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Richard Branson Koala Conservancy Releases Report

January 4, 2018 Responsible Tourism No Comments Email Email

The Richard Branson Koala Conservancy (RBKC) has completed its first full year of activities and has today released details of its pilot research project. 

The $75,000 pilot project, focussed on an investigation of the koala population inhabiting the Noosa River catchment at Noosa Heads, including Settler’s Cove, Weyba Park and Noosa Springs.  It is the first scientific assessment of its type ever conducted in the Noosa Shire.

Endeavour Veterinary Ecology (EVE) and the University of the Sunshine Coast (USC), under the supervision of Dr Jon Hanger and Professor Peter Timms respectively, were engaged by RBKC to lead the project.  Their consultation with community groups, other USC researchers and Noosa Council officers led to the choice of the study area, where populations of koalas were known to persist but were believed to be in significant decline.

The aim of the research project was to focus on population investigation and management by:

1.        gaining a detailed understanding of the status of the population by determining disease rates, causes of mortality and threats to Noosa koalas using considerable expertise and innovative monitoring technologies; and
2.         actively manage koala disease and other threats to recover the Noosa koala population.

The project commenced in early January 2017 and was completed in July 2017. 

Richard Branson said, “I am pleased that this pilot project has formulated the beginnings of a roadmap, in terms of what we need to do to be successful in our efforts to save the koala in 2018 and beyond.” Richard continued, “There is nothing like seeing these beautiful creatures living in their natural habitat, and this worrying report suggests action is necessary now to ensure this privilege remains.”

In brief:

·          The project commenced with experienced koala spotter/catchers from EVE searching Settler’s Cove and Pinnaroo Rotary Park in January for koalas to catch and tag.  Searching continued periodically in the broader area until April 2017.
 
·            In total, five adult koalas, comprising three males (Boe, Doncaster and Jean) and two females (Joan and Zahra), ranging in age from 2.5 to 6 years, were captured and monitored in the project.  Boe was recruited to the project from Noosa Springs after a short stay at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital. 

Methodology 

·           An innovative bio-telemetry monitoring system, the K-Tracker®, was used to monitor the koalas, along with a back-up VHF anklet. The K-Tracker system allowed for daily monitoring of koalas, using remote (desk-top) access to both GPS and activity data streams.  A K-Tracker GPS tag facilitated monitoring of the animal’s 12-hourly movements, providing a location at 10 am and 10 pm.
 
·         At each in-field tracking event (observations by EVE staff), which occurred at regular intervals, details were collected on the koala’s health, tree details, GPS location and tag functioning.  This provided information on the koala’s use of the local habitat and health, in addition to the remote activity and locational data collected by the GPS tags.
 
Ranging behaviour
 
·         The monitored koalas used a variety of bushland, park and urban habitat between Settler’s Cove and Noosa Springs.  Koalas Zahra, Joan and Jean had home ranges that incorporated much of the vegetation around the low-lying swamps.  Zahra and Jean also ranged in the more urban environments and were located in fragmented habitat along urban roads and creek line corridors between residential development.  Koalas Boe and Doncaster used much of the same habitat in their home ranges – this included remnant patches of habitat within the Noosa Springs Golf Course and residential area, the Elysium estate and Weyba Park.

Habitat use

·         The monitored koalas used at least nine tree species for food and shelter. The most frequently used tree was the swamp mahogany (Eucalyptus robusta) – over a third (37%) of koalas were observed in this tree during field tracking. The blue gum (E. tereticornis) and paperbark (Melaleuca quinquenervia) made up another 37% of trees used by the tagged koalas. Koalas were also found in other non-food tree species such as pink bloodwood (Corymbia intermedia), Macaranga sp., unidentified rainforest trees and fig trees (Ficus spp).
 
Disease threat
 
·       The laboratory testing component of the project at USC led to the five koalas being tested for Chlamydia using a sensitive PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assay.  Chlamydia-related disease was detected in two of the koalas, or 40% of the animals.
 
·            One female koala (Zahra) was reproductively sterile due to chlamydial infection. Following antibiotic treatment, she became Chlamydia negative by PCR analysis.
 
·          One male koala (Jean) had clinical signs of conjunctivitis. When tested by PCR for Chlamydia, Jean was positive in the eyes but also positive at the urogenital tract site.  This is not surprising as many koalas can have subclinical infections.  Following antibiotic treatment, he became Chlamydia negative.
 
·            Sadly, one of the female koalas died suddenly in March 2017 due to septicaemia, likely caused by a severe rain event at that time.
 
·            Despite the small sample size, this finding suggests that disease is a significant threat to the Noosa koala population.
 
·            These disease figures are also consistent with the findings in other studies investigating koala populations in SEQ (Loader, 2010), and validate the view that chlamydial disease is one of the primary threats to koala population viability in Queensland.
  
Vehicle Strike threat
 
·        Two of the male koalas (Boe and Doncaster) made numerous crossings of Eenie Creek Road. This is a major 80 km/h arterial road leading into Noosa and a known koala ‘hotspot’ for vehicle-related injuries and deaths of koalas, based on wildlife hospital admissions from public reporting.  Koala Doncaster was previously hit by a vehicle on Eenie Creek Rd in August 2015.  The RBKC has been informed by Noosa Council that Eenie Creek Road is being reviewed as part of a wildlife crossing audit.
 
·        Four of the five koalas also crossed residential streets, however the lower speeds and reduced night time traffic in residential areas generally pose less of a threat to the safe movement of koalas.
Conclusions

This short-term pilot project was successful in achieving the following:

•           A preliminary understanding of the health and reproductive status and threats facing an urban / peri-urban population of koalas in Noosa;
•           Non-breeding season ranging behaviour and habitat use.

Since the completion of the pilot project the RBKC has focussed its efforts on trying to gain the financial support of key stakeholders. During 2018 we will redouble our efforts to gain support and funding the Queensland Government, Noosa Council and the Noosa Biosphere Reserve Foundation.

Brett Godfrey said, “This type of science-based work – active koala monitoring and management – has real, demonstrable and persistent benefits to local koala populations if expanded sufficiently in terms of geographic range.” Brett continued, “We are committed to support reversing the downward trend, and we will continue to urge other stakeholders to follow the strong commitment made by the Conservancy to protect the region’s koalas.”

The RBKC will continue research with a focus on koala health but within the confines of seed funding provided by its co-founders Sir Richard Branson and Brett Godfrey, and its own fundraising efforts.  The RBKC hopes for community support of these efforts in 2018 and further details will be announced in due course.

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