OVER three billion animals were killed or displaced in the Black Summer bushfires of 2019-20 – 60,000 of those were koalas.
The fires burnt about 24 million acres and confirmed the trend of worsening fire weather with increased forest areas caught by fires with each event.
The wild koalas on Western Plains, particularly around the You Yangs and Brisbane Ranges to the west of Melbourne that the Koala Clancy Foundation supports, were not directly affected by the Black Summer fires.
“We have been through a terrible fire event in 2006 though,” Ms Janine Duffy, President of the Koala Clancy Foundation, said.
“We lost 90 per cent of our Koalas in that fire.”
“I know exactly what fire does, especially climate change fires which are hotter and more intense,” Ms Duffy said.
After the devastation of the 2019 – 20 fires, the foundation developed a 300,000 tree planting goal.
Traditionally, koalas lived beside the rivers and the fertile low lands of the western plains.
Over time and as a direct result of land clearing for agricultural farms, forests that were koala habitats were removed and lost.
Koalas ended up on top of hills, located in national parks.
“With climate change drying out the forest at the tops of the hills, the forests are dying,” Ms Duffy said.
“They are becoming completely useless for leaf eating mammals like koalas,”
“They are so dry and the nutritional quality of the leaves is getting poorer and poorer.”
Koala research in the You Yangs by the foundation since 2006 has documented a 60 per cent decline in Koala numbers in a decade.
The foundation aims to plant the trees along river corridors of the district by 2030 to create enough habitat and ensure the future survival of the You Yang and Brisbane Range Koalas.
In 2020 they planted over 25,000 native koala trees in the You Yangs region.
They also received funding that enabled them to plant 11,000 trees in East Gippsland on the edges of the bushfire zone.
“I take the approach that we are not going to wait.
“We are going to do something before it [bushfires] happens, and strengthen our population so they can spread out across the landscape,” Ms Duffy said.
“Maybe a few will miss the fire because we know it is going to come, don’t we?”
The Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) developed a Victorian state-wide koala abundance model report, used to inform actions in the draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy.
The department uses the estimates for policy and decisions around the management of koala populations.
Over 2000 different koala surveys were used to develop the model and population estimates.
In 2013 and 2014, almost 700 koalas were culled, in secret, in the Cape Otway area of western Victoria because of “overpopulation issues”.
High-density koala populations strip trees, particularly Manna Gums, of their leaves and cause tree death.
A sustainable koala density is estimated to be approximately one koala per hectare for mixed eucalyptus forests.
In a media release in 2021, Senior Wildlife Management Officer Department of Environment Land Water and Planning (DELWP) Wes Burns said: “The over-abundance of Koalas at Cape Otway is a difficult long-term issue brought about by their love of Manna Gums for habitat and as a food source.
“Koalas eat up to a kilogram of gum leaves every day, and by reducing koala numbers in Cape Otway woodland, we’re both ensuring the health of the koala population and health of their habitat.”
The department continues to manage the koala population at Cape Otway.
The koala abundance model report was used to inform actions in the draft Victorian Koala Management Strategy, currently open for public feedback until April 2022.
“I am very strongly opposed to the approach that both the state and federal government have taken on koalas,” Ms Duffy said.
“The 50 million promised by the federal government will only ever get dispersed if they are returned to government.”
In January 2022, the Federal Government pledged 50 million dollars over four years to support koalas by protecting koala habitats and improving of koala medical research.
The federal government have not developed a recovery plan for koalas since the devastation of the 2019-20 Black Summer fires.
“The Victorian government is no better,” Ms Duffy said.
“They have just finally released the overdue Koala management strategy, overdue by five years.”
Koala management is usually through population control rather than creating of wildlife corridors through suburban developments or wildlife highways across major roads.
The Koala Clancy Foundation has estimated from their research that 3,000 trees per koala are needed and have planted 57,000 trees to date.
“My message for people is this is not your fault, but you can do a lot to fix it,” Ms Duffy said.
“Get out there, feel fantastic, get your hands dirty with marvellous people.
“It’s so fulfilling to take the power back into our hands where it belongs.”