Koala losses from recent NSW bushfires ‘One of the most significant biodiversity impacts in our history’

08 March 2020

Published by https://www.abc.net.au

AUSTRALIA – Authorities may have underestimated the extent of the impact of the bushfires on koalas on the North Coast, a New South Wales ecologist has said.

Stephen Phillips, managing director and principal research scientist at Biolink ecological consultants, has been revisiting six previously-surveyed koala habitats between Forster and Ballina.

The company was hired by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) to undertake the first on-the-ground surveys in the area since the recent bushfires and is more than halfway through.

“As part of the broader modelling that we’re doing with fire, we’re assuming a 70 per cent loss or — 70 per cent mortality rate,” Dr Phillips said.

“And current information suggests that, based on our field survey work, that the real answer is probably north of that somewhere.

“So the losses are probably far bigger than what we’ve been modelling in.”

They are more than halfway through resurveying the sites and Dr Phillips said the story now seemed “pretty consistent”.

South of Port Macquarie this week they found little evidence of survivors.

“Part of what we’re doing here, we’re looking beneath one of the most preferred koala food trees, which is called Tallowwood, and in raking around the bottom of this tree I’ve picked up a koala scat [faecal pellet],” Dr Phillips said.

“It is very clearly deposited before the fire and we can tell that because it’s blackened on the outside.

“So this tells us what we knew — we had koalas here before the fire, at this particular point of time, on this particular survey, on this site we have not found any evidence of [them] after fire use.

“This means that this site has become unoccupied — the animal who did this has probably died as a consequence of the fire and is no longer here, otherwise we would see fresh evidence but we’re not seeing that fresh evidence.”

They are, however, still working through the 18 sites at Lake Innes, south of Port Macquarie.

“One of the good things about this site is that the canopy scorch is mild, so that gives us some hope that there may be some survivors,” Dr Phillips said.

“I guess part of what we’re doing now is trying to work out how much of this study area has been impacted and how many survivors there may be, but all evidence indicates its probably not going to be many.”

Area of special significance

The site in Lake Innes was previously the subject of a successful translocation study.

“So finding out what’s happened to the population that we established and finding out it’s future, whether it’s going to survive, whether it’s going to become part of a broader recovery program, is also what this is about,” Dr Phillips said.

He said we have always known fire and koalas do not get along and there has always been a long-term issue about the survival of threatened species like koalas.

“But I really don’t think any of us expected this 2019/20 fire season to like it has been,” Dr Phillips said.

“I think it is one of the most significant biodiversity impacts in Eastern Australia in our history.

“If we’re losing upwards of 70 per cent of those populations, you’ve got to ask yourself the question of the remaining 30 per cent.

“Will they have time to recover before another fire event happens? Because the Scientific and Industrial Research Organisations (SIRO) are telling us it’s going to get worse not better.”

‘Thinking outside the box’

Dr Phillips said we have got to get a bit smarter about the way we are managing these habitats and managing species like koalas.

“If we can’t work our way out of this then we will lose them, I’ve got no doubt about that,” he said.

The challenge ahead of science and koala ecologists is first to understand the scale of the impact and, Dr Phillips said, “that’s what we’re doing now”.

The second task was to find out where the remaining populations are located among the firegrounds and how big they are.

“How many animals are actually left? From that we’ll then get some understanding of which populations will probably recover, if they’re given enough respite, and which populations will probably either need help or alternatively not recover,” Dr Phillips said.

“Then we’ve got to look at what they need, what can we do to facilitate and maximise that recovery and so it just depends on where the populations will be.”

‘Future-proofing koalas’

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital‘s Clinical Director Cheyne Flanagan delivered a presentation in a joint panel session at the United Nations in New York earlier this month.

The session, Wildfires and Wildlife, was held as part of the UN’s World Wildlife Day.

“It was discussion on wildfire versus wildlife and how the climate is changing,” Ms Flanagan said.

“We just went through and explained about where the areas were in drought, where the areas were affected by fires [and] what it’s done to the populations.”

Ms Flanagan said it is still a work in progress coming up with the exact figures of how many koalas perished in the bushfires, but she said what is needed is funds to buy large tracts of land.

“Of course we have a call to action and the main call to action is to get lots of funds to buy land because that’s what we need to do at the moment,” she said.

“We’ve got the money to do conservation breeding but we need the money to buy as much land as we can to turn it over for conservation, manage it properly to ensure the survival of these animals into the future.

“We need to lock it up, and if koalas are protected so are all the other species that live in association with them, so it’s a win-win for a lot of animals.”

Dr Phillips knows the challenges are huge and ensuring the future for animals like the koala is not just something that Australians may have some responsibility for, “which we do”.

“This is also a globally iconic species and if Australia fails this animal, looking to the future and the uncertainty that we have with climate, then we have done the world a great disservice,” he said.

“This is a serious time in our history and what we do over the next few years for the fauna of this country will be marked by that and we’ll be measured by that and it does require a very coordinated and well considered response.”

Key points:

  • An ecologist undertaking the first on-the-ground surveys on the NSW North Coast since bushfires swept through said koala losses may be far greater than previously modelled
  • Previous estimates assumed a 70 per cent loss
  • With the current surveys more than half-completed, Dr Stephen Phillips said the number is probably much bigger

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