Koalas and People

Can you imagine finding Sarge in YOUR backyard?!

It seems like only yesterday I was in San Diego catching up with all the people at the the San Diego Zoo and the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research, but today I am in a very different and unique environment: North Stradbroke Island. I have written before about our work on this amazing island near Brisbane in Australia, but the most recent trip was a real eye-opener. Most of my work is centered on the remote island of St. Bees, where we don’t see any other people, and the koalas go about their business almost as if we don’t exist. On North Stradbroke Island, it seems that the locals—both koala and human—have worked out how to share their environment, at least in the small township of Amity Point.

Earlier this year we fitted four koalas at Amity Point with radio and GPS collars so we could track them and record their positions throughout the nights. Now we are recovering the collars and plotting the data, revealing a very interesting story. Far from only using the patches of trees that remain around and within the township, the koalas at Amity seem to make themselves right at home even within people’s backyards. I have included a photo of Sarge, one of the males we had collared. We found him sitting in the front yard of a house in Amity, apparently not disturbed by the occasional passing tourist. You can see the fence in the background, which leads to our next koala.

Library (so named because we first caught her in front of the local library grounds) was living right on the seaside, in the backyard of some locals who had made her transport easier by building bridges over the fences between their properties. By leaning old tree trunks up against the fences, they had created a passage for koalas to travel along, safely negotiating the urban landscape. When we caught her, we not only had several generations of residents watching us—we also found her to have a joey in her pouch.

Despite the houses, occasional shops, and frequent tourists, the koalas in Amity seem to highlight how people and koalas can share the environment. The locals are very interested in what any researchers are up to (and want to make sure we have a good reason to be catching the koalas!) and are keen to do what they can to encourage koalas to move safely through their properties. Sometimes this can be quite exciting, as one resident told us of an occasion when a koala landed on her roof, only to climb back into the tree (probably embarrassed for being clumsy), but in general the humans and koalas are co-existing in harmony.

We recovered a lot of detailed data recording where each of our koalas went, and it is clear that the residents’ yards and street trees are very important to these animals and that people who make sure the koalas can move through their properties are doing a great job in securing the future of this population. All the koalas were healthy, and each female had a joey in her pouch, which is a welcome change from some other locations in Southeast Queensland.

We will be continuing our work on North Stradbroke Island for several years to come; I am hoping we have found another haven, like St. Bees Island, where their future is a little brighter than many other places.

Bill Ellis is a Clark Endowed Postdoctoral Research Fellow for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Read his previous post, Urban Koalas.

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