How our research is changing the future of koala conservation

This year has shown beyond doubt that our wildlife is facing new challenges under climate change. We’ve been busy on the ground dealing with the impacts of the bushfires, but we’ve also been sharing our knowledge to help plan for the future. Our Executive Director, Dr Kellie Leigh, explains how we have been informing policy to improve the management and conservation of koalas.

“I have been communicating our unique experience during the bushfires across a range of Government platforms that inform conservation management and policy. These platforms included two NSW Government Inquiry hearings, a special bushfire meeting under the NSW Koala Strategy and a Federal Government Ministerial roundtable at Parliament House in Canberra.

Last December and again earlier this year in February, I was invited as an expert witness before the NSW upper house for a state inquiry into koala populations and habitats in New South Wales. I presented research and recommendations based on our study sites in the Blue Mountains and shared the critical actions we took to protect koalas during to the catastrophic bushfires of Dec 2019 – Jan 2020. The report from that Inquiry has recently been released.”

In this article we share some key testimonies and recommendations from that report. Science for Wildlife’s contributions, and those of many other researchers and scientists, were included in the report which outlines the future of koala conservation in NSW. More details on the purpose of the inquiry, it’s findings and recommendations, can be accessed in the full report via download here.

The state inquiry into koala conservation was established in response to widespread community concern about the future of koalas in Australia. Ultimately, it sought to challenge the inadequate policies and laws that were failing to protect koalas and their habitats. Even before the devastating fires of 2019-2020, an event that impacted 80 percent of the World Heritage area in the Blue Mountains, it was apparent that our koala populations were at serious risk. Through this inquiry it was quickly established that the official estimate of 36,000 koalas was outdated, and that koalas could become extinct in NSW if intervention was not actioned.

Featured above: State inquiry report into the future of koalas and their habitats

Expert Witness Testimony

At two hearings in the NSW Parliament House in December 2019 and in February 2020, Dr Kellie provided testimonies outlining results from the research conducted by Science for Wildlife in the Blue Mountains region, the many challenges presented by the bushfires, and recommendations to improve outcomes for koalas and other species.

At the December hearing, she shared what we had learned about this special area for koala. She explained that before the bushfires Science for Wildlife had discovered large and growing populations of koalas in the Blue Mountains region. We knew these koala populations are unique as they were found to have the highest genetic diversity of all koala populations in a nationwide study. Further to this, we found one population in Kanangra was chlamydia-free. At the time of this hearing, these populations had not been too badly impacted by the devastating fire season.

We are certainly finding them existing in reasonable numbers in what we thought was really poor habitat for them. These populations that are in these larger, protected areas, which are traditionally not thought to be rich quality soils for koalas, have been intact. They have higher genetic diversity. [In comparison,] the populations that are on those good soils are also under threat from development and other pressures.”

Report testimony, Dr Kellie Leigh
Featured above: Dr Kellie Leigh speaking as an expert witness before the NSW upper
house.

Burning sections of the national park were of great concern and the Inquiry was told that immediate intervention should be taken to protect those koala populations. At that time, one fire had travelled through two-thirds of mapped koala habitats at one of our of our study sites, and fires were present at a second study site. Our remaining three sites were under threat too. We called for more resources to ensure that wildlife could be given some priority.

In February 2020, Kellie was again invited to appear before the Inquiry Committee and sadly by that time had to confirm that the escalating bushfire situation had had an extreme impact on the Blue Mountains koala populations.

“Up to 75 to 100 per cent of four of our koala study sites had been impacted by fire and we did not know how many survivors were left. I outlined some of the difficulties and challenges faced in rescuing koalas and gaining access to fire affected areas, frustrating experiences that other organisations across the state had shared too. The issues with access were all a result of a lack of a standardised processes within government agencies and the Rural Fire Service to deal with a wildlife emergency of this scale, in addition to a lack of resources and a huge workload for those responsible for incident management and control.”

In her testimony Kellie explained:

“When you are trying to deal with a situation like this and you are making lots of phone calls to National Parks and Rural Fire Service and they are all busy fighting these fires, you are just helpless and there is nothing that you can do … There are no resources at the moment and we have over 100 fires across the State. Rightly so, the focus is on property and lives.. but that means there is really little going into wildlife.”

Report testimony, Dr Kellie Leigh

Another key issue raised was a lack of ‘make safe teams’ – the people who assess area safety before granting access, facilitating teams to get into the burnt areas. Science for Wildlife had to resort to hiring our own contractors to complete this make safe work. The lack of coordinated response for wildlife during the bushfires demonstrated a clear need for more preparation and protocols.

“I think there is a need for statewide standards and consistency. That has been another delay for us because that paperwork is not in place and nobody knows those procedures. That is why we have not been able to get in… because we have had to invent the wheel, so to speak.

Report testimony, Dr Kellie Leigh

In the absence of a wildlife emergency response protocol to follow, in December Science for Wildlife took the initiative to rescue 12 koalas from the path of fires in the Blue Mountains with the support of the National Parks and wildlife Service. This was featured as a case study in the Inquiry Report, alongside our testimony outlining other challenges including a lack of resources for treating and housing injured wildlife.

Overall we highlighted a need for long term planning, alongside immediate intervention, as vital to the survival of NSW koala populations”

To view parts of Kellie’s testimony on video, visit https://bit.ly/39eCmZG

Featured above: News.com article featuring a snapshot of Kellie’s testimony

Report Findings and Recommendations

The findings of the report outline a range of alarming facts about the current state of koala populations and habitats in NSW. The report details many reasons for the downward trajectory of koala populations and correlating fragmentation of habitats. The clearing of land for agriculture, infrastructure development, mining and forestry, human activity (such as road traffic), and worsening bushfires and drought due climate change were all flagged as significant contributors.

Through this report, the committee made 42 recommendations to help ensure a future for koalas. Science for Wildlife had direct input for the following recommendations:

  • Recommendation 11: That the NSW Government factor in climate change as a key consideration in the drafting of all relevant legislation and planning strategies and ensure climate change mitigation is a core component of all strategies to save the koala in New South Wales.
  • Recommendation 17: That the NSW Government ensure that in planning for future bushfires, conservation values and the protection of koala habitat is given greater priority.
  • Recommendation 18: That the NSW Government support the establishment of a well-resourced network of wildlife hospitals in key areas of the state, including the North Coast, North-West, Blue Mountains, South West Sydney, Southern Tablelands and South Coast, staffed by suitably qualified personnel and veterinarians, including funding where appropriate.
  • Recommendation 19: That the NSW Rural Fire Service, in conjunction with key wildlife organisations, develop statewide standards for access to fire grounds by wildlife rescuers before the 2020-2021 bushfire season and support wildlife rescue groups in completing fire awareness training.
  • Recommendation 21: That the NSW Government work collaboratively with Indigenous fire practitioners to document the benefits of cultural burning practices.
  • Recommendation 42: That the NSW Government ensure that the NSW Koala Strategy: Bushfire Recovery Plan contains as its key focus, the protection of koala habitat.

Featured above: Dr Kellie Leigh as Parliament House in Canberra (left), Support from
Sussan Ley MP (right)

What else are we doing to change the future of koala conservation?

In addition to the state and federal government forums, Kellie has been sharing our experiences and research across a range of different forums and community settings in an effort to guide government policy and community action for positive change. These include attending a Recovering our Backyard bushfire expo in Blackheath, to advise people on how to safely put out food and water for wildlife after the fires, and sharing our bushfire story via a podcast for radio station 2SER. This episode is available through the 2SER website, iTunes, Whooshkaa and Spotify.

Following the devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season, there is no doubt that the survival of our koalas will require change in how we manage things. We are pleased to be partnering with the State Government in our research, under the NSW Koala Strategy, and working with them to inform policy development in New South Wales.

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