From the Newsroom

Max is a ‘canine for wildlife’ and is trained to sniff out koala scats. Image: Contributed

Max sniffs out koala habitat

Geoff Helisma

Federal Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley announced on Friday February 11 that she was increasing the protection of “koalas in NSW, the ACT and Queensland [by] listing them as ‘endangered’, rather than their previous designation of ‘vulnerable’”.

Meanwhile, volunteer environmental organisation, Clarence Valley Environment Centre (CEC – established 1989), has released the results of a survey it commissioned, “to undertake koala scat detection [using a specifically trained] dog … in the Shannondale area, [in order] to assess koala presence/absence after the droughts, fires and floods”.

Patricia Edwards, who is the coordinator of the Clarence Valley branch of the Land for Wildlife scheme for the Clarence Valley, said Max, a springer spaniel, “sniffed out 67 koala scat sites across the surveyed area, the majority with multiple scats showing a koala’s good use of each tree”.

She said that comparing the survey’s findings with historical records showed a high use of the area by koalas over a substantial period.

“While unable to assess koala numbers within the area, the survey results were able to sum up conclusively that large areas of the Shannondale area are in regular use by koalas, as well as likely to be sustaining a resident koala population,” she said.

Canines for Wildlife surveyed 26 hectares over six days, including the access road to Clarence Valley Council’s Shannon Creek Dam, covering 63.2km and focussing on habitat that wasn’t burnt during the 2019 bushfires.

Ms Edwards said that “CEC members, as well as involved residents, are elated with the end results”.

“They are way better than anything I had let myself believe,” she said.

“We live at Shannondale, and the silence from the bush after the dreadful time for the koalas made us seriously think we had lost them.

“I released several young females into that area for WIRES over the years, but then everything fell horribly silent after a 2016 wildfire.

“That fire damaged a lot of land out there as well as our own.

“I believed we had lost everything we had worked for.

“Then the drought, and more bushfires across the whole state, it was a dreadful depressing time.

“So, hiring the sniffer dog has been a really good thing to do, it has been a wonderful positive project for a lot of people.”

Minister Ley said in a media release that the “impact of prolonged drought, followed by the black summer bushfires, and the cumulative impacts of disease, urbanisation and habitat loss over the past twenty years” were her motivation.

“The national plan developed through scientific advice and public consultation will now go to the relevant states for their final adoption and will help guide state and local government strategies,” she said.

Reflecting on the NSW National Party’s behaviour, Ms Edwards was not as confident as Minister Ley, regarding the NSW governments’ likely response to the “endangered” listing.

“Unless the federal government takes over and tells the states what to do, and in the case of NSW, the state protocols will come first and take priority,” she said.

The NSW Government’s State Environmental Planning Policy (Koala Habitat Protection) 2021 (SEPP) was made law in March 2021, however, in September 2020, Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis threatened to cross the floor, saying that he spoke for the regions and that the impact on farmers was too great.

Former Nationals leader, John Barilaro, followed suit, threatening to divide the Coalition over the draft policy”.

Meanwhile, Clarence Valley Council, which partnered with the NSW Koala Strategy in the wake of the fires, was and is a proactive supporter of the SEPP, observing, “Sadly, 73 per cent of the Clarence Valley’s koala habitat and 70 per cent of the local koala population was lost in the summer fires.”

A 2000 CSIRO study, A review of feeding and diet selection in koalas, makes a poignant and pertinent point: “The koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) … has few natural predators, does not have specialised requirements for shelter (Martin and Handasyde 1999) and does not appear to be limited by interspecific competition (Norton and Neave 1990).

“Accordingly, it has been proposed that food availability is the primary determinant of koala habitat quality (Norton and Neave 1990; Melzer and Houston 1997).”