Wildlife researchers at The University of Queensland have developed a new management approach which could save the iconic koala from extinction.
UQ scientists have managed to turn around the fate of a koala colony on Brisbane’s southside with a project they describe as “a little out of the ordinary”.
A team of four wildlife researchers, led by Dr Sean FitzGibbon from UQ’s Koala Ecology Group, has spent more than two years focussing on a highly diseased colony in a 95-hectare patch of bushland at Belmont Hills Reserve in the Brisbane suburb of Carindale.
“We’ve been working on this since 2019 and we’ve already had a big impact by taking a systematic and ongoing approach to saving the koalas,” he said.
Dr FitzGibbon said a huge amount of time, money and effort went into treating sick koalas around Australia, but it was largely opportunistic rather than coordinated.
“When a sick koala gets spotted by a concerned community member, they call it in and the rescue crew does their best to catch it and if they succeed, the koala heads off to a wildlife hospital where, fingers crossed, it heals and is released,” he said.
“This happens all over the east coast of Australia, but it’s just playing around at the edges.
“We’re trying to demonstrate that with focused, ongoing effort, including vet treatment of sick koalas and the addition of new healthy individuals, the fate of declining populations can be turned around.
“We go into a population and give every individual a thorough assessment and tests to find out their health status.”
Dr FitzGibbon said this approach was working.
“When we started, 60% of the Belmont Hills koalas were infected with chlamydia and the population was crashing,” he said.
“We believe the population is now virtually free of chlamydia and we’ve got numerous females that are reproducing.
“The overall health of that population has been turned around dramatically and there’s now the likelihood that it will exist long into the future.”
With more than half of the koalas in South East Queensland affected by chlamydia, Dr FitzGibbon said this new approach could be used as a benchmark for koala conservation.
“There are dozens of koala colonies where this could work,” he said.
“We’re calling on the Queensland Government and local councils to work together to get koala survey teams to go out and do this and take a more strategic approach to treating sick koalas and conserving populations.”
Wildlife veterinarian Dr Amber Gillett said assessing the koalas in the field was a crucial part of the success of the project.
“Having the ability to do a full veterinary clinical examination in the field is a huge benefit to this population and it’s really critical to determining whether we have disease, how prevalent it is and how effectively we can clean-up this colony,” she said.
Koala numbers across the country are in severe decline due to habitat loss, land clearing, drought, bush fires, disease, car strike and dog attacks.
In February, the Federal government listed koala populations in Queensland, NSW and ACT as endangered.
Despite the dire predictions, Dr FitzGibbon is optimistic about the fate of koalas.
“I don’t see it all as doom and gloom and I’ve worked on a lot of other mammal species and koalas are a robust animal,” he said.
“We’re dealing with a pretty tough species – everyone makes out like they’re super sensitive, I think of them as pretty resilient animals.”