A new 3D koala genome will aid efforts to defend the threatened species


Parwinder Kaur, University of Western Australia

Koalas are unique in the animal kingdom, living on a eucalyptus diet that would kill other creatures and drinking so little their name comes from the Dharug word gula, meaning “no water”. Today, many koala populations across Australia are in decline, due to habitat destruction caused by agriculture, urbanisation, droughts and bushfires intensified by climate change, and diseases such as chlamydia and koala retrovirus.

Genetic information can play a key role in the effort to conserve koalas and other species. A detailed map of the koala genome is vital to understanding their susceptibility to disease, their genetic diversity, and how they may respond to new environmental pressures.

We have created a new “chromosome-length” sequence of the koala genome, which will allow researchers to study its three-dimensional structure and understand its evolution.




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A unique creature under threat

The modern koala is the only living representative of the marsupial family Phascolarctidae, a family that once included several genera and species. During the Oligocene and Miocene epochs (from 34 to 5 million years ago), the ancestors of modern koalas lived in rainforests and didn’t eat only leaves.

During the Miocene, the Australian continent began drying out, leading to the decline of rainforests and the spread of open eucalyptus woodlands. Koalas evolved several adaptations that allowed them to live on a specialised eucalyptus diet. This specialisation makes them picky eaters, so they’re very prone to habitat loss.

Koalas are listed as a vulnerable species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. It was hunted heavily in the early 20th century for its fur, and large-scale cullings in Queensland resulted in public outcry, initiating a movement to protect the species. Sanctuaries were established, and koalas whose habitat was disappearing were relocated.

Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires; they are slow moving and eucalypt trees are very flammable. They instinctively seeks refuge in higher branches, exposing them to intense heat and flames. Bushfires also fragment the animal’s habitat, which restricts their movement and leads to population decline and loss of genetic diversity.

Piecing together the puzzle

The koala genome was first sequenced in 2013. This was only the first step in understanding koala genetics — akin to finding all the pieces of the puzzle, but being unsure how to put them all together into the meaningful patterns of genes and chromosomes.

Our new chromosome-length assembly follows the work of others, especially the Koala Genome Consortium and the Koala Genome Project led by Australian geneticist Rebecca Johnson. It is based on a draft by the Earlham Institute in the UK.

We used big-data sequencing methods such as Hi-C, 3D-DNA and Juicebox Assembly Tools courtesy of DNA Zoo labs to create our chromosome-length assembly.

We organised the genome into 8 chromosomes, a great improvement on the draft of 1,907 fragments we began with.

Vital for conservation

A high-quality genome sequence is essential if we want to bring genetic insights to conservation management initiatives. Some 200 Australian vertebrate species currently have species recovery plans, and 80% of those plans include genome-based actions. However, only 15% of those species have any genomic data available.

Our chromosome-length koala genome assembly enables a highly detailed 3D view of the genome architecture for koala. It is easier to use than earlier genomes, and means conservation management initiatives will have fast, cost-effective and reliable analysis options available.

This will give us insights into koalas’ genetic susceptibility to diseases like koala retrovirus (KoRV) and chlamydia. It may also form a basis for innovative vaccines. What’s more, it can be used in new conservation management strategies that aim to diversify the koala gene pool.




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The Conversation


Parwinder Kaur, Associate Professor | Director, DNA Zoo Australia, University of Western Australia

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Drones, detection dogs, poo spotting: what’s the best way to conduct Australia’s Great Koala Count



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Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Deakin University

Federal environment minister Sussan Ley this week announced A$2 million for a national audit of Australia’s koalas, as part of an A$18 million package to protect the vulnerable species.

The funding might seem like a lot – and, truth be told, it is more than most threatened species receive. But the national distribution of koalas is vast, so the funding equates to about A$1.40 to survey a square kilometre. That means the way koalas are counted in the audit must be carefully considered.

Koalas are notoriously difficult to detect, and counts so far have been fairly unreliable. That can make it hard to get an accurate picture of how koalas are faring, and to know where intensive conservation effort is needed – especially after devastating events such as last summer’s bushfires.

Methods for counting koalas range from the traditional – people at ground level looking up into the trees – to the high-tech, such as heat-seeking drones. So let’s look at each method, and how we can best get a handle on Australia’s koala numbers.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley holding a koala
Environment Minister Sussan Ley has pledged $2 million for a national koala count.
Glenn Hunt/AAP

Why we need to know koala numbers

Gathering data about species distribution and population size is crucial, because governments use it to assess a species’ status and decide what protection it needs.

In announcing the funding, Ley said the new audit aims to fill data gaps, identify where koala habitat can be expanded, and establish an annual monitoring program.




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So far, population estimates for koalas at the state and national level are rare and highly uncertain. For example, the last national koala count in 2012 estimated 33,000-153,000 in Queensland, 14,000–73,000 in NSW and 96,000-378,000 in the southern states.

This uncertainty can make it hard to detect changes in population trends quickly enough to do something about the threat, such as by limiting development or logging. However, the new audit can use methods not available in 2012, which should help with accuracy.

Three koalas in trees
To date, estimates of koala numbers have been highly uncertain.
Shutterstock

So how do you actually count koalas?

Finding a koala can be difficult. There may be few individuals spread over large areas. And koalas are well camouflaged and quiet, unless bellowing. Finally, they can sit high in the tree canopy.

In numerous research and management programs, we have observed that even the most experienced koala spotter may only see 20–80% of koalas present at a site, especially if the vegetation is thick or the terrain difficult to move through.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog
Romane Cristescu with detection dog USC x IFAW detection dog Bear. Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala and their scats.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

Making the job even harder, existing koala habitat maps can be highly inaccurate and miss unexpected hotspots. However, computer modelling using the latest methods, if carefully validated on the ground, can produce more accurate maps.

Traditional surveys involve multiple people independently searching the same area, and correcting counts based on the number of koalas each observer sees. This helps account for the difficulties in koala counting, but it’s hard, slow and costly work.

Searching for koala scat (poo) also is a common method of determining koala habitat – wherever koalas spend time, they will leave scats. However, the small brown pellets are easily missed, and large surveys for scats are time consuming.

Detection dogs have been trained to locate koala scats: in one study, dogs were shown to be 150% more accurate and 20 times quicker than humans.

And because male koalas bellow during the breeding season, koalas can also be detected with acoustic surveys. Audio recorders are left at a survey sites and the recordings scanned for bellows to determine whether koalas are present.

Recently, heat-seeking drones have also been used to detect koalas. This method can be accurate and effective, especially in difficult terrain. We used them extensively to find surviving koalas after the 2019-20 bushfires.

Citizen scientists can also collect important data about koalas. Smartphone apps allow the community to report sightings around Australia, helping to build a picture of where koalas have been seen. However, these sightings are often limited to areas commonly traversed by people, such as in suburbia, near walking tracks and on private property.

Adult and juvenile koala
Everyday citizens can help with koala counting.
Shutterstock

Getting the koala count right

All these methods involve a complex mix of strengths and weaknesses, which means the audit will need input from koala ecologists if it’s to be successful. Survey methods and sites must be chosen strategically to maximise the benefits of the funding.

Robust research data exists, but is patchy across the koala’s entire range. The first step could include collating all current data, including community sightings, to determine where additional surveys are needed. This will allow for funding to be prioritised to fill data gaps.

It is promising that the announcement includes monitoring over the long term. This will help identify population trends and better understand the response of koalas to ongoing threats. It will also reveal whether actions to address koala threats are working.

Finally, while threats to koalas are generally well understood, they can vary between populations. So the audit should allow for “threat mapping” – identifying threats and looking for ways to mitigate them.

Saving an iconic species

Last summer’s bushfires highlighted how koalas, and other native species, are vulnerable to climate change. And the clearing of koala habitat continues, at times illegally.

Government inquiries and reviews have shown state and federal environment laws are not preventing the decline of koalas and other wildlife. The federal laws are still under review.

However, the new funding underpins an important step – accurate mapping of koalas and their habitat for protection and restoration. This is a crucial task in protecting the future of this iconic Australian species.

Koala sleeping in a tree
The koala count is critical to protecting the species.
Shutterstock



Read more:
Stopping koala extinction is agonisingly simple. But here’s why I’m not optimistic


The Conversation


Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast; Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast, and Desley Whisson, Senior Lecturer in Wildlife and Conservation Biology, School of Life and Environmental Sciences, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Environment Minister Sussan Ley faces a critical test: will she let a mine destroy koala breeding grounds?


Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle

In the next few weeks, federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley will decide whether to approve a New South Wales quarry expansion that will destroy critical koala breeding grounds.

The case, involving the Brandy Hill Quarry at Port Stephens, is emblematic of how NSW environment laws are failing wildlife — particularly koalas. Efforts to erode koala protections hit the headlines last week when NSW Nationals leader John Barilaro threatened to detonate the Coalition over the issue.




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Koala populations are already under huge pressure. A NSW parliamentary inquiry in June warned the koala faces extinction in the state by 2050 if the government doesn’t better control land clearing and habitat loss.

Ley could either continue these alarming trends, or set a welcome precedent for koala protection. Her decision is also the first big test of federal environment laws since an interim review found they were failing wildlife. So let’s take a closer look at what’s at stake in this latest controversy.

A koala clinging to a tree branch
This female koala is under threat from the Brandy Hill Quarry expansion.
Lachlan Howell, Author provided

The Brandy Hill Quarry expansion

The NSW government gave approval to Hanson Construction Materials, a subsidiary of Heidelberg Cement, to expand the existing Brandy Hill Quarry in Seaham in Port Stephens.

The project would provide concrete to meet Sydney’s growing construction demands, as the state fast-tracks infrastructure projects to help the economy recover from COVID-19.

The approval came despite the known presence of koalas in the area. A koala survey report, completed on behalf of the developer in 2019, determined the project would “result in a significant impact to the koala”.

The report recommended the quarry expansion be referred to the federal Environment Minister under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999, for its potential impacts on “Matters of National Environmental Significance”.




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The expansion site intersects habitat with preferred high quality koala feed and shelter trees. This habitat is established forest containing various key mature Eucalyptus trees, including the forest red gum and swamp mahogany.

The survey report didn’t propose any mitigation strategies to sustain the habitat. Instead, it suggested minimisation measures, such as ecologists to be present during habitat clearing, low speed limits for vehicles on site, and education on koalas for workers.

A disaster for koalas

In support of a community grassroots campaign (Save Port Stephens Koalas), we produced an report on the effect of the quarry expansion on koalas. The report now sits with Ley ahead of her decision, which is due by October 13.

Male koalas will bellow during the breeding season to attract females.

The expansion will clear more than 50 hectares of koala habitat. We found koalas breeding within 1 kilometre of the current quarry boundary, which indicates the expansion site is likely to destroy critical koala breeding habitat.

During the breeding season, male koalas bellow to attract females. Within 1km of the boundary we observed a female koala and a bellowing male koala 96m apart. A second male was reported bellowing 227m from the quarry boundary.

What’s more, the site expansion occurs within a NSW government listed Area of Regional Koala Significance. The expansion site actually has higher average koala habitat suitability than all remaining habitat on the quarry property.

The Koala Habitat Suitability Model from our independent report. The red boundary represents the Quarry expansion site containing high habitat suitability.
Map produced by S. A. Ryan using the Koala Habitat Information Base and arcGIS 10.6., Author provided

CSIRO research from 2016 suggests koalas in Port Stephens can move hundreds of metres in a day and up to 5km in one month. Movement is highest during the breeding season. This potential for koalas to move away was a key reason the NSW government approved the expansion.

Koalas can move in to the remaining property to breed, or they can move away from it. But habitat outside the expansion site is, on average, lesser quality, and this is where the expansion would force the koalas to move to.




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This habitat fragmentation would not only result in lost access to potential breeding grounds, but also further restrict movement and expose koalas to threats such as predation or road traffic.

Lastly, the expansion would sever a crucial East–West corridor koalas likely use to move across the landscape and breed.

Approved under the state’s weak environmental protections

It may seem surprising this destructive project was approved by the NSW government. But it’s a common story under the state’s protections.

Alarm over the weaknesses of NSW environmental protections has been raised by NSW government agencies including the Natural Resources Commission and NSW Audit Office.




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The expansion approval is an example of how the NSW government relaxed the regulatory requirements for land clearing between 2016 and 2017. This led to a 13-fold increase in land clearing approvals, and tipped the balance away from sustainable development.

Female and male koalas spotted 1 km from the quarry boundary. The male was observed bellowing 96 m from the female koala. Photo: Lachlan Howell.

The expansion shines another spotlight on NSW’s poor biodiversity offset laws.

Biodiversity offsets involve compensating for environmental damage in one location by improving the environment elsewhere. Under the expansions approval, the developer was required to protect an estimated 450 hectares of habitat as offset.

But the recent parliamentary inquiry into NSW koalas recommended offsetting of prime koala habitat — such as that involved in the quarry expansion — be prohibited, which would mean not destroying the habitat in the first place.




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The NSW decision also does not account for the Black Summer Bushfires which claimed 5,000 koalas and burned millions of hectares of koala habitat. The Port Stephens population was unburned but more than 75% of its habitat has been lost since colonial occupation. Securing this population is important for the overall security of koalas in the state.

The koalas are in Sussan Ley’s hands

Sussan Ley will now assess the expansion under the EPBC Act. A recent interim report into the laws said they’d allowed an “unsustainable state of decline” of Australia’s environment.

Rejections under these laws are rare; just 22 of 6,500 projects referred for approval under the act have been refused. However, it’s not impossible.

Earlier this year Ley rejected a wind-farm in Queensland which threatened unburned koala habitat. If Ley gives full consideration to the evidence in our report, she should make the same decision.




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The Conversation


Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle and Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Heat-detecting drones are a cheaper, more efficient way to find koalas



Pixabay

Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle; Adam Roff, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, University of Newcastle, and Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle

This article is a preview from Flora, Fauna, Fire, a multimedia project launching on Monday July 13. The project tracks the recovery of Australia’s native plants and animals after last summer’s bushfire tragedy. Sign up to The Conversation’s newsletter for updates.


Last summer’s catastrophic bushfires burnt about one quarter of New South Wales’ best koala habitat. On the state’s mid-north coast, an estimated 30% of koalas were killed.

Collecting the most accurate possible information about surviving koala populations, in both burnt and unburnt areas, will help save these precious few.

But at the moment, accurate information can be hard to come by. A NSW parliamentary inquiry into koala populations last week found that the fires, and general population decline, meant the current estimate of 36,000 koalas in the state was “outdated and unreliable”.

The report warned that without government intervention, wild koalas in NSW were on track for extinction by 2050. It recommended exploring the use of drones, among other detection methods, next fire season.

For the last year, we’ve been developing the use of heat-detecting drones to find koalas at night. This efficient method will save on costs. It will also help better assess koala numbers – a key step in saving the species.

Accurate koala counts are key to successful conservation efforts.
IFAW

Promising results

Koalas camouflage well and are notoriously difficult to detect. Traditional methods such as scat surveys or spotlighting with head torches are often considered either too localised, or too labour intensive and costly to efficiently locate and count koalas.

We tested our new koala-locating technique in Port Stephens, NSW, in the winter of 2019. Fortunately, the bush we visited did not burn in the later summer fires. Our method, to be published as a study in the journal Australian Mammalogy, was more efficient and cost effective than traditional koala population survey techniques.




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How much more efficient? Well, by searching forests at night on foot with spotlights we found, on average, about one koala every seven hours.

Flying the thermal drone at night in the same forests, we found an average of one koala every two hours. And this was in an area with a notoriously dispersed population.

This method could potentially be used to assess koala populations in fire-burnt areas over winter this year.

Koala night-time detection and daylight verification. On average, a koala is 17.1% brighter than the surrounding canopy.
A. Roff/NSW DPIE

Drones have big potential

Victorian authorities used drones during the 2020 summer fires – while fires were still active – to assess the damage in remote areas. Scientists also used drones to help detection dogs find starving koalas in the weeks after fire.

Our work takes the use of drones further, by detecting koala heat signatures at night.

On several occasions we flew the drone back to a possible koala detection at first light and confirmed the thermal signatures were indeed koalas.




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We travelled to potential koala habitat in the Port Stephens area. Using a drone with a thermal and a colour camera, we flew a lawnmower pattern (meaning back and forth, so no spots are missed) about 70 metres above the ground. We then checked the results in real-time on a handheld tablet.

We flew the drones mostly at night, as initial surveys suggested koalas were more likely to be detected in the early morning before sunrise. Each flight was around 22 minutes long and simultaneously captured thermal and colour video recordings.

During and immediately after each flight, we checked the footage for signs of koalas. If we saw a large infrared “blob” in the tree canopy, we paused the drone to capture GPS data and detailed images.

Real-life checks

To make sure these “blobs” really were koalas, we needed to lay eyes on the animals. We did this at first light in two ways: one, by physically walking to the suspected koala location to check with binoculars and two, by programming the drone to fly back over the potential koala detection during the day.

This allowed us to simultaneously collect thermal and very high-resolution colour images. It also meant we could verify night-time detections, even in difficult to reach places.

We learnt that koalas noticed the drone approaching but were not bothered by it.

The drone also detected wallabies, possums, grey-headed flying foxes and a number of birds, highlighting the future potential applications of the technology.

Our team comprised experts from the University of Newcastle and the NSW Environment, Energy and Science Group of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment. We were helped by several local government and not-for-profit groups such as Port Stephens Koalas, Tilligerry Habitat and FAUNA Research Alliance.

On ground observers sight drone detected koalas and identify tree species.
A. Roff/NSW DPIE

How could this help in future?

Under climate change, increasingly frequent and severe fires are likely to drive animal population declines.

A thermal camera won’t be much help in a recently burned area that’s still hot. But our technique could be used to monitor fire-affected bushland in the weeks, months and years following bushfire – even in isolated refuges or difficult terrain.

Heat-detecting drones can help koalas after future fire seasons.
Ben Beaden/AAP

In future fire seasons, our method may also be useful for wildlife rescue, localised population monitoring, pre-land use surveys (such as before development, logging or hazard reduction burning), and after rehabilitation to check on released koalas.

Australia has an opportunity to lead the innovative use of emerging technologies such as drones to help find koalas and other hard-to-detect wildlife.

Other species that can be monitored using drones include bears, monkeys, sharks, whales, green sea turtles and albatrosses.

We plan to continue this work in the winter of 2020 in fire-affected areas of NSW to help understand and conserve koala populations.




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The Conversation


Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle; Adam Roff, Conjoint Lecturer | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, PhD candidate, University of Newcastle, and Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | School of Environmental and Life Sciences, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

We know how to save NSW’s koalas from extinction – but the government must commit



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Dr Christine Hosking, The University of Queensland

On Tuesday, a year-long New South Wales parliamentary inquiry revealed the state’s koalas are on track for extinction in the wild by 2050, without urgent government intervention.

Habitat destruction and fragmentation for agriculture, urban development, mining and forestry has been the number one koala killer since European occupation of Australia. This is compounded by the unabated impacts of climate change, which leads to more extreme droughts, heatwaves and bushfires.




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Koala populations in NSW were already declining before the 2019-2020 bushfires. The report doesn’t mince words, saying “huge swathes of koala habitat burned and at least 5,000 koalas perished”.

The report, ambitiously, makes 42 recommendations, and all have merit. The fate of NSW koalas now relies on a huge commitment from the Berejiklian government to act on them. But past failures by a federal government inquiry into koalas suggest there’s little cause for optimism.

First, let’s look at the report’s key recommendations and how they might ensure the species’ survival in NSW.

Leadership needed at the local level

Real, on-ground koala conservation actions take place at the local level. “Local” is where councils give development approvals, sometimes to clear koala habitat. And it’s where communities and volunteers work on the front line to save and protect the species.

Recommendation 10 in the report addresses this, suggesting the NSW government provide additional funding and support to community groups so they can plant trees and regenerate bushland along koala and wildlife corridors.




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Another two recommendations build on this: encouraging increased funding from the NSW government to local councils to support local conservation initiatives, and suggesting increased resources to support councils to conduct mapping.

Mapping, such as where koalas have been recorded and their habitat, is a critical component for local councils to develop comprehensive koala management plans.

Stop offsetting koala habitat

One recommendation suggests a review of the “biodiversity offsets scheme”, where generally developers must compensate for habitat loss by improving or establishing it elsewhere. It is embedded in the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Act 2016, and other state and territory governments commonly use offsets in various conservation policies.




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But the report recommends prohibiting offsets for high quality koala habitat. Prohibiting offsets is important because when a vital part of koala habitat is cleared, it can no longer support the local koalas. Replacing this habitat somewhere else won’t save that particular population.

Build the Great Koala National Park

It’s of paramount importance to increase the connected, healthy koala habitat in NSW, particularly after the bushfires.

One tool to achieve this is laid out in recommendation 41: to investigate establishing the Great Koala National Park. Spearheaded by the National Parks Association of NSW, this national park would see 175,000 hectares of publicly owned state forests added to existing protected areas.

It total, it would form a 315,000 hectare reserve in the Coffs Harbour hinterland dedicated to protecting koalas – an Australian first.




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It would be a great day if such a park was established and replicated throughout the NSW and Queensland hinterlands. Research shows that in those regions, the future climate will remain suitable for koalas, and urbanisation, agriculture and mining are not currently present in these parks.

The Great Koala National Park.

But it’s worth noting Australia’s national parks are under increasing pressure from “adventure tourism”. Human recreation activities can fragment habitat and disturb wildlife, for example by constructing tracks and access roads through natural areas.

Humans must not be allowed to compromise dedicated koala conservation areas. Intrusive recreational activity is detrimental to the species, and can also reduce the chance quiet park visitors might spy a koala sitting high in a tree, sleepily munching on gum leaves.

This rule should apply both to existing national parks, and a new Great Koala National Park.

Failures of past inquiries

The tragic fate predicted for koalas in NSW depends on the state government’s willingness to act on the recommendations. Developing wordy, well-intentioned documents is simply not enough.

We need look no further than Australia’s key environmental legislation, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, to realise this.

Habitat destruction is an existential threat to koalas.
Shutterstock

After a 2012 Senate inquiry into the health and status of koalas, the species was officially listed as “vulnerable” under the EPBC Act. But since then, tree clearing and declines in koala numbers have continued at a furious pace across Queensland and NSW.

One of the shortcomings of the federal listing for the koala is in its Referral Guidelines, which recommends “proponents consider these guidelines when proposing actions within the modelled distribution of the koala”. In other words, informing the government about clearing koala habitat is only voluntary. And that’s not good enough.




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The failure of the 2012 inquiry and the EPBC Act to protect koalas should serve as a wake-up call to the NSW government. It must start implementing the recommendations of the current inquiry without delay to ensure Australia’s internationally celebrated species doesn’t die out.

Koala conservation must take priority over land clearing, regardless of the demand for that land. That principle might seem simple, but so far it’s proved agonisingly difficult.The Conversation

Dr Christine Hosking, Conservation Planner/Researcher, The University of Queensland

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires



david Mariuz/AAP

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast

The plight of koalas during the recent bushfire crisis made headlines here and abroad. But the emergency for our wildlife is not over. Koalas that survived the flames are now dying from starvation, dehydration, smoke inhalation and other hazards.

Over the past three weeks in one wildlife conservation property alone, our rescue team found koalas recently crushed under fire-damaged trees, and koalas with burnt paws after descending to the smouldering ground after the inferno had passed, hoping to change trees and find food. One of our most recent rescues was an orphaned, emaciated koala with all four paws burnt.

Koalas are also at risk of dying from infections associated with these injuries, or from the ongoing effects of smoke inhalation. Even uninjured koalas are struggling to find food in their burnt habitat and may soon starve.

There is still time to act to avoid losing more koalas. But we need the public’s help.

Romane Cristescu with a koala that survived the bushfires, but died afterwards.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

A critically urgent task

The fires in Australia’s southeast destroyed huge swathes of koala habitat in areas where they were already vulnerable – dehydrated and malnourished due to prolonged drought, climate change and land-clearing.

Adding to the pressures, an estimated 5,000 koalas died as a result of the recent fires in New South Wales alone – potentially two out of every three.

Our team at Detection Dogs for Conservation rescues, trains and deploys dogs to find wildlife that needs help.

Since November last year, we’ve deployed our dogs to fire grounds in NSW and Queensland almost every week, urgently searching for surviving koalas. One of our detection dogs, Bear, is trained to find the koala itself – not just koala scats, as our other dogs are.




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The International Fund for Animal Welfare (https://www.ifaw.org/uk/projects/koala-habitat-protection-with-detection-dogs-australia) helps coordinate our activities with local wildlife rescue groups and other koala conservationists.

After bushfires, a koala’s territory is often no longer able to sustain them due to lack of food – which for koalas also provides water – or lack of shelter. Without canopy cover, koalas simply overheat.

Finding koalas can be difficult. They camouflage well, they are quiet, and usually sit still. But dogs can smell what we can’t see, including koalas. These dogs, together with our drone equipped with a thermal camera, greatly increase koala detection rates.

Without canopy cover, koalas easily overheat in hot weather.
Ben Beaden/AAP

What we found

We believe most koalas that died in the fires were reduced to ashes, and so could not be counted among the dead. But since November, in 39 days of searches, we’ve found more than 40 injured, sick, dehydrated or starving koalas and, sadly, six dead ones.

We’ve also observed koalas returning to their favourite trees in their home ranges, only to find the canopies completely burnt. Others survived in a small unburnt patch but are now isolated and surrounded by vast tracts of inhospitable habitat.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog Bear. The program makes wildlife detection far more efficient.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

When we find live koalas in the fire grounds, we attempt to catch them and transport them to a local wildlife triage centre or koala “hospital” to be urgently assessed by veterinarians. Burns are obvious, but smoke inhalation is less so. Koalas in poor condition must stay in care until they’ve fully recovered.

In the past three weeks, we’ve made particularly tragic discoveries. In the Snowy Mountains, two koalas that survived the inferno had been crushed and killed under fire-damaged trees. We sighted one of these koalas three days in a row. The first two days, he was in trees he could not be safely rescued from. The third day, he was fatally crushed.

As recently as last week we found koalas suffering burns, predominantly on their paws. These animals would have continued to suffer severe pain trying to climb trees had we not rescued them. One of our last rescues was an 2kg orphaned koala with four burnt paws and the lowest possible body condition on the scale – emaciated.

We did expect to find koalas killed by the fires. But it was especially heartbreaking to find those that died afterwards. It’s hard then to not think, perhaps with more detection dogs and a bigger team, we might have saved them.




Read more:
To save koalas from fire, we need to start putting their genetic material on ice


We can do more

A full search-and-rescue team comprises Bear and his handler, a drone pilot and a koala-catching crew. These missions cost money. To date, our deployments have been entirely funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

We’ve established an online fundraiser to help pay for further rescue work. We are also learning from this year’s deployment how to be more efficient next year – including having the equipment, team and budget secured prior to the fire season, which we hope this fundraiser helps us achieve.

After the devastating fire season, rescuing and rehabilitating surviving koalas is critical. Koalas reproduce slowly. The more rescued and able to breed this year, the quicker the population will increase. And every koala we rescue comes with a specific genetic make-up; the genetic diversity we can preserve now will help the species cope with future challenges.The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.