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