If you haven’t heard of Hidden Vale, it’s probably because it’s staying true to its name. Located just over one hours drive from Brisbane’s CBD, this somewhat secret bushland oasis in Grandchester, Queensland, boasts 4,560 hectares of private protected property, including a nature refuge of more than 3,100 hectares.
It’s also home to at least 45 koalas and a myriad other native wildlife, trees and birds. And now, thanks to a hi-tech Dendra Systems’ drone operation, the property managed by the Turner Family Foundation, at the heart of Hidden Vale, will soon be known for having something else; an 11-hectare koala corridor that will connect existing habitat.
“Hidden Vale’s nature refuge is large enough in this landscape to provide a really good habitat for koalas to breed and then disperse,” says Ben O’Hara, the General Manager of Land and Environment at the Turner Family Foundation. ”We want to be a source of koalas that can move throughout the region and then repopulate areas that were not only impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires but where they once used to be. We've heard a lot of times: ‘If you were only here 20 years ago, there used to be koalas!’ - so we want our koalas to move through the landscape and repopulate those areas over time.”
The area in question - while a koala hotspot – has, up until now, been an unused cow paddock, where the koalas moving through have been exposed and at risk of attacks from wild dogs.
“We've been tracking koalas down here for the last three years, and we've started to see what’s impacted them. Ultimately we've discovered that chlamydia and habitat are the main problems with our koala population,” Ben says.
The solution might seem obvious: create more koala habitat so the koalas can have food, shade and safety. However, there’s a catch.
“Restoring land,” according to Dr Susan Graham, CEO and co-founder of Dendra Systems, “includes activities upfront like the seeding and planting, and then all the surrounding activities, including the survey[ing] and land management. Traditional methods, including hand planting and hand monitoring, are very manual.”
These methods take time, and as we know, if there’s one thing the koala doesn’t have a lot of, it’s time. A technological solution was needed. And that solution was drones.
“Drones enable us to scale-up these activities. They’re able to decrease the cost and also improve the decision-making in the management of those lands,” says Dr Graham. “Each drone can carry around 700 kilograms in a day… and can plant up to one and a half tonnes of seed every day. And this is a mix of all kinds of species from the trees to the shrubs to the grasses so that we build back an entire ecosystem for the koala habitat.”
Utilising funds from the federal government’s $18 million koala package and WWF’s Regenerate Australia program, this hi-tech solution aims to boost safety for the local koala population and, in doing so, double the number of koalas in eastern Australia by 2050.
By dropping a 45-kilogram mix of native grasses, blue gums (aka ‘koala caviar’), ironbarks, melaleucas and acacias, among other things, into the recently tilled soil of the Hidden Vale property, the operation hopes to create a koala corridor rich in biodiversity to ensure the koalas living in the area have the food and shade they need to survive and propagate.
It’s estimated that phase one of the program, which began in November, will generate 15,000 trees. And, while not all seeds will successfully germinate or survive the sapling stage, this is just the first step in a much larger project under WWF-Australia’s Regenerate Australia program, which boasts the bold vision to rehabilitate and restore wildlife and habitats while future-proofing Australia against climate disasters.
Further southwest in the Lockyer Valley, at the Thornton View Nature Refuge, another 30 hectares will be drone seeded, which should provide an estimated 40,000 food and shade trees for koalas.
This collaboration brings together the federal government, WWF-Australia, the Turner Family Foundation, and Dendra Systems. According to Tanya Pritchard, WWF-Australia’s Landscape Restoration Manager, this will hopefully be a turning point in koala recovery.
“[The collaboration] is enabling us to trial these really innovative solutions as part of our Regenerate Australia program. We're hoping that collaborations such as this one can be scaled-up and delivered in many different parts of Australia to help us restore our ecosystems and create a more resilient landscape for our native wildlife.” Tanya added, “Drones form part of a really creative solution to allow us not only to implement at a local scale, more cost effective and quicker landscape restoration, but potentially to scale-up to a national scale and be implemented over a much larger area.”
And according to Dr Graham, “Without a massively scalable approach to restoring ecosystems, we cannot reverse the damage and restore natural systems to health.”
So, next time you’re out for a walk and look up, if you don’t see a koala, maybe you’ll see a drone, and then the next time you’re on that same walk and look up, maybe you will see a koala.
This project is supported by the Australian Government’s Bushfire Recovery for Wildlife and their Habitat program.