Koalas being returned to their habitat following a bushfire will have a fighting chance of survival after a generous donation to researchers in Canberra.
The research has already helped koalas displaced by the past summer’s bushfires return to their home at the Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust’s koala sanctuary, near Cooma, that was partially destroyed in January.
While the number of koalas displaced from the bushfires is unknown, the research will examine how koalas recover after a fire and how it impacts their habitat, including if their dietary needs can be met.
A generous $257,000 donation from the Minderoo Foundation – one of Australasia’s largest philanthropies, founded by Andrew and Nicola Forrest – will assist researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) to ensure koalas can be returned to their habitats after being displaced by a bushfire.
ANU researcher Dr Kara Youngentob said the project will help achieve the best welfare outcomes for koalas when they are returned to burnt landscapes.
“We will examine how fire affects the nutritional quality of koala habitats and eucalypt trees after a fire,” she said.
“With koalas facing the very real threats of localised extinctions and widespread habitat loss, as well as reeling from the unprecedented fires we’ve suffered this season in Australia, this is an investment in the long-term survival of one of this nation’s, and the world’s, most iconic animals.
“This is a major boost for koala conservation and management.”
Dr Youngentob said their research is critical for the development of strategies that minimise bushfire impacts on wildlife.
“This information is urgently needed to help wildlife carers determine when animals can be safely returned to previously burnt landscapes,” she said.
The ANU research project will examine how fire impacts eucalypt leaf chemistry and nutrition for koalas. The researchers will also determine whether koalas can feed on epicormic growth – the buds that lie dormant under the bark of a tree and emerge after a fire.
The research builds on care given to koalas at ANU earlier this year after they were directly affected by fires. The initial work was made possible by a generous $100,000 donation from Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust. Its koala sanctuary is located in the Peak View district, near Jerangle, northeast of Cooma.
“We’ve already discovered koalas can digest new, epicormic growth from some of the trees they usually eat,” said ANU co-researcher Dr Karen Ford.
“This breakthrough allowed us to return the first two koalas in our care back into the wild at Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust in late June. A lot of our initial conservation work and ongoing research was made possible by a $100,000 donation from Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust and its trustee, James Fitzgerald.”
The donation from Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust was made in memory of Ian McBeth, Paul Hudson and Rick DeMorgan Jr, the American firefighters who were killed on a firebombing operation when their C-130 Large Air Tanker hit the ground after dropping fire retardant on Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust’s koala sanctuary in January.
“We are really excited that Minderoo Foundation is now also joining these efforts and we hold great hope for the future,” said Dr Ford.
Minderoo Foundation Fire Fund CEO Adrian Turner said the images of suffering koalas during the bushfire season came to represent the terrible toll on Australian wildlife through the loss of life, injury and habitat.
The World Wildlife Fund estimates that as many as three billion animals lost their lives in the bushfires.
“Dr Ford and her team are working hard to make sure the surviving animals have the best chance at success when they are released,” said Mr Turner. “That information is helping koalas right now, but also builds our knowledge for long-term resilience of our unique Australian wildlife and will improve the response to any future disasters.”
In addition to examining koalas’ diets, the ANU researchers will track the fate of koalas from fire-affected areas and those that were not taken into care in nearby burnt and unburnt areas.
They will also investigate a potential rapid method to provide useful koala health information from their droppings.
The funding forms part of Minderoo Foundation Fire Fund’s $50 million Wildfire and Disaster Resilience Program, which aims to build an evidence base for interventions for the survival of Australia’s treasured wildlife in post-bushfire landscapes.
The research is also supported by the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment under the NSW Koala Strategy, and the Australian Government’s Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Program.