There are only about 50 koalas left on the far South Coast of New South Wales.
Their patch covers around 20,000 hectares on Yuin Country, beneath the sacred mountains of Gulaga and Mumbulla. It stretches across Aboriginal-owned Biamanga National Park, Mimosa Rocks National Park and the Murrah Flora Reserve.
After many years of conflict over industrial logging, it’s now a peaceful place where community members, who make up the Koala Action Network, work together to monitor the koala population, plant species of trees the koalas prefer and put out water when rain is scarce.
So when the 2020 fires raged through and burned millions of hectares of bushland on the South Coast, this community feared their local koalas could be totally wiped out.
Don McPhee was one of the Rural Fire Service volunteers on the ground.
“As the fires got closer and closer I felt sick when I thought about the looming prospect that all of our remaining koalas might be caught and lost in the one mad blaze,” he says.
“Several members of our Koala Action Network spent long shifts along the fire line on the eastern slopes of Biamanga and the Murrah.”
But the koalas survived.
Their section of forest was not as badly burnt as the rest of the bush around them. Ongoing surveys by the community have since found enough koalas and droppings to know the population is doing well.
It’s a rare good news story after the Black Summer fires. But it’s not the first time these koalas have faced local extinction, nor will it be the last.
These South Coast koalas are the only known population in the coastal forests between Sydney and Victoria. More than a century of hunting, disease, logging and clearing had decimated the population, and by the 1980s they were widely believed to be extinct in the region.
Until, says koala veteran Chris Allen, a voluntary conservation team found a female koala with her joey in the escarpment forests near Bega in 1990. Chris was part of that team.
“It was incredibly moving — I was hooked, and koalas have been a huge part of my life ever since,” he says.
“As the 2018–2019 drought increased in severity and the fire season erupted further north, I had a deep sense of foreboding.”
But the community had the koalas’ backs. The Koala Action Network — made up of Aboriginal Land Councils, local landowners, National Parks staff and koala experts — was already actively protecting the koalas before the fires. And several members with good knowledge of key koala areas were in the fire-fighting teams that defended the koala country.
Yet what the fires highlighted is the urgent threat of climate change to our most vulnerable wildlife, and the vital role Indigenous-led land management has in helping us respond to this threat.
“We need a dramatic shift where our governments wholeheartedly join the global movement to reduce the threat of catastrophic climate change as much as we can. This includes a cultural change that embeds Indigenous-led land-management wisdom at the heart,” says Chris.
The Koala Action Network is now working deeply with Indigenous-led cultural burning programs through the Firesticks Alliance.
Dan Morgan, Traditional Custodian of the Yuin Nation and Regional Coordinator for Firesticks Alliance Indigenous Corporation, says traditional land management with fire will protect and enhance the habitat of the South Coast koalas by “focusing on soil health”, which has good flow-on effects for the bush and the koalas.
Fire methods “enrich the soil with nutrients and microorganisms, increase water absorption and retention, and promote healthy koala feeding trees,” says Dan.
“Native grasses and sedges also then germinate and thrive instead of a mid-story plant species that allows the fire to climb to the canopy. This reduces the risk of destructive crown fires in this fragile koala habitat.”
Chris and others initiated community-based koala surveys “expecting it would be difficult to find much evidence of more koalas.”
“It’s been a pleasant surprise to find sufficient evidence in this part of the South Coast forests to estimate a population of around 50 koalas,” he says.
Efforts by the community, including the Indigenous community, to protect these forests have been ongoing since the 1970s. Gradually the reserves have grown, with four remaining state forests designated as the Murrah Flora Reserve in 2016.
“Once the reserve was established and the threat of industrial logging faded, I felt the greatest threat to the population was wildfire and inappropriate responses to fire,” says Chris.
The koala is not currently classified as endangered, but its populations in New South Wales, the Australian Capital Territory and Queensland are listed as vulnerable. The degradation of habitat from bushfires remains one of the biggest threats to koala survival.
It’s also going to take a powerful combination of listing the koala as a threatened species, strong environment laws that protect habitat, and urgent action on climate change to protect this and other koala populations from future extinctions.
It will require an expansion of ‘the village’ to include leadership from all levels.
In the meantime, the committed members of the Koala Action Network will keep doing everything they can to grow this little community of survivor koalas.
“I wish I could say I feel hopeful for their future but I fear that the latest IPCC report has highlighted the challenges koalas will be facing here. I think I am more determined than hopeful,” says Don.
“Koalas and other animals may increasingly depend on humans to survive. I think we can do this at a local scale when it is needed, if we have a community organisation like the Koala Action Network to help make it happen.
“On the one hand this is a grim thought, that koalas and other wildlife may only survive future extreme droughts if we are there to help them.
"But this is balanced by a positive determination to see our Koala Action Network alive and capable, because I think supporting committed local people to take action will be key to koalas’ ongoing survival.”
Photos: Koala and Koala Action Network photos: David Gallan. Don McPhee: Annette Ruzicka/MAPgroup & David Gallan. Mt Guluga aerial: Merrillie Redden/Shutterstock.com; Burnt landscape: Annette Ruzicka/MAPgroup.