A report released this week shows a 71 per cent decline in koala populations across six locations in northern NSW, burned in last season’s bushfires.
- The study compares koala populations before and after the bushfires over Black Summer
- At one site near Taree no koalas were found and at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline
- The study found the severity of fires had an impact on survival rates
The study was commissioned by the WWF (previously known as World Wildlife Fund) for Nature Australia and chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said the findings are devastating.
“Seventy-one per cent is a massive figure; three-quarters of the population in these areas have been hit by the fires and lost,” he said.
“Seventy-one per cent is an average so in some places we lost nearly all the koalas, which of course is devastating.”
Specialist koala ecologist Stephen Phillips undertook the study, which he said was the first study to quantify the impact of the bushfires on koala populations.
It compares population data collected before the bushfires to data collected following the fires.
“We’ve now got the tools [so] we can find these populations and we really have to wrap them in cotton wool,” he said.
“If we don’t and we just proceed with our normal activities, whether it’s logging or development in peri-urban areas, and we’re having direct impacts on the relic koala populations, then we could simply be exacerbating the problems for these remaining populations.”
Survival impacted by severity of fires
In total, 123 sites across six locations from Ballina in the north to Forster in the south were examined as part of the study.
The team looked for unburnt droppings below koala food trees to determine if koalas had survived the fires.
Some koala populations fared better than others.
Koala occupancy survey:
- Wardell: 70 per cent decline
- Busby’s Flat at Royal Camp State Forest: 72 per cent decline
- Busby’s Flat at Braemar State Forest: 47 per cent decline
- Lake Innes State Conservation Area: 34 per cent decline
- Hillville Road at Kiwarrak: 100 per cent decline
- Hillville Road at Khappinghat Nature Reserve: 87 per cent decline
At Kiwarrak, south of Taree, no koalas were found and nearby at Kappinghat Nature Reserve there was an 87 per cent decline in occupancy.
At Lake Innes State Conservation Area near Port Macquarie the decline was 34 per cent.
Dr Phillips said the study also found the severity of the fires had an impact on survival rates.
“Koala survival was five times more likely in areas that only were partially burned,” he said.
“It meant that in areas that had perhaps a light fire, or the fire had just gone through the understory and didn’t really scorch the canopy, that animals were surviving and that’s the key to recovery.”
An ‘international’ tragedy
Dr Phillips says koalas now need to be reclassified as an endangered species to ensure the species’ survival.
“Given the events of last spring and summer, and given the events leading up to that, the drought, we’re in no doubt now that koalas in NSW are an endangered species,” he said.
“And they really need to be listed as that.
“Not that it will necessarily make any difference but what it goes in to how much of the population we’ve lost in the last decade or so.Rescued koalas released after summer bushfire tragedyKoalas found on the verge of starvation are now thriving and ready to be released at the site of one of the summer bushfires’ saddest tragedies.Read more
“If we don’t take action we will lose this animal and I think that’s going to be a national and international tragedy.
Mr O’Gorman also raised concerns legislation passed in the Lower House of Parliament a few days ago would “fast-track extinction”.
“The chance to put strong environmental laws when Parliament resumes in October is going to be a critical part to saving these koala populations and others as well,” he said.
The report has been submitted for peer review.
First published at The ABC Mid-North Coast NSW on Monday 7 September 2020. See; https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-09-06/wwf-koala-loss-report-finds-71pc-decline-after-fires