team are extending the satellite mapping of vegetation condition that we started during the emergency phase. We will also be talking to partners and applying for grants with the aim of using drones for surveys in areas that we can’t access. This project will survey both vegetation recovery and also surviving wildlife.

4. We are tracking the koalas that we released back into the wild last month, after removing them to safety from the fires back in December. They are helping us to understand the quality of vegetation koalas can use after fire, and those are the types of places we will then be able to look for more surviving koalas.

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Featured above: Field survey team in the Blue Mountains conducting dog surveys post fire (Image: Graham Groves)

For many it may appear that S4W is quiet, but there is a lot going behind the scenes. The team have enjoyed a reduction in the adrenaline levels felt during the emergency response phase, however we are now busy preparing for the long-term work of recovery. It’s going to take a lot of energy to recover and monitor our koala populations, ensuring that they can endure an uncertain future. We have a fantastic team, including our scientists, our volunteers and all of our supporters who came together when it was most needed. We were able to come out of the bushfire crisis as a stronger organisation because of everyone’s dedication and generosity.

“Thank you for sharing this journey with us, and for not giving up on our wildlife. We are facing a lot of challenges and we need recognize that, and drive change in the way we manage our natural resources. To be effective that change must be based on science. We’ll keep you posted as our work continues.”

– Dr Kellie Leigh, Executive Director of Science for Wildlife

 

How to donate

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.