Perspectives on koala conservation – Part 1

 

To live safely and happily as a wild koala with enough habitat to survive, let alone thrive, is not easy – David Cuschieri 

A 2015 report on the status of koalas in coastal South East Queensland found that despite existing protection strategies, koala numbers have decreased by 50–80% in key habitat areas over the last 20 years.[1] Furthermore raging wildfires during an unprecedented 2019-20 fire season are estimated to have decimated up to one third of remaining populations. Research evincibly suggests the koala’s conservation status in SEQ be upgraded from “vulnerable” to “critically endangered.” Despite the well-meaning efforts of many, it can seem like competing priorities – between local and state governments, private developers and conservation groups, tourism operators and residents – are impeding any real progress to protect this reportedly “functionally extinct” species.

With the koala breeding season nearly here, we want to find out more about the plight of the koalas at this point in time. Join us for this series as we climb some trees, ask some questions and gain a range of perspectives on koala conservation within our city.

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Part 1 – We talk to wildlife rescuer David Cuschieri about a new project, Koalas on the Green, and find out just how creative you have to be to rehome urban koalas.

Husband and wife David and Heidi Cuschieri are wildlife rescuers for Wildcare Australia Inc., a role that David says is demanding and stressful but very rewarding. As wildlife first responders, they can be called out anytime of the day or night and they need to be ready at a moment’s notice. Last year they attended over 100 call outs to sick and injured koala. Looking for safe ways to rehome koalas led them to start an initiative called Koalas On The Green. We asked David to tell us more about the project.

 

Could you tell me about Koalas on the Green and how the project arose?

As first responders to sick and injured koalas day and night, we see first hand the immense difficulties that urban koalas face. When we do rescue a koala that can be treated and rehabilitated by the wildlife hospitals in South-East Queensland, that koala must be returned to where it was rescued (its home range). In many cases however, urban koalas are rescued from highly dangerous locations and in these instances, under DES regulations, a koala can be released within five kilometres of its rescue location. This is where golf courses come in. Golf courses provide a ‘safe haven’ to release those koalas where their exact rescue location was very dangerous. We have released a number of koalas onto Gold Coast golf courses.

Why is koala rescue an important issue for you?

Heidi and I have always been passionate about animals and the environment, however like most, we were very unaware and uneducated about the extent and the gravity of human impact on our wildlife.

After undertaking a five month pilgrimage walking from London to Jerusalem three years ago and experiencing so little wildlife along the journey, I came away with a profound gratitude of our Australian wildlife. This along with seeing the vulnerable creatures Heidi cares for round the clock has given me a much greater and deeper understanding for how very difficult and challenging it is for native wildlife living alongside us. How each precious possum, glider or koala is facing such immense obstacles to survive because of human impact.

Why golf courses?

Golf courses are often the largest tracts of land in our built-up suburbs, and they provide habitat, food sources, and what we like to call ‘koala superhighways’. This is so that koalas can travel safely through areas without the threat of dogs, cars and the gauntlet of roads and fences. Golf Courses provide an ideal solution to assist koalas in their long-term survival.

What feedback have you received from golf courses and the surrounding communities so far?

The pilot project at Arundel Hills Country Club has been a great success. We were sure to plant koala food trees in areas that would not compromise or interfere with the members of obstruct residents’ views.

At first we had mixed reactions from members fearful that more trees would create more hazards. However, as time went on, we have had a very positive response with members coming up to us excited to tell us where they have seen a koala on the golf course.

The trees have a few years before we can see the positive impact they will provide local koalas. In the meantime though, the initiative is creating greater environmental awareness in the golfing community and surrounding residents. It is showing how golf courses can very easily and cost effectively help our native wildlife.

We were approached by another local golf course and currently looking at revegetating areas to provide habitat for native species as well as provide a safe and convenient facility for wildlife carers to harvest leaf, flowers and fruit for their animals in care.

What would you like to see implemented to improve the long-term health and survival rates of koala and other native animals in SEQ?

We want to create a ‘green standard’ for golf courses. We are currently in talks with two environmental consultants, one specialises in organic maintenance of golf courses, and the other revegetates areas of golf courses with local native plant species. By going totally green, golf courses can become healthy vital environments where wildlife can thrive.

On a government level I would like to see the conservation status of koalas changed from vulnerable to endangered together with a swift implementation of the Draft South East Queensland Conservation Strategy. Time isn’t on the side of koalas. Some of the recommendations of the draft strategy include the protection of koala habitat together with strategic and landscape-scale koala habitat restoration.

On a community level, I would like to see greater education and awareness of how each of us as individuals can look after our precious native wildlife in our suburbs. The environmental teams within the City of Gold Coast do a tremendous job to engage and bring awareness of our local wildlife with the NaturallyGC program, as well as supporting many local Landcare groups. I would also like to see increased resources and a higher value placed on the vital work of volunteer wildlife rescuers and carers.

What motivates you to want to do this work saving koalas?

With continued urban development, every tree counts. Unless we begin to find creative ways to connect existing habitats and provide greater food sources, then our suburban Gold Coast koala populations may become a thing of the past. Doing this initiative makes us hopeful and positive for the future of our urban koalas.

As responsible residents, there are many simple steps we can take to help our urban koalas:

* Slow down when driving through known wildlife areas.

* Be extra cautious of animals darting out on the road.

* If you see a sick or injured koala or native animal please contact your local rescue group immediately.

* Keep pets indoors at night when wildlife are most vulnerable to encounters from domestic animals. This keeps beloved pets and wildlife safe from one another.

Koalas On The Green’s mission is to creatively connect landholders, businesses and communities for the common green. They would like to sincerely thank all the volunteers, Arundel Hills Country Club, Stuart Robert MP, Watergum, Wildcare and Gecko Environmental Council for funding support.

Visit fb.com/koalasonthegreen to find out more and take part in future volunteer events.

[1] Rhodes et al. 2015, South East Queensland Koala Population Modelling Study

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