Conservation news

How to help koalas recover after Australia’s fires? Q&A with Rebecca Montague-Drake

  • Mongabay spoke with Rebecca Montague-Drake from the Koala Recovery Partnership to discuss the road to recovery for koalas.
  • She explained that Australia needs to address climate change to stop the drivers of impacts such as drought and bushfires as well as at the practical level of trying to mitigate the impacts of fire and drought for koalas, through improved fire management and habitat measures.
  • The Koala Recovery Partnership, in association with the Koala Hospital, seek a philanthropic organization to partner with in purchasing high-quality koala habitat across the koala’s range.
  • The NSW government’s Saving Our Species Program has identified a number of Areas of Regional Koala Significance (ARKS) that meet these criteria and Koala Recovery Partnership is working with them to deliver koala recovery strategies in line with this concept.

As part of the World Wildlife Day celebrations, experts from around the world gathered in New York to participate in the Wild Ideas panel (powered by the UN and Jackson Wild Film Festival) to discuss the global biodiversity crisis and the impacts of climate change. spoke with Rebecca Montague-Drake from the Koala Recovery Partnership to examine the marsupial’s current status in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires.

This is the second part of a three-part series. Read also part I discussing how koalas are recovering in Port Macquarie Koala Hospital here. Part III outlines how climate change is affecting the koala populations.

Australian firefighter.  © toa555 / Adobe Stock

Mongabay: What is the extent of the damage to the koala population?

Rebecca Montague-Drake: The absolute answer to this question is not known with certainty as the situation is very complex with many factors to be considered, including the local extent and severity of the fires. Both of these factors impact koalas’ ability to survive during, and after, a fire event. If we look at the direct impacts of the fires, and we take New South Wales (NSW) as one example, approximately 30% of koala habitat was burned across the State, with about 66% of that being at a severity that would not facilitate koala survival. This would mean that around 20% of koalas perished. However, the fire impacted a number of high carrying-capacity areas, meaning that the total figures are higher than this. We also have to remember that the impacts of the fires are one thing, but even before the fires, koalas were already suffering the effects of long-term drought and habitat loss. A number of monitoring programs are currently being conducted to assess the extent of the damage and the Koala Recovery Partnership is working with the NSW state government’s Saving Our Species Program to undertake such monitoring in key areas. Another study, which has already completed a few sites, is reporting declines as high as 80%.

© Romi Castagnino

Studies have shown that koalas are likely to go extinct in the wild in many areas of New South Wales within the next 50 years. In your opinion regarding policy, what are the management actions required to reverse their declining trend?

We need to address the biggest threats to koalas. The first thing is to address habitat loss. We need to reverse legislation and policy which permits the legal clearing of koala habitat. Unfortunately, we have now reached such a tipping point in Australia, with so many runs of hot, dry seasons, that even planting programs to reverse habitat loss are fraught with difficulty. We also need to protect important populations of koalas in perpetuity through securing areas of high-quality koala habitat. This can be done in two ways, one is through direct purchase and two, through working with landholders for permanent conservation agreements.

Trees cleared on a rural property, New South Wales, Australia. © fieldofvision / Adobe Stock

The second thing is to address climate change. This needs addressing at the highest levels to stop the drivers of impacts such as drought and bushfires as well as at the practical level where we try to mitigate the impacts of fire and drought for koalas, through planting mesic refuge areas, planting eucalypts from hotter, drier areas, [and] undertaking improved fire management and response that better protects koalas and their habitat. It is clear that engaging with the broader community is also important, as many people do not properly understand the threats that face koalas, nor how their actions impact koalas.

How important is purchasing land for koala conservation?

The importance of purchasing land for koala conservation cannot be emphasized enough. The Koala Recovery Partnership, in association with the Koala Hospital, are wanting to partner with a philanthropic organization to purchase high-quality koala habitat across the koala’s range. This is very important for several reasons; 1. In a world of increasing localized stochastic events, such as bushfires, it is important to secure as many populations as possible to minimize the risk of extinction; 2. Preserving the genetic diversity of koalas is extremely important for disease resistance and adaptation; 3. Protecting populations at different latitudes and altitudes will again help us to secure the future of the koala in this rapidly changing world. The koala is also an ‘umbrella species’ – by protecting koala habitat, and with good knowledge about other threatened species’ habitat preferences, which we have, we can protect many other threatened species as well.

Eucalypt forest in the Great Otway National Park, Victoria, Australia. ©  Kevin / Adobe Stock

As the size and status of koala populations differ significantly across Australia, states have different legislation regarding the approval of development projects. Do you think that Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs) and project approvals should be stricter in koala habitat areas?

I think that currently there is a mismatch between what the legislation seeks to achieve, and what it actually delivers. This is driven by a mismatch between legislative requirements and what is ecologically meaningful for the long-term persistence of many species, including the koala. I would like to see ecologists have a greater role in the preparation of regulations to maximize meaningful outcomes. I also think that we have a flawed system where the ecological assessors are directly engaged by the developers. A better system would be to have the developer pay into a government fund with the government, then appointing an assessor, thereby ensuring that the assessor is ‘at distance’ from the developer.

One of your projects is the design and implementation of a long-term monitoring program. Can you briefly explain the influence of habitat quality and threat factors in locating high priority habitats for koalas?

Even the best habitat that contains the right soils and koala feeding and shelter opportunities can have its values undermined by threats such as road strikes, domestic dog attacks, and habitat fragmentation at larger scales. This has been the story, sadly, for koalas, across much of the best habitat areas of eastern Australia’s coastal floodplains, where Australia’s human population is most populous. It is therefore important when looking for sites to prioritize investment into koalas that we not only consider habitat value but also threat status. The NSW government’s Saving Our Species Program has identified a number of Areas of Regional Koala Significance (ARKS) that meet these criteria and we are working with them to deliver koala recovery strategies in line with this ARKS concept.

How are you going to work with local landholders to promote koala conservation?

The Koala Recovery Partnership is trying to educate landholders about koalas and their habitat requirements as well as helping the NSW Biodiversity Conservation Trust deliver incentive payments for landholders to place conservation covenants on properties with high-quality koala habitat. Unfortunately, such payments are not as much as, for example, developing land or undertaking private native forestry, and hence the direct purchase of high-quality habitat is something that is also required.

Sleeping koala © Rhett A. Butler

Experts have debunked the idea that koalas are “functionally extinct.” However, considering the damage the fires have done to koala populations, do you think it is necessary to re-evaluate their ‘Vulnerable’ listing?

I definitely do. Many of the estimates derived for koala loss hitherto have been talking about the impacts of the fires, or have come from coastal areas. The situation in inland NSW from long-term drought, for example, is extremely dire and in my lifetime, koalas have gone extinct in many areas across their previous range. These figures need to be considered when deriving decline rates, and we need to be really adopting IUCN criteria for species loss, not just considering it.

How can individuals get involved in koala protection and habitat regeneration?

There has been an outpouring of global support for koalas following the bushfire crisis, which has been amazing and we thank the world for their support of wildlife care institutions. But we now need to be strategic in terms of future investment opportunities that protect habitat, after all, there is no point saving koalas if they have no home to return to. I also think we all need to consider how our personal actions impact increased carbon emissions, which impact everything from drought to fire to the quality of a koala’s food source.

What can we learn from these past months?

This summer, for me personally, living directly amongst this crisis of bushfire and drought, has brought the reality of climate change home to me. It is happening now, it is happening quickly, and it impacts us all. On the coastal belt of Australia, we have lived perhaps in a more ‘sheltered’ part of the world than our inland compatriots, but this summer brought the reality of what it is like to live with intense water restrictions, heat, and fire home to us. Many of us became ‘climate refugees’ as we evacuated our houses, until the bushfire threat had passed (some poor people of course had no home to return to) or because we had simply run out of water. Living amongst a natural catastrophe it impacts everything – our health, our environment, our mental wellbeing, our ability to go about tasks that we take for granted every day, such as washing clothes, or educating our children (many schools, including my children’s, were closed for long periods during the bushfire crisis). Much of Australia’s infrastructure, our food production, and businesses have been deeply impacted by the drought and fire crisis. I really think governments can no longer think about the economic costs of moving away from ‘business as usual,’ they must think about the social, economic and environmental costs of not doing this.

Building and cars burnt during bushfires in Australia © Marta / Adobe Stock

Banner image: Koala © Rhett A. Butler


Romi Castagnino is Mongabay’s bilingual writer. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @romi_Castagnino