Koala Habitat Rescue

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Nature is a miracle in the balance, yet once the balance shifts, however slightly, the results can be chaotic and even catastrophic.

In recent years there has been such a shift – in a remote part of south west Victoria, along the Great Ocean Road the koala population suddenly exploded and the manna gum trees which supported them came under immense stress. These trees began to die and after a few years, thousands of koalas were eating the remaining leaves so quickly that the trees were unable to keep producing foliage, causing dieback in immense sections of forest.

As trees die, the ecosystem becomes increasingly damaged and, without help, it is unable to recover. In Cape Otway, the dieback caused a catastrophe – koalas were, through no fault of their own – eating away their habitat. Trees that should have been regenerating were unable to produce sufficient new growth. Seedlings did not emerge from the ground. Koalas starved.

Since around 2005 scientists and ecologists have been gravely worried. Yet there is hope. One organisation in particular has been working tirelessly on the problem. The Conservation Ecology Centre (CEC) has been using innovative approaches to protect a few healthy trees in order to gather seed and grow seedlings. Last year the CEC spearheaded a program to plant new trees across the Cape – over 80,000 young trees were planted by an army of volunteers. A pioneering partnership with the Country Fire Authority has led to small gentle burns in the woodlands, encouraging germination of young trees, restoring biodiversity and helping create a healthier ecosystem.

Research is also important, gathering knowledge to ensure a safer future. CEC has been working on how to restore and rebalance the ecosystem, how to effectively protect seed trees for the future and how to create the right environment for new tree seedlings to establish. They are also researching why some koalas are so particular about their food source, while others seem able to eat a range of species .Findings from this study will assist with helping koalas to respond to environmental changes and change their diets to leaves from other eucalypt species.

Sadly, last year there were hundreds of sick and starving koalas that had to be euthanized by the Department of Environment and Primary Industries (now Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning). This was a dreadful task, but when confronted with animals that were reduced to skin and bones, covered in ticks, too weak to climb a tree and suffering from malnutrition and starvation, the only solution was to humanely end their suffering by lethal injection. Every koala was assessed by vets and those strong enough to survive were returned to the bush. Only those with no prospect of survival were humanely euthanized.

This was a terrible time – the once leafy forests were gaunt and bare, the koalas wandering around the bare tree trunks of the once magnificent manna gums. But the balance is slowly being restored. The seedlings planted last year are thriving and earlier plantings are sustaining the koalas for now. Research and monitoring continues apace, with CEC conducting annual surveys of the koala population distribution and the canopy condition across the Cape. Data collection continues to gather vital knowledge to ensure the koalas, and the woodlands on which they depend, have a safe and healthy future. When possible, land is purchased, restored, and kept in trust to secure long term habitat security for koalas.

The CEC can’t do this work without strong community support. The CEC’s Eco Allies program enables people who support its programs to come and see for themselves what is being done to try to rebalance the mighty manna gum woodlands in the Otways, and to save the animals that so depend on them – the iconic koalas.

Learn more about the Great Ocean Road Koala Habitat Rescue Program.

Learn more about joining the Eco-Alliance.