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Koala Citizen Scientists are No Longer Strangers

Who would have thought you could find fifteen people prepared to rise early on a wintery Sunday morning, travel far from home and scratch around the wet undergrowth of a little-known forest in South Gippsland to search for koala poo? Members of the SKAT collective were pleasantly surprised with everyone's commitment to learn how to survey one of the last intact forests for the Strzelecki koala.

Some of the enthusiastic folk keen to learn how to survey for koala presence.

It was easy to spot the volunteers at our meeting point in Yarram. We were the ones resembling retired geography teachers that were rugged up in beanies, woollens, raincoats and stocky walking shoes. Once we were all gathered, we eagerly leapt into the cars of people we had just met and travelled east along the South Gippsland Highway. We made one final stop as we entered the muddy tracks of Mullungdung State Forest to round up a few more keen beans and off we went. Well, I think that’s where we went. I was too busy chatting with my new friend Pete to watch the route closely.

Our aim was to learn the methodology to search, record and collect koala scats, as part of a Citizen Science project conducted by FoE. The collected scats are destined to be tested for the DNA of the Strzelecki koala.

The Victorian government will tell you that Victoria has hundreds of thousands of koalas. What they don’t say is that almost all of those koalas are descendants from a handful of koalas that were translocated from French Island and Phillip Island to the mainland last century, when koalas had been hunted and their habitats and had been logged to near extinction. The descendants of these translocated koalas have suffered a genetic bottleneck and may be more susceptible to disease and a changing environment, as they don't have the genetic robustness to give them the resilience they need to sustain themselves.

That is where the Strzelecki koala come in! They are remnant populations of Victoria’s original mainland koalas that have survived in the Strzelecki Ranges and Gippsland plains in the south. They retain a healthy genetic diversity and may hold the key to the longevity of koalas as a species, especially in Victoria.

This is a Strzelecki koala that was sighted on a revegetated block of land by Nicole Howse, Friends of the Strzelecki Koala. 

The Victorian government has never surveyed the Strzelecki koala population, nor have they bothered to investigate the extent of its range. It seems that they and Victoria’s own logging corporation, VicForests, would prefer not to know. Before clearing a forest, VicForests refer to the Victorian Biodiversity Atlas which currently reveals scant wildlife evidence. Despite the portal being outdated and slow to work with, it's important that we continue to add our sightings to the atlas. If they remain ignorant, they will be able to continue logging undeterred, in probable Strzelecki koala habitat, to produce pulp wood for foreign-owned paper companies.

It is left to FoE and volunteers to provide evidence of the existence of these critical koala populations in order to alert the government to their presence and hopefully convince them to protect their forest homes from further destruction. Population estimates of the Strzelecki koala population consist of roughly 2,000 animals.

It has become a race to identify Strzelecki koala hotspots before VicForests earmarks their habitat for logging. The Victorian government recently passed legislation to deter disruption of logging operations by koala surveyors or protesters. The laws are ridiculously punitive and inappropriate in a democratic society.

Did you know that mountain grey gums, not manna gums, are the preferred food of Strzelecki koalas? Anthony informed us that the significance of mountain grey gums was not known until recent surveys.

Back in the Mullungdung Forest, Anthony had located a large eucalyptus tree with koala scats at its base. We pinpointed its location with a GPS, identified its species, measured its girth and collected some scats for DNA testing. The DNA tests are expected to demonstrate that these koala scats are not from a translocated koala but a Strzelecki koala. Garden trowels and toothpicks are used to pick up scats, not to keep our own hands clean but to prevent human DNA from contaminating the koala poo! Once we arrived at our GPS guided survey site, we would mark the centre tree with a pink ribbon and begin to survey the ground for scats at the base of the 29 surrounding trees in a clockwork pattern. Each tree species was identified to Anthony's experienced knowledge, however even after years of experience, some of the trees were tricky to identify, with later suspicions that we may have encountered a subs-species of a Messmate. We categorised the tree as positive or negative depending on whether there was presence of koala scats. When we found and confirmed koala scats it was like shouting out - bingo! We were as excited as kids on an Easter egg hunt! Soon we had produced a tray of koala-poo hors-douvres, each poo delicately mounted on a separate toothpick. It looked good enough to serve at a wedding!

The group at their first survey site for the day, with the centre tree marked by the pink ribbon.

After our shared learning experience in the forests of the South Gippsland Plains, these determined and enthusiastic Citizen Scientists are no longer strangers. Next time we meet, perhaps we will cringe as we try not to reveal that we have forgotten some of each other’s names! No matter, we are developing new friendships and making connections with like-minded people. We would love to increase the size of our friendly group. Michelle and Anthony plan to organise future field trips so we can continue to learn and feel confident in helping to survey for koala scats.

If we can learn more about the Strzelecki koalas, we will have increased our ability to protect and defend their habitat, to ensure not just their survival but all the creatures that share the forest with them.

So, what are we waiting for? Let’s go!

If you want to get involved, the SKAT collective meet online on the first Thursday of the month from 6:30-7:30pm. Check out our upcoming events here.

This blog has been kindly written and shared by one of our committed supporters, Janette Connard. 

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