South Coast koala conservation

Although koalas are rarely seen in the south-eastern corner of New South Wales, a small population currently exists in the coastal forests between Tathra and Bermagui.

Koala in the Murrah and Mumbulla flora reservesThese koalas and their habitat have been extensively studied since 2007, with programs that focus on improving knowledge of koala distribution and of habitat needs and that support the development of management programs to assist koala conservation across a matrix of land tenures.

In 2017 the NSW government established the 12,000 ha Murrah Flora Reserve, in part to assist the conservation of these koalas. This extended the forest reserve system in these coastal forests to 30,000 ha.

This population of koalas is important because of:

  • its geographic location within the wider distribution of koalas across eastern Australia
  • its unique genetics, habitat use and history
  • the level of stakeholder commitment to its ongoing conservation.

If you are interested in undertaking koala habitat regeneration work on your private land, please email the Saving our Species team at savingourspecies@environment.nsw.gov.au.

The Indigenous community is a significant landholder and management partner in this landscape. The koala study area includes large parts of the Biamanga National Park, which was handed back to the Aboriginal community and is managed by the Biamanga National Park Board, the majority of whom are traditional owners. The Board, and the Bega and Merrimans Local Aboriginal Land Councils, are also stakeholders in the management of the recently established Murrah Flora Reserve. 

Through the NSW Koala Strategy, the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment is committed to working with Aboriginal land managers to enable cultural burning activities to improve the resilience of koala habitat, either independently or supported by other land managers undertaking planned burns.

The NSW Saving our Species program funds a koala monitoring program in which searches for koala pellets are undertaken at previously assessed grid sites using the same search methods as before. This enables koala occupancy-rate trends to be calculated and improves knowledge of changes in distribution across the koala study area.

Community engagement has been crucial. Community-based contractors, including representatives from Local Aboriginal Land Councils, supported by local volunteers, have undertaken almost all the fieldwork for this monitoring program.

In 2016 scientists undertook a passive acoustic survey, where recording devices were placed at 24 of the study area’s grid sites. Comparing the passive acoustic survey results with pellet surveys at the same sites revealed acoustic surveys had site detection rates over three times higher than that of the pellet surveys.

Passive acoustic surveys have since been undertaken at the same time as the grid monitoring fieldwork, and the University of Canberra is conducting a review of monitoring methods.

The Saving our Species program is also working with the University of Sydney Koala Health Hub (KHH) to assess the health and genetics of the population, primarily using DNA information extracted from fresh koala pellets collected by survey teams.

 

The KHH’s initial study was undertaken in 2018 and enabled improvements in obtaining useable DNA over a greater range of scat quality. The study improved understanding of regional koala genetics and the extent that Chlamydia pecorum and Koala retrovirus A and B occur in this koala population.

The devastating 2019–2020 bushfires were a dramatic and difficult time for the local community and surrounding wilderness areas – at one stage the entire koala study area appeared to be vulnerable to fire. 

Because of the high level of agency and community engagement, the fire-fighting community had good knowledge of the key koala areas. National Parks and Wildlife Service and local brigades established a 15km north/south control line, extending through the Strategic Fire Advantage Zone. This zone was identified in a University of Melbourne fire simulation study as the zone where fuel hazard reduction would be most cost-effective in reducing the risk of fire impact on the koala population and human life and property.

Approximately 70% of the 25,000ha study area, including most patches identified as sustaining higher levels of koala activity, were not burnt in the fire. 

 

NSW Far South Coast post-fire koala survey: 2020

Surveys undertaken in the period following the 2020 bushfires can give us valuable information about koala survival and current distribution in response to fire and drought impacts. This will primarily inform fire management planning and research, including planned and proposed cultural burning programs and koala habitat rehabilitation initiatives.

Survey teams are assessing some of the burnt and adjacent unburnt habitat, using the same survey methods as previously. They are recording information about evidence of koalas and other fauna, canopy condition, growth stage of vegetation, fire severity/epicormic response. Fresh koala pellets are sent to the Koala Health Hub for DNA analysis. 

The survey also aims to discern sites that may be appropriate for cultural burning and gather information on road and fire-track conditions.

So far, surveys have found encouraging evidence of post-fire koala activity in the region, and evidence of koala breeding was observed in February 2020 after the wildfire.

The Saving our Species project is funding a koala habitat rehabilitation research project in the study area, which is examining the effectiveness of varying combinations of techniques for silviculture (growth and structure of trees) and regeneration to re-establish eucalypt species preferred by koalas in degraded koala habitat.

The project established thirty 20m x 20m research plots with bisecting transects (including 6 control plots) in 4 localities where post-logging regeneration of preferred koala browse species of trees was non-existent, minimal, or struggling in dense regeneration. A detailed inventory of botanical species and ecological characteristics of each plot and transect were recorded.

In 2017–18, the project developed and implemented specific treatment plans for each plot using varying combinations of techniques including thinning, raking of mulch, the inclusion of some plots with seed trees, direct-seeding and the application of fire. 

Preliminary monitoring through the generally dry seasons that followed indicates that almost all germination was browsed, probably by very hungry wallabies!

Soil condition assessments found a combination of thinning and burning has negatively impacted soil surface conditions and this may have impacts on plant growth and soil health. The project will undertake monitoring of the research plots, and additional direct seeding of koala browse species at some plots, in the spring of 2020.

The Koala Action Network was launched in November 2019, working under the auspice of the Far South Coast Landcare Association (FSCLA), with the principal purpose of providing inclusive and collaborative leadership in the effective management of South Coast koalas. The Network’s mission statement is:

The Far South Coast Koala Action Network is a not for profit community-managed group of people who love and care for this country - some with years of experience and knowledge, who have come together to form a network throughout the community to share responsibility for the holding of knowledge, caring for country, and supporting the following actions: Koala surveys - research and monitoring, Aboriginal involvement, Cultural burning and other fire management actions, Koala habitat and population management, Koala care & welfare, and Community engagement & education. We aim to facilitate inclusive & collaborative leadership in the effective management of NSW Far South Coast koalas and their habitat.

Further information about the Network can be accessed via the Koala Action Network website.