WWF report of 'likely' 100 per cent loss of koalas in Kiwarrak misleading

Evidence: Eight healthy koalas were spotted in the Kiwarrak State Forest fireground not long after the Hillville Road bushfires tore through the forest. The photo on the left is of a mother and baby. Photos: Bronwyn Ellis
Evidence: Eight healthy koalas were spotted in the Kiwarrak State Forest fireground not long after the Hillville Road bushfires tore through the forest. The photo on the left is of a mother and baby. Photos: Bronwyn Ellis

A report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature - Australia (WWF) is misleading in saying there was likely 100 per cent loss of koala populations in Kiwarrak State Forest, on the Mid Coast of NSW, after the Hillville bushfire ravaged the area in November 2019.

Mid Coast residents were dismayed and expressed grief on social media when local television stations reported there were no koalas left alive in the Kiwarrak ARKS (Area of Regional Koala Significant) when the report was released on September 6.

However, the report was met with disbelief from local koala rescue organisation, Koalas in Care, and ecologists from Forestry Corporation of NSW (FCNSW), managers of the land the surveys for the report were undertaken on, as evidence of koala habitation in the forest has been found after the bushfires.

Evidence found: FCNSW ecologist Brownyn Ellis, with koala detection dog Taylor and handler Ryan Tate. Photo: FCNSW

Evidence found: FCNSW ecologist Brownyn Ellis, with koala detection dog Taylor and handler Ryan Tate. Photo: FCNSW

Christeen McLeod of Taree-based Koalas in Care said researchers did not talk to Koalas in Care.

"We don't deny that it impacted on the local koala population because it absolutely did. It absolutely devastated the koala population. But you can't claim there's 100 per cent no koalas in there, when we've put 21 back in there," Mrs McLeod said.

"We were the front liners bringing the koalas in and dealing with what was coming in, but neither Steve Phillips (Biolink) or the WWF have spoken to us regarding what we brought in and what we released. So I'm kind of miffed at how they've come up with all of this, using their methodology.

"It's not to say there are areas out there that probably don't have koala evidence existing in them, but perhaps they didn't prior to the fires, either."

FCNSW performed searches for koalas in Kiwarrak State Forest as soon as possible after the fires.

"As soon as the immediate fire threat passed we took a range of steps to support impacted wildlife including adding water points and undertaking koala surveys with sniffer dogs," Chris Slade, senior ecologist, FCNSW said.

"Between late November and early December, Forestry Corporation spent five days carrying out searches with koala detection dogs, finding six koalas and collecting multiple pellets, indicating more koalas were present. Further koala sightings and pellet records have also been detected in surveys over the last three months.

Critter cam: A koala captured on motion sensor camera approaching a watering point installed in Kiwarrak State Forest by ecologist, Bronwyn Ellis. Photo: FCNSW

Critter cam: A koala captured on motion sensor camera approaching a watering point installed in Kiwarrak State Forest by ecologist, Bronwyn Ellis. Photo: FCNSW

"The survey results show that koalas are still living in fire affected areas. The results also show that it helps to use multiple survey methods to detect koalas, which can be very hard to spot in the tree tops," Mr Slade said.

At the time of the first FCNSW survey there were eight sightings of healthy, unburnt koalas in the forest. Further comprehensive surveys are currently being undertaken.

FCNSW Taree ecologist, Bronwyn Ellis has been working closely with Koalas in Care. Photos were taken of the eight koalas found during the first FCNSW survey and shown to Christeen McLeod who confirmed the koalas were healthy.

"Koalas are a solitary species with a large home range and it is not unusual for one koala to occupy up to 50 hectares, so to find eight koalas so far in this forest following the fires was extremely encouraging and heart-warming" Ms Ellis said.

Report methodology

Biolink Ecological Consultants undertook surveys in Kiwarrak State Forest and compared them to results obtained in surveys they had undertaken pre-bushfires in 2019.

Biolink surveys in Kiwarrak in 2019 found koala faecal pellets in 17 of the 69 sites surveyed. The 2020 report states that only 15 of the 69 Kiwarrak sites were able to be surveyed post-bushfires. No faecal pellets were found in any of the sites in 2020, however only one of the 15 sites resurveyed had previously had evidence of koala scat.

The sample method used to determine koala use of post-fire habitat was the absence or presence of koala faecal pellets under trees that are considered preferred koala food trees only.

On page 18 of the report Biolink concedes that the survey might not have been exhaustive enough to determine koala populations in Kiwarrak State Forest.

"In terms of the Kiwarrak component of the Hillville Road fire ground wherein no evidence of post-fire habitat use by koalas was recorded, it is possible that survey effort was not sufficient to detect koala survival," it said.