Back from the brink

They were hunted to near ex­tinc­tion for their fur but a com­mu­nity of koalas south of Syd­ney has staged a re­mark­able re­cov­ery

The Sunday Telegraph (Sydney) - - NEWS - JACK MORPHET

The in­cred­i­ble koala colony sur­viv­ing in the city against all odds

THEY sur­vived be­ing made into hats and gloves by hunters dur­ing the early decades of this cen­tury — but only just.

Now a cu­ri­ous koala com­mu­nity spread across the South­ern High­lands has stunned sci­en­tists with a sur­prise story of sur­vival against the odds.

Un­be­known to ex­perts or res­i­dents, the koala pop­u­la­tion stem­ming out south from Camp­bell­town has come roar­ing back from the brink of ex­tinc­tion.

The im­pact of the fur trade on koala num­bers is per­haps lit­tle known to­day but the Aus­tralian Koala Foun­da­tion es­ti­mates at least eight mil­lion were killed dur­ing the early 20th cen­tury, with their pelts shipped to Lon­don, the US and Canada to be made into hats and gloves and to line coats.

Only hun­dreds of an­i­mals were thought to be left in NSW be­fore the trade was halted and even now the na­tional trea­sure re­mains a threat­ened species, with an es­ti­mated 36,000 alive to­day across the state.

It’s against this back­ground that sci­en­tists were shocked when a track­ing study launched in 2014 rang­ing from Fitzroy Falls to the Wombeyan Caves found more than 3000 koalas — the largest known pop­u­la­tion in south­ern NSW.

The sur­prise find has spurred on re­searchers to this year study an­other large swath of con­ser­va­tion area fur­ther north, from the dams above Wol­lon­gong down to Ap­pin and Wil­ton. The project is search­ing hun­dreds of sites across Wol­londilly Shire and so far have found koalas in almost a quar­ter of the lo­ca­tions — point­ing again to a healthy lo­cal pop­u­la­tion.

The re­searchers are us­ing satel­lite tech­nol­ogy to fig­ure out ex­actly where the com­mu­nity of cud­dly mar­su­pi­als live and what they eat. It’s hoped de­tailed map­ping will help coun­cils pre­vent de­vel­op­ment en­croach­ing on the im­por­tant habi­tat.

“Koalas in this area are poorly un­der­stood; we don’t know what trees they’re us­ing and where they’re mov­ing to and from,” Of­fice of En­vi­ron­ment and Her­itage Threat­ened Species Of­fi­cer Lach­lan Will­mott said. “We think the pop­u­la­tion is in­creas­ing and start­ing to come out of the hard-to-reach catch­ment area into de­vel­oped ar­eas.”

Re­searchers also be­lieve

they’ve stum­bled on the only pop­u­la­tion of koalas in main-land Aus­tralia with­out the sex­u­ally-trans­mit­ted dis­ease chlamy­dia. In other koala pop­u­la­tions around the coun-try chlamy­dia has in­fected 90 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion.

A lot of koalas have chlamy­dia, which ren­ders them in­fer­tile, slows down re­pro-duc­tive rate and they ul­ti­mat-ely die,” Mr Will­mott said.

To up­root sleepy koalas from high up in trees, climbers must join them in the canopy and coax them down by wav­ing a flag above their heads.

Vets from the Univer­sity of Syd­ney se­date the an­i­mal for half an hour, while they take ge­netic sam­ples, swab for dis­ease, check for ba­bies in their pouch and if they’re healthy enough — se­cure a GPS col­lar.

Koalas with track­ing col­lars are then given names from char­ac­ters in Game of Thrones, which means there’s a fluffy Jon Snow, a Hodor and a Khal Drogo munch­ing on gum leaves.

There’s also Publi­can, a koala caught cross­ing the road out­side a pub in Ap­pin.

Publi­can was tagged and re­leased but six months later he was found 10km away and given a GPS.

The track­ing map show­ing Juliet the koala’s move­ments over a six-month pe­riod. One of the koalas hides in a tree be­fore be­ing cap­tured for ex­am­i­na­tion. Pic­tures: Ro­han Kelly

TEETH CHECKED

Threat­ened Species Of­fi­cer Lach­lan Wil­mott and vet­eri­nar­ian Caro­line Marschner check a koala and fit a col­lar.

Wil­mott and Marschner ex­am­ine a koala.

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