A koala joey in Swan Bay in the Richmond Valley © Jacob Crisp

A koala joey in Swan Bay in the Richmond Valley © Jacob Crisp

Researchers call on residents to help count Northern Rivers koalas

22 Dec 2021

Keywords
  • bushfire
  • koalas
  • Regenerate Australia
Researchers will be searching for koala scat, deploying detection dogs and heat-seeking drones, and calling on local residents to report koala sightings as part of a major survey to determine koala distribution in the NSW Northern Rivers following the 2019-20 bushfires.

The World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia has funded the koala search in partnership with ecological consultants Biolink and local councils, including Tweed Shire, Lismore City, Ballina Shire, Byron Shire, Kyogle, and Richmond Valley.

"While we have great baseline data for some areas, such as the endangered koala population on the Tweed Coast, other places have not had funding to support any koala surveys, so we don't know what we’ll find. Fingers crossed, there will be lots of fluffy bums up trees,” said Amanda Lane, Biolink’s Supervising Ecologist.

“The survey involves searching for koalas’ distinctive eucalypt-scented scat below large trees. This is a great technique because it allows us to determine not only where koalas are but where they are not, with a very high level of confidence,” said Dr Lane.

Dr Lane said locals can also help with the search, as many koalas live on private land.

“Citizen science has so much to contribute to koala conservation and is an integral part of the Northern Rivers koala search. We encourage people who see a koala to report it using one of the many wildlife apps such as I Spy Koala,” said Dr Lane.

“We ask if local landholders are approached, that they allow ecologists to conduct a quick one hour survey looking for koala scats. This will also allow us to gain an understanding of the health of our local koala populations.”

Koalas are elusive and difficult to detect as they spend much of their time asleep and camouflaged high up in trees. WWF-Australia hopes to solve this issue by using a range of methods as part of a broader survey.

“As well as searching for scat, we’ll use detection dogs trained to sniff out koala scats, deploy drones equipped with a thermal camera to spot koalas hidden in the treetops, and monitor koala bellows. During mating season, koalas make a unique squawk-like sound that we will pick up on auto recorders,” said Daniel Armstrong, WWF-Australia’s Koalas Forever Project Officer.

Last year, a NSW parliamentary inquiry heard existing koala figures for the state are outdated and unreliable. WWF-Australia also released a report that estimated 8,000 koalas were impacted by the 2019-20 bushfires in NSW.

Data gathered from the Northern Rivers search will inform WWF’s Regenerate Australia program Koalas Forever, which aims to double koala numbers in eastern Australia by 2050. The survey is due to be completed early next year.

“The search will provide insight into how the Northern Rivers koalas are faring right now. We can then compare these findings against past and future monitoring to determine the impact of the bushfires on population trends and track recovery efforts,” said Mr Armstrong.

“We'll also use the survey data to target our management approaches, planting and protecting koala habitat and corridors where they are needed most. The knowledge we gain in the Northern Rivers will aid the recovery of this iconic species right across eastern Australia.”

About Regenerate Australia
Regenerate Australia is the largest and most innovative wildlife recovery and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history. Launched by WWF-Australia in October 2020, the multi-year program will rehabilitate, repopulate and restore wildlife and habitats affected by the 2019-20 bushfires, and help to future-proof Australia against the impacts of a changing climate. To find out how you can help Regenerate Australia, visit www.wwf.org.au/regenerate-australia.

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