The story of George of the Jungle, a Troublesome Koala
Koalas are not as dull as they seem. When you see them dozing in a tree they look like they don’t get up to much, but some of them have a secret life full of adventures…
George the koala, one of our study animals, is a perfect example. We captured him back in September last year in Wollemi National Park, at the start of koala breeding season and we fitted him with a new GPS collar. It was a tough field session involving 6 days of hiking and koala spotting in rough terrain with up to three dozen volunteers helping, but during all that time we found only 2 koalas. We heard more of them bellowing at night, but they are still incredibly hard to see up in the thick tree canopy.
Like good scientists we don’t anthropomorphize in our reports and papers, but when it comes to naming koalas for fieldwork a dry scientific label is harder to remember than a meaningful name. Nicole our volunteer coordinator spotted this koala amongst some thick forest, and so she was given the naming rights. There were a few suggestions floating around, I was leaning more towards a name like Boofhead as he had a large head and was a sturdy, nuggety looking fellow and was quite a wrestler during capture. Most people felt that name was far too insulting for a koala. George of Jungle popped up as a suggestion and since this koala was an older fellow the other connotation was of George Clooney and being a silver fox. Nicole felt that was more dignified so the name George is the one that stuck.
The GPS collar takes readings twice per day to give us koala movement records, so we can work out how big George’s home range is. We still radio-track the koalas so we can get a visual on them and identify which tree species they are using. That is where George became interesting. Unlike Cucumber, the other male we collared nearby (who is incredibly cool and unperturbed by mere humans), George does not occupy a small patch and occasionally just wander over to the nearest food tree.
He goes on hikes. He travels in steep country along hot ridgelines and across massive ravines. We tracked him one day in February and had to give up when we were still tracking in the heat of midday and half way up the escarpment we were stopped by a steep gully full of boulders and cliff lines; the heat was so bad we ambled down the hill and lay down in the Colo River before we hiked out. The next time we tracked him he was back in the tree that we first found him in when we collared him, near a pleasant picnic ground by the river, pretending he had never led us on such a mighty chase.
Then George decided he didn’t like his collar. If the collar doesn’t move for 24 hours it goes into a mortality signal, which transmits a faster paced beep for radio tracking. The sound always makes my heart sink as it can mean a dead or severely injured koala still in its collar, or a collar that has come off. Fortunately, in this case it was the latter. The collars have a weak link in them so that if the collar comes under stress it will come off, for example if a branch gets stuck under it and the koala pulls away, or if males fight and grab the collar. Uno the big male koala we tracked at Mountain Lagoon threw his collar a couple of times, no doubt when he was beating up another male koala. In fact he pretty much destroyed one collar.
George in the sack having his health check, in this case we’re taking a photo record of his eyes which look clear and chlamydia free. He looks deceptively calm but don’t be fooled, he’s keeping his eye out for a stray human limb to remove. (All photos above by Robert Carter)
George either got into a fight or decided to take up yoga. The collar was found stuck up in a tree, solidly wedged onto a tiny stump of a branch and I can’t imagine how his head got to that angle. So, we had only two collars deployed on koalas at the new site (we’re aiming for ten), and then George escaped.
Luckily, just last week in our latest koala spotting and capture session, George turned up again close to where we first found him. We caught him and re-collared him. He’s still a big, wrestling, boofhead of a koala, which I respect him for. Most koalas are calm during their health examination but George makes it quite clear he’d take your arm off if you slip up with your handling. I can’t wait to find out what he gets up to next.
A big thank you to all of our volunteers for helping with all the koala spotting and capture sessions.
By Kellie Leigh, Executive Director of Science for Wildlife