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



Shutterstock

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.




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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.

Koalas are the face of Australian tourism. What now after the fires?



Koalas have long featured in tourism ads, including this new one from Tourism Australia. Amid our bushfire crisis, this digital ad has been ‘paused’.
Tourism Australia

Kevin Markwell, Southern Cross University

In 1936, The Evening News in Rockhampton wrote:

The time has arrived when Australians must decide whether or not they will accept responsibility for the perpetuation of the koala […]

It seems extraordinary that this animal which is so greatly admired, not only by overseas visitors, but by Australians, is being allowed to suffer extinction.

The preservation of the koala was not talked about so much in environmentalist terms: instead, the koala was seen as a crucial icon of Australian identity and tourism.

The earliest picture postcard featuring a koala I have found was postmarked 1903, and it has been a mainstay of tourism advertising ever since.

A 1903 postcard featuring a ‘native bear’.
Author provided, Author provided

In the latest ad from Tourism Australia, the koala has been recruited, once again, to market Australia, starring alongside Kylie Minogue, chilling in a graceful eucalyptus on Sydney Harbour.

But amid Australia’s ongoing bush fire crisis, airing of the digital ad has been “paused”.

Up to 30% of the koala population from the NSW mid-north coast is expected to be lost in the fires, alongside 50% of the koalas on Kangaroo Island – the last remaining wild population not infected by deadly chlamydia.

Eighty four years on from the Evening News’ story, we are still talking about the possible extinction of koalas, our national tourism icon.

The creation of an icon

Koalas were exhibited at Melbourne Zoo from 1861 and at Taronga Zoo from 1914. But at the same time, koalas were hunted ruthlessly for fur throughout much of the 19th century. This practice only came to a halt at the end of the 1920s.

The original 1933 publication of Blinky Bill.
Trove

By the 1930s, three koala-themed wildlife parks – the Koala Park in Pennant Hills, Sydney, Lone Pine Koala Park on the Brisbane River and the Adelaide Snake Park and Koala Farm – had opened for business.

1933 saw the publication of Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill. Zoologist Ellis Troughton’s book Furred Animals of Australia (1931) and natural historian Charles Barrett, with Koala: The Story of the Native Bear (1937), also influenced public attitudes towards the native animal.

In 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald called the koala “Australia’s national pet”.

Perhaps most famously, it was the star of a Qantas advertising campaign from 1967 to 1992.

A 1981 Qantas advertisement, published in American magazines.
Qantas

The loss of a tourism icon

A 2014 study suggests koala tourism could now be worth as much as A$3.2 billion to the Australian economy and account for up to 30,000 jobs.

In 2020, Australia has 68 zoos and wildlife parks exhibiting just under 900 koalas. A photograph with a koala is a must-have souvenir for many international tourists.

But it is impossible to look at Kylie hanging out with her koala mates without bringing to mind the shocking images of badly burned koalas and other wildlife as the devastating wild fires destroy millions of hectares of bushland habitat.

The plump, relaxed, pampered koalas in the Tourism Australia ad are far removed from the horrific realities of fire. These catastrophic fires have compounded the threatening processes that already affect koala populations: habitat destruction and fragmentation, disease, car accidents and dog attack.

Recent research has shown koalas are also vulnerable to climate change through changes in the nutritional status of eucalyptus leaves, excessively hot temperatures and these canopy-destroying wildfires.




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A life beyond extinction?

Australians have clearly shown they are willing to take action to protect the animal, with the GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital raising almost A$2 million.

The outpouring of emotion and financial support reflects the strong connection that Australians feel for the koala, formed out of the interplay of the animal’s baby-like features and its multitude of representations in popular culture, including, of course, tourism marketing.

Sadly, it is more than likely the koala will go on serving the national interest through its role in tourism even if it was to tragically go extinct in the wild.

The Tourism Tasmania logo features the extinct thylacine.

Most koala tourism is based on experiences with captive koalas. And extinction hasn’t been a problem elsewhere: Tasmanian Tourism uses a stylised image of the thylacine in its logo.

The long term survival of the koala ultimately rests with governments and their policies on forest clearing, fire management and climate change.

If future tourists to Australia are to experience the koala in the wild, it is imperative that governments act now to strengthen the protection of the species and most crucially, its habitat.The Conversation

Kevin Markwell, Professor in Tourism, Southern Cross University

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

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



Over the coming months, koalas will depend on wildlife hospitals to recover from the effects of unprecedented bushfires.
Lachlan G. Howell , Author provided

Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, University of Newcastle; Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, University of Newcastle

Thousands of koalas may have died in fires burning through New South Wales but expert evidence to a state parliamentary inquiry on Monday said we are unlikely to ever know the real numbers.

Unprecedented fires have burned through millions of hectares of forest, including koala habitat and rainforests untouched by fire for thousands of years.




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The devastation won’t stop once the fires are out. Koala populations that survive the fires could be cut off from each other, lowering their genetic diversity and threatening their long-term survival.

To protect Australia’s iconic koalas we need to start freezing their genetic material. With more investment in the fast-developing field of cryogenics, koala hospitals could start taking samples from their patients, creating a vital lifeline for the species as a whole.

Koala-threatening fires are getting worse

Fire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and becoming more intense, made worse by climate change.

This season, there is an above-average risk of serious fires across an extensive range of koala habitat on Australia’s east coast.

Left, Australian seasonal bushfire outlook for the upcoming bushfire season. Right, the comparative koala distribution from January 2017 to 2019.
Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC/Atlas of Living Australia

Experts at the NSW inquiry estimated about 2,000 koalas may have died in fires already this year, and the destruction of habitat means further population declines are inevitable. With areas not usually threatened by fires now at risk, we need new plans for future conservation.

Koalas are highly vulnerable to fire. The heat burns their paws and fur, and the superheated air can cause internal damage to their lungs. The canopy of eucalypt forests is their only refuge, but offers no protection during high-intensity bushfires.

Beyond this direct threat, when large numbers of koalas are killed or badly injured, the genetic diversity of their local populations shrinks.

Over the coming months, koalas will depend heavily on wildlife hospitals for rehabilitation and recovery after fires.

Small, fragmented groups of koalas living in habitat on the edge of urban areas, such as the coastal areas of Port Macquarie and Port Stephens, are particularly at risk.

Port Stephens experienced several fires in 2018 that burned thousands of hectares of koala habitat. This followed a similarly catastrophic fire season five years earlier.

If these events continue at the same rate – or, as predicted by climate modelling, become more intense and more frequent – we may lose sources of koala genetic diversity that cannot be replaced.




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Koalas sniff out juicy leaves and break down eucalypt toxins – it’s in their genome


Sudden reductions in population size can cause genetic bottlenecks that lead to inbreeding. Eventually this reduces reproductive fitness and makes extinction more probable.

Take, for example, a koala population like that of Port Macquarie, between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals. We estimate that losing 350 koalas from this group would increase inbreeding by 20-50%. It would take five to ten years for the population to recover, assuming no further fires in that time.

While many volunteers and professionals do fantastic work to help koalas survive fire, we have no strategy for safeguarding genetic diversity and reducing the risk of inbreeding.

But we can take a lesson from botanical gardens, which routinely freeze genetic material for seed banks. Freezing koala sperm, eggs and embryos could offer a way to preserve genetic diversity ahead of further population crashes.




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Artificial reproduction is in its infancy

Artificial reproduction for koalas – and marsupials generally – is developing quickly. Scientists have used freshly collected sperm to artificially inseminate zoo koalas, which resulted in the birth of live young.

However, the technology does not yet exist to freeze, store and then use koala sex cells. Components of this process do exist, but there is no complete system for marsupials.

If that capacity existed, koala hospitals could easily and inexpensively begin collecting genetic samples from their patients.

Although NSW has invested significantly in koala conservation in recent years, we argue that future funding should also support applied research to make this technology a reality for not only koalas but other marsupials.

Koalas and many other native species are exceptionally unprotected in this new era of record-breaking fires. We need to start planning and investing in long-term conservation solutions and new research-based technologies that provide a last line of defence against the possibility of permanent extinction.The Conversation

Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, PhD candidate, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle & CEO FAUNA Research Alliance, University of Newcastle; Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, PhD Candidate in Restoration Ecology, University of Newcastle

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

The Blinky Bill effect: when gum trees are cut down, where do the koalas go?


Kita Ashman, Deakin University

In the past two decades there has been an unprecedented increase in the area of blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) plantations in southern Australia. In southwest Victoria alone, some additional 80,000 hectares of commercial blue gum have been planted.

This expansion has significantly increased the habitat available for koalas. In fact, my research, published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, has found there are more koalas in plantations than in surrounding native habitat.




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More koalas may seem like a good thing, but perversely this could ultimately harm their welfare (and the welfare of other native animals and plants), and disrupt the plantation industry.

Blinky Bill had to leave his home after the trees were bulldozed.

Plantations

Koalas are protected in Victoria, so when plantation managers harvest the mature trees they must have a permit and a koala management plan. These plans focus on locating koalas, ensuring that the trees koalas are sitting in at harvest are not felled, and post-harvest surveys to find any injured koalas.

However, these plans don’t consider where the koalas go after the plantation has been cut down, and what effects their movement has on the landscape and surrounding native vegetation.

A recently harvested blue gum plantation showing remnant trees left due to koalas.
Author provided

To work out how factors such as plantation cover affect koala populations, my colleagues and I surveyed 72 sites across southwest Victoria. We found more koalas in plantations than in blocks of native vegetation or in native roadside vegetation.

We then spatially modelled koala numbers for the region, and found several high-priority areas for population management, as well as significant conservation habitat for koalas and other wildlife in the region that overlap with high koala population densities.




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Our mapping predicted high koala numbers in the southeast, where there are important remnant bushland areas such as Kurtonitj Indigenous Protected Area and Mount Napier State Park. This highlights the importance of considering the overall landscape when establishing and harvesting plantations, and the arrangement of plantations near remnant forest.

Harvest rates in much of southwest Victoria are set to increase. This may result in increased koala numbers in the native vegetation surrounding harvested sites, which could then put pressure on food trees in remnant forests.

Local landholders are already seeing the effect of more koalas on native vegetation. Many trees on private land or beside roads are being stripped of leaves.

Canopy defoliation of remnant trees due to increased numbers of koalas in south-west Victoria.
Author provided

More koalas are also likely to mean more injuries or other welfare issues. As plantations have a responsibility to avoid these, koala injuries could threaten the future of one of the main industries in this region. More than 4,000 people are directly employed in the regional forestry industry, with a further 4,500 in associated service industries.




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The bigger picture

To meet this challenge, we argue management plans need to consider the larger landscape. What native forest is near a plantation? Where are the koalas likely to go after the harvest? How might they affect other native species?

A female koala being released in Bessiebelle, south-west Victoria, after undergoing a health check.
Esther Wong, Author provided

Such plans could include some areas of plantations set aside for koala habitat, harvesting plans that consider adjacent habitat that koalas may move into, or increasing areas of native food trees. These would all benefit other wildlife in the area, as well as koalas.

Currently, there is something of a negative feedback loop in southwest Victoria. When plantations are established koalas move in and reproduce. When plantations are later harvested, the koalas move into surrounding areas. As a result, populations can rapidly increase in some areas, affecting native trees and creating welfare issues for the forest industry.




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We have seen the devastating effects high density koala populations can have on native forests in places like Cape Otway, which saw mass starvation and widespread forest death in 2013 and 2014. Current state regulations could disrupt the forestry industry, especially with koala numbers increasing in plantations but with no plan to really manage koala numbers in southwest Victoria in sight.The Conversation

Kita Ashman, PhD candidate in koala conservation, Deakin University

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

A virus is attacking koalas’ genes. But their DNA is fighting back


Keith Chappell, The University of Queensland

A virus that infects koalas is steadily integrating itself into their DNA, ensuring that it is passed down from generation to generation. But the koala genome is defending itself, revealing that DNA has its own immune system to shut down invaders.

The virus, called koala retrovirus (KoRV), is linked to weakened immunity, cancer, and chlamydia infection in koalas. All retroviruses hijack the DNA in some cells of their host’s body, but not all of them manage to be transmitted to the host’s offspring.

Your DNA is 8% virus

Over the millions of years of evolutionary history, retroviruses have at one time or another made their way into the genomes of all species of vertebrates that we have studied.

We know about these ancient infections because retroviruses sometimes infect the animal’s sperm or egg cells, which means the virus incorporates its own DNA sequences into the genome that is passed from generation to generation.




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These viral sequences can contribute to disease, but have also been “co-opted” by the host animals for processes that are essential to normal development. As much as 8% of the human genome is made up of the remnants of infectious viruses.

While we know that retroviruses have frequently appeared during evolutionary history, we don’t know much about how retroviral sequences infiltrate sperm and egg cells, or how these cells react.

Catching a retrovirus in the act

Almost all known retrovirus genome invasions happened millions of years ago. However, KoRV is a recently identified exception. The virus spreads between individuals, but is also infecting sperm and egg cells, so many koalas are born with this pathogen as part of their genome.

My colleagues and I at the University of Queensland are collaborating with scientists from the University of Massachusetts Medical School to analyse how koala sperm and egg cells respond to KoRV-A infection.

Our findings, published today in Cell, suggest these cells mount a novel “innate genome immune response” to viral infection, which may help control the spread of infectious KoRV.

Within this project, the team analysed DNA and RNA from different tissue samples from deceased wild koalas from South East Queensland. (Like DNA, RNA also contains genetic information about the koalas – but it is also what KoRV’s own genome is made of.)

The team specifically looked for short sequences of RNA, between 23 and 35 nucleotides long, known as PIWI Interacting RNAs (piRNAs). Clusters of piRNA sequences are retained within the genome and serve as a kind of memory bank of undesirable sequences – signatures of invading viruses – to be targeted.

An immune system for the genome

Based on our new findings, we suggest that there is a specialised immune system to defend against retroviral genome invasion. Like the ordinary immune system, this one includes an innate response – a sort of general-purpose defence against attackers – and an adaptive response, which learns to recognise specific pathogens and take them down.

At the early stages of egg or sperm infection, the altered DNA sequence results in a “molecular pattern” that is recognised by an innate genome immune system, which stops the activity of the virus and starts producing signature piRNA sequences to recognise the invader.




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The innate immune response works until a memory of the genome invader is created and a sequence-specific adaptive response kicks in.

We propose a framework through which a sequence from an invading retrovirus can first have its genes “silenced”, and then through targeted processes it eventually becomes an integral part of the host genome.

This “genome immune system” changes our understanding of what shapes the genomes of all animals. No more can we view the genome as a defenceless entity governed purely by natural selection – it fights back.The Conversation

Keith Chappell, Senior Research Fellow, School of Chemistry and Molecular Biosciences, The University of Queensland

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