A visitor review

By Luca Ronconi

Knowing her from the facebook page “Koala Gardens at Tuckurimba” and becoming interested in koalas and their conservation, I visited Katrina at the beginning of September. It has been a unique opportunity to understand better all the issues koalas and all wildlife are currently facing.

She has been regenerating the habitat on her property over the last years with the help of a professional team. They have planted hundreds of trees many of which koala food trees. This has increased the stability of a koala colony with an increasing number of other koalas using it as a corridor.

Koala mum and joey
We had to crane out necks to see Stevie and her joey about 30 metres above us!

I already knew the names of the koalas belonging to the colony of which in just few hours we got to see Bullet, an almost 4 year-old male and Stevie, a female with a joey just beginning to emerge from her mother’s pouch. Then we saw another koala, Julius, not yet belonging to the colony but not new to the Koala Gardens.

Male koala in bloodwood tree
Bullet – a regular male in the Koala Gardens Colony

We visited Friends of the Koala in Lismore where we could see how busy they are rescuing injured and sick koalas, rehabilitating those in care, gathering fresh leaves for them, educating the public and many other things connected with koala preservation. We attended a presentation given by Lindy whose finger was wounded by of the bite of a rescued koala: a reminder that in spite of their cute appearance they are wild animals and only licensed and trained people should handle and rescue them when it is appropriate. Ordinary people should just report every koala sighting and above all call when they spot sick, injured or orphaned koalas that need to be rescued as soon as possible. Almost all of them are volunteers dedicating their free time to these amazing yet threatened creatures.

I also had the opportunity to meet Marley the first employed Vet Nurse. They are doing everything they can to preserve the koalas but the area they cover is huge, basically the Northern Rivers region up to the Queensland border to the north. For this reason, they need additional volunteers.

Katrina also took me to three sites where usually there is koala activity, in two of them we saw a koala: one healthy male and a girl with a joey. The other site, Tucki Tucki Reserve, used to be a 4 ha area populated by many koalas but Katrina hasn’t seen them for a few years now and we didn’t get to spot any, neither there were clear signs of recent koala activity (particularly we didn’t find scats): this was sad because it’s a viable habitat but there might be some reasons they are no longer there.

male koala at Tucki bora ring in the wild
Local koala spotted at Tucki Aboriginal Bora Ring

There are so many questions that are yet to be answered. As Katrina said “the more I know about them, the more questions I find that I don’t have answers to”.

In fact, you might think the koala is a predictable and simple animal whose main occupations are sleeping and feeding on eucalyptus leaves, instead they are indeed very complex marsupials organised into a hierarchical and peculiar society. Each koala has his/her own home range and frequently his/her own home trees with the alpha male and alpha female having the larger home range overlapping the others. When they become independent from their mothers, they often move from their original territories to find new ones they can call home.

Unfortunately, having more and more fragmented habitat because of land clearing, urban sprawl and busier and busier roads, they are facing many more dangers than in the past. Hence the high mortality rate due to vehicle hits, domestic and feral dog attacks and stress-related diseases such as chlamydia and koala retrovirus.

When in the trees they’re much less prone to these risks whereas on the ground their lives are always in potential jeopardy.

Unfortunately, limiting their movements with fencing is not a solution because it would create inbred population not genetically diverse thus often weaker, more inclined to diseases. Moreover, it would prevent other koalas from entering a safe and viable habitat. One could think that there are plenty of trees in rural areas, but there are only three primary koala food trees: Forest Red Gum, Tallowwood and Swamp Mahogany.

Then there are a dozen or so secondary koala food trees such as the Paperbark and the Pink Bloodwood, but they’re just a fraction of the hundreds of eucalyptus trees.

On Katrina’s property there are primary koala food trees and also secondary food trees. Many are self-sown, others have been planted and are used to supply the koalas in care at the Lismore Friends of the Koala centre. It’s amazing the quantity of leaves they need daily. To give the patients in care the best chance to heal, they provide them a wide variety of leaves of the highest quality.

male koala wild at Koala Gardens
Julius sheltering in the canopy

But the habitat regeneration is not just about koalas. On Katrina’s property there are now many vulnerable species. She has put nest boxes on some trees for the little lorikeets, even though one is now used by a family of squirrel gliders and another by a snake. It’s fabulous to see how habitat can be regenerated and become home to a variety of native plants, herbs and animals.

My personal thought and little invite is that many landowners should follow Katrina’s example restoring habitat on their properties or at least a portion of them ensuring wildlife corridors crucial to the survival of many species. It’s so rewarding and can make all the difference for them but also for us in the long run.

A world without wild animals would not just be very sad but also not hospitable for us. There is no turning back from destroying an ecosystem and the consequences are going to hit us sooner or later. Watching wild koalas living a peaceful life in the wild as it’s meant to be is so exciting and totally different than just seeing them inside zoo precincts. And, think about this, just a few years ago a koala was not a frequent occurrence on Katrina’s property. maybe just two individuals in a month. Last month, Katrina recorded 20 different individuals on her property.

It may seem a miracle but everyone living in the beautiful surroundings can make it happen.

In conclusion, I can’t thank Katrina enough for educating me, answering my questions and sharing her passion that has become a way of life making a positive impact for the koala, wildlife in general and, ultimately, all of us.

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Trees ain’t trees

Regenerating native habitat is usually achieved using two basic methods, and they are not exclusive. A great result is often achieved by using both together.

  1. Planting saplings that either come from elsewhere or grown from seed on the property.
  2. Encouraging and nurturing natural regeneration.

Koala Gardens now has 8 years of regeneration work to observe and compare and during this time both strategies have been used.

Planting of species as tube stock is the only option when you need to add species to the property that do not currently exist. One thing it is important to consider when choosing species to introduce is what habitat and species are endemic to the area. Unfortunately, in the past, species have been planted outside of their native area, thinking that if they are Australian they are native. This is not always true.

Knowing what is endemic allows you to plant the habitat that will quickly assist the correct ecosystems to be re-established or repaired.

Natural regeneration

Regeneration needs to focus on entire ecosystems, rather than thinking in terms of creating plantations. This will mean considering the under-storey, mid-storey and top-storey with the flora, and considering the fauna that will be involved from insects through to the larger mammals, reptiles and birds.

Plantation thinking often results in mono-cultures or out-of-area plantings that don’t support the local fauna as well.

Row of saplings planted by hand in 2013

However, what has interested me more in my observations is two main areas of difference I have observed in how natural regeneration trees behave and grow, and in how the koalas behave in response to them.

In order to reproduce a tree will flower and these flowers must be pollinated to produce viable seed. There are a range of animals that assist this happening from fruit bats, to honeyeater birds to bees and other insects. In eucalyptus trees the seed is contained inside gum nuts which protect the seed until it is fully formed.

Each mature eucalyptus tree may release tens of thousands of seeds in a single year. Some of the seed falls to the ground around the parent tree, and some may be born on the wind to fall some distance away.

If conditions are right, there could be hundreds of young seedlings that result. They may be sparsely positioned or there may be clumps of saplings. Not every sapling is going to grow to maturity for many reasons. However, as they are growing, there are many benefits to growing in a community.

Naturally sown saplings generally grow at a slower rate than saplings grown in a nursery and planted as tube stock, and are often much closer to each other than deliberate plantings.

Area of natural regeneration – notice how close together each sapling is.

The next article will discuss the pros and cons of slower growth, and following articles will address community living of trees.

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