Imagine devoting the best part of your career on your hands and knees, studying the feeding and social habits of a creature that you almost never get to see.
Ask any visitor what they think of when you say Australia and chances are they will say koalas. That being the case, how come I’ve never seen one?
As a young teenager, I can remember my dad going out searching the bush around our place looking for evidence of koalas. I was always amazed by the fact that they would go out all day and come back saying they hadn’t even found one koala dropping. What, I wondered, was the point? What made them keep going back? So when the opportunity arose recently for me to find out for myself, I jumped at it.
I joined a team of about 20 volunteers and government staff on their search in the bush about halfway between Tathra and Bermagui, to record a story for Radio National’s program Off Track.
When I arrived at the meeting point, looking around I saw plenty of familiar faces, parents of kids I went to school with, family friends and people who I knew as members of our local community. These guys were not newcomers and the common thread amongst all of us was despite having been in the region for many years, we had never seen a koala in the wild. Sadly that fact isn’t likely to change.
Chris Allen from the Office of Environment and Heritage was leading the exercise. He told us that in the 15 years he’s been doing this work, he might have seen seven koalas. With that in mind our day was to be spent scrounging around at the foot of trees looking for pellets (droppings) as evidence that koalas have been around. We split into two groups and drove off in opposite directions. My group, led by Chris, drove down a tiny bush track, ditched the cars and scrambled our way down a steep slope through the undergrowth, searching for a set GPS point where we would start our official search. Ten of us scratched around under trees like chooks in the yard all day, and every time someone found something hopeful a hush fell over the team.
It must be the only job in the world where you get excited about finding poo. But what’s amazing is how much data can be collected from pellets alone. Through the painstaking work of Chris and his team, he is building data about how many koalas are around, their complex feeding strategies, their social habits, and even their DNA. All this can be determined without actually coming face to face with a koala.
As Chris says, “the search method that we use is a relatively non-obtrusive method, and that’s really important. We don’t have to haul the animal out of trees and stick collars on them. It’s a fantastically informative way of learning about koalas. Ok, so the focus is koala poo, but the ramifications of the work are just so big.”
Chris’ data has a direct influence on policy decisions around fire management, forestry, development and bush rehabilitation. Chris says he’d hate to think how many thousands of trees he’s searched in his time. But you know what the most amazing thing about this event was?
Despite the endless amount of hours he’s spent doing these searches, Chris was still the most animated and excited member of the team.
On the koala trail, produced by Indigo Wood and Vanessa Milton, was broadcast on Radio National’s program Off Track at 1:30pm on Saturday 31 August, repeated at 6am on Sunday 1 September. It was part of an episode put together by ABC Open producers and contributors. You can listen to the show online at this link.