For the first time in 70 years a koala has been sighted in the upper Blue Mountains, near Wentworth Falls.
Andrew Beitsch, a teacher at the local Blue Mountains Grammar School, was driving along the Great Western Highway late one night last week when he spotted the koala trying to navigate its way off the road.
Concerned about the lack of wildlife crossings on the highway, Mr Beitsch reported the koala the next day to Roads and Maritime Services and the Blue Mountains Conservation Society and was taken aback to learn just how rare his sighting was.
A rare sight: Koalas have been forced out of their normal habitats following recent bushfires.
Photo: Ben Rushton
”I am glad I can practise what I preach when I’m teaching kids about being active citizens and acting on things they see,” he said.
Recent bushfires have forced koalas out of their normal habitats, into developed areas, where they are more visible.
Kellie Leigh, from the faculty of veterinary science at the University of Sydney is mapping koalas in and around the Blue Mountains and says public reporting of wildlife sightings plays a crucial role.
”We need to find the koalas to understand what the bushfire impacts are and get the populations recovering,” Dr Leigh said.
“If you asked a local this time last year they might have told you there were no longer any koalas in the Blue Mountains. However during the recent bushfires koalas have appeared on the edges of urban areas, including three koalas coming out of the bush to sit in buckets of water near the Springwood fire,” said Dr Leigh.
“The fires would have forced koalas to move out of their normal home ranges and habitats, and this movement is taking them into developed areas where they are being seen by people. Unfortunately koalas are vulnerable to both fire and heat so the bushfires and extreme weather are likely to have had an impact on them. However the exciting thing is that we were not sure that koalas still existed in many of these areas.”
Although koalas are not normally seen on the high altitude ridgelines in the Blue Mountains, they used to be abundant in the valleys either side. There are historical records advertising koala hunting opportunities in the Megalong Valley, back in the days of the koala fur trade. Since then koala numbers have dropped dramatically.
Dr Leigh says it’s critical to find what is left of our koalas after such a massive drop in numbers. “Many Sydneysiders don’t realise we still have koala populations around, in areas such as Campbelltown, and west right through to Bathurst. Even more people are not aware that koalas in NSW are now federally listed as vulnerable to extinction. Koalas are picky eaters and adapt to their local habitats, so if we’re going to hang on to this iconic species we need to find and conserve all the surviving koala populations.”
The recent Great Koala Count run by the National Parks Association of NSW has shown the power of citizen science for finding koalas, with 900 koalas reported throughout NSW and beyond. However the next step of assessing low density populations in rugged terrain is more challenging.
The information being collected is part of a larger national scale koala study led by the University of Sydney together with researchers from James Cook University and San Diego Zoo Global. The project is using new technology whole-genome DNA to prioritise koala populations for conservation management, right across the species range.
Dr Kellie Leigh is also director of Science for Wildlife Inc, a research partner with the University of Sydney that will undertake the regional koala mapping using innovative research methods such as a koala detection dog. The resulting data will be used in the University’s genome research.
Koalas in the Blue Mountains are thought to be particularly important for conservation of the species due high levels of genetic diversity, and the large World Heritage Area might be an important habitat refuge for other populations under pressure from climate change. There is also a need to understand more about the impacts of bushfires on koalas in different habitats, which is even more urgent since the Blue Mountains bushfires.
First report of the species in upper Blue Mountains for 70 years allays fears that it had been wiped out.
Koalas have been spotted outside their home ranges recently, probably a result of fleeing the fires.
Photograph: John Pryke/AAPOliver Milman Tuesday 10 December 2013
Conservationists are hopeful that wildlife coped better with the NSW Blue Mountains fires than first feared after a koala was spotted in the upper reaches of the mountains for the first time in 70 years.
The koala was seen crossing the Great Western Highway near Wentworth Falls, which is 900m above sea level.
The sighting is the first of its kind in the upper Blue Mountains since the 1940s. It is thought that the koala, and others, managed to escape October’s fierce bushfires, which burned through about 140,000 hectares, by fleeing to areas they usually don’t inhabit.
“The soil up there is pretty poor so it’s very unusual to see a koala at altitude,” said Dr Kellie Leigh of the University of Sydney, who is mapping koalas in the Blue Mountains.
“People told us not to bother looking up there but we’ve had eight or nine sightings of koalas in unusual areas, probably due to the fire forcing them away from the valleys.”
Leigh said the fires had pushed koalas to the edges of urban areas, including three that emerged from the bush to sit in buckets of water near a blaze that threatened the town of Springwood.
Bushfires take heavy toll on wildlife, including possums, koalas and gliders
22 Oct 2013
The appearance of koalas has raised hopes that the marsupial was not wiped out in the Blue Mountains by the fires, contrary to initial fears.
“The general thinking was that they just didn’t exist in this area, but we are getting reports that a lot of koalas are out there,” Leigh said. “In some places there wasn’t massively intense burning and the canopy has still got green patches. It really could have been a lot worse and we’re hoping there is some wildlife in there.”
Leigh, through her venture Science for Wildlife, is counting koalas using tracking dogs and thermal imaging drones. She estimates there could be several hundred koalas in the Blue Mountains national park, fragmented into two or three populations. She believes other wildlife may also have avoided the worst of the flames.
“I think we lost a lot of animals, but I think they are making a better recovery than we first thought,” she said.
“Reptiles and possums suffer from fires but we’re already seeing green shoots coming out of gum trees. Things can bounce back quickly and reptiles can move back into a burned area quickly, within a month or so. Fire is a natural part of the landscape, after all. Plants need it to regenerate every few years.”
Justin McKee, a spokesman for the wildlife rescue service Wires, told Guardian Australia the fires had been challenging but that some rescued animals were being released back into the wild.
"A lot of animals came in and not all of them survived, unfortunately,” he said. “We’re still getting a few animals come in because kangaroos, for example, can take a while to lose their mobility from a fire.
"Some animals have been released but others, such as green tree snakes and diamond pythons, will require longer care because they have no habitat to go back to at the moment. That said, we are beginning to see the signs of good growback now.
“We’re excited that animals have survived and we will put them back when appropriate. We’re keeping our fingers crossed that there will be some good species recovery.”