To protect koalas we have to get a handle on why they are threatened, writes Dan Lunney.
The koala is an Australian icon worth protecting (iStockphoto: Wrennie)
Over the next week, citizen scientists across New South Wales can help scientists build a comprehensive picture of koala numbers and locations by joining in the Great Koala Count.
You may be wondering why is it important to count koalas? Why do it this way? And do we need to make all this effort to help conserve them anyway?
Some people argue that charismatic, iconic species like the koala get too much attention (and funding) at the expense of other species that are more endangered or more critical to ecosystem function.
But koalas can be a flagship species, harnessing public support to put conservation measures and policies in place, and in the process protect habitats containing other species that would otherwise get no public attention.
And, for those who give the economy a higher priority than conservation, it is estimated that the koala is worth more than $1 billion to the Australian economy annually.
The very title discloses the outlook of the report, which began:
“This report examines the committee’s inquiry into the status, health and sustainability of one of Australia’s most loved and iconic native animals – the koala. The koala is an instantly recognisable symbol of Australia as well as being an integral part of Australian cultural heritage.
"The view the Senate committee formed after its deliberations could not be plainer. The committee was surprised by the complexity of this multifaceted issue. Many features and factors influence Australia’s koala population.
“For instance in some areas … their population is in sharp decline, whilst in others … their numbers are being actively managed because of an overabundance and resulting over-browsing.
“A key challenge is the paucity of data on the national koala population. The koala’s diversity is another aspect of added complexity, with northern koalas being far more diverse than their southern cousins.
“The range of threats is also varied, for example habitat loss, disease and motor vehicle strikes. As a result there are no easy solutions. The duration and level of interest generated by this inquiry is an indication of the complexity of the issues raised.”
With all that in its opening remarks, the place of the koala in the national consciousness is apparent.
Subsequent to the Senate enquiry, two national workshops were convened by principal investigator Clive McAlpine of the University of Queensland, on the theme of Conserving koalas in the 21st century.
The evidence presented at the workshops indicated that Queensland has a mean koala population of around 78,000, with a range of 35,000 – 150,000. Using the sliding time window of the past three generations (a timeframe of 15 to 21 years) the experts estimated that the overall mean koala population across the state had declined by 53 per cent.
They found that koala populations of coastal and western Queensland are mostly declining, with the most pronounced decline is in southeast Queensland where urban development has destroyed and fragmented large areas of high quality koala habitat with increases in mortality from vehicle collisions, dog attacks and disease.
In NSW, koala populations are subject to similar threats.
The experts estimated that the mean population of koalas in NSW/ACT was around 36,350, with a range of approximately 20,000 to 75,000.
And, koala populations were estimated to have declined by an aggregated mean of 26.1 per cent, with the North Coast declining by 50 per cent.
In April 2012, the koala was added to the Commonwealth’s Threatened Species List, recognising “that the koala faces stark conservation challenges across much of its distribution, particularly in the northern portion of its range… Such a listing would deliver a conservation benefit most focused at the koala’s major management concerns.”
But to protect koalas, first we have to get a handle on why they are threatened, and that means finding ways to measure population attributes.
Counting koalas is hard. They are nocturnal, shy, hard to see among the leaves and branches, mobile, and often distributed widely and thinly across the landscape. However, koalas are instantly recognisable to almost everyone, and sightings stay in the memory, so community knowledge has become an important resource to be tapped.
For example, in a story on ABC online about the 2012 koala count in South Australia, Brett Williamson wrote:
“Over 1,000 citizen scientists participated in the Great Koala Count yesterday, with over 1,300 submissions and 950 koala photos submitted.”
“Professor Chris Daniels from the Barbara Hardy Institute said the koala data was coming in at around two new results every minute.”
I too am keen on community-based surveys, having conducted state-wide surveys of koalas in NSW in 1986 and 2006 via postal mail-out questionnaires.
The results for us as scientists were brilliant. We were able to form state-wide pictures of the distribution of koalas, and their status, a task that would have been impossible by any other means.
While the role of scientists is critical to frame the questions, conduct the spatial analyses and interpret the records, the community is a vital element in the success of these surveys.
How You Can Help
If you live in New South Wales you can join in the Great Koala Count until 17 November.
The Koala Count smartphone app ‘BioTag’ will allow you to easily record the location of each koala you see, along with the answers to a series of observational questions about the koala and its habitat.
About The Author
Dr Daniel Lunney is an Honorary Scientific Fellow with the Office of Environment and Heritage NSW who has studied koalas for the past 43 years, publishing 50 papers on koalas (with a great many co-authors) and has played a part in the framing of policies for koala conservation and management in both NSW and Australia. He is also a long-term member of the National Parks Association.