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Environment, Science

New Scientific Study Reveals Likely Origins of Strzelecki Koala

Friends of the Earth Melbourne 4 mins read

A new scientific study by Biolink Ecological Consultants and funded by the Myer Foundation has revealed that Morwell National Park and surrounds are likely to be the source population of the highly significant Strzelecki koala, the only genetically diverse koala population remaining in Victoria and South Australia. The study shows for the first time that both genetic and records analysis point to the same area.

The Strzelecki koala is the only relic koala population remaining in Victoria and South Australia, meaning that the population is crucial in terms of ensuring the survival of the species in Victoria and South Australia. All other koala populations are the result of translocations from genetically 'compromised' island populations. Friends of the Earth estimates that the population of the Strzelecki koala may be as few as 2,500 animals.

The Biolink study initially started with a research project concerning koalas and habitat within the Brataualung Forest Park. The Park will eventually form an 8,000 ha corridor linking Gunyah Gunyah Rainforest Reserve to Tarra Bulga National Park. 2,400 ha of the park was reserved in July 2018 by the Victorian State Government, with the remaining 6,000ha to be reserved by 2027.

Biolink used Areas of Regional Koala Significance (ARKS) mapping for the first time in Victoria. ARKS is the basis of the NSW Government's Koala Conservation Strategy, but is not used by the Victorian Government. Sightings were partitioned into 6 year koala generations which revealed a progressive radiation from core areas. 

Extent of occupancy, area of occupancy and generational persistence (based on sightings over the past 70 years) were also assessed. Biolink conducted field work in the Forest Park in September 2022. They then combined that work with past genetic cluster research by Federation University's Faye Wedrowicz. It was this unique combination that highlighted the significance of Morwell National Park and surrounds.

9 ARKS were located within the study area, with only one (Morwell 1) likely to be viable of maintaining a koala population over the long term. 4000 to 5000ha of habitat is required to sustain a koala population. Survival is reliant on a population of approximately 500 animals. Morwell 1 includes significant areas of the Brataualung Forest Park.

In terms of the Brataualung Forest Park, habitat containing Preferred Koala Feed Trees (PKFT's) in the Park was limited although 71% were being utilised by koalas in the Park. Past work in the Strzelecki's has identified Mountain Grey Gum and Blue Gum as PKFT's,  however Mountain Ash dominates much of the wet forest of the Strzelecki's indicating that estimations of koala numbers by the Victorian State Government in higher elevations of the Strzelecki Ranges have been over estimated by 400%. Lower elevations have higher carrying capacity.

According to Friends of the Earth Land Use Researcher Anthony Amis, the report is highly significant in terms of better understanding the unique factors that have contributed to the survival of this special animal. The story of the Strzelecki koala is one of an animal surviving against overwhelming odds and historical practices over the last 150 years which have included land clearing, forestry farming, bush fires and the plantation industry. The koala has been slowly recovering over the past decades, but still faces monumental hurdles in ensuring its long term survival. Biolink have produced a brilliant assessment of the situation. We are still patiently waiting for the next hand back of 4000 hectares of land to the Brataualung Forest Park by the Victorian State Government.

Susie Zent from Friends of Gippsland Bush said "The Victorian State Government has known about the importance of the Strzelecki koala for almost 3 decades but has done nothing to protect the animal or its habitat. There is no legislation existing in Victoria which affords the Strzelecki koala the protection it deserves."

Recommendations from the report include: 

*Extending the planting of Mountain Grey Gums and Blue Gums in the Brataualung Forest Park.

*The need to link Morwell National Park to the Brataualung Forest Park (a distance of 8km. Much of this land is privately owned by Hancock Victorian Plantations and is rapidly being converted to pine plantations).

*More monitoring to include C3 genetic cluster first published by Wedrowicz.

*Inter-generational field sampling every 2-3 years,

*Identify and survey, additional field sites within the Brataualung Forest Park

*Restrict monitoring sites to those with Preferred Koala Feed Trees.

A copy of the Biolink Report is attached.

For further information contact: Dr Steve Phillips 0409 778 633, Kirsten Wallis 0423 986 708, Susie Zent 51 691 588, Anthony Amis 0425 841 654

Key Facts:

The Strzelecki koala is Victoria's only population of genetically diverse koalas.

The animal has somehow survived despite land clearing, bushfires, logging and plantation development. Friends of the Earth estimates that the population of koalas could be as low as 2,500.

Scientists have now found the likely source of the surviving population, a small National Park in the foothills of the Strzelecki Ranges, Morwell National Park.

It appears that the koala population has slowly radiated out of this park and spread across the ranges.

About us:

Friends of the Earth Melbourne is an environmental organisation that has been campaigning in the Strzelecki Ranges with Friends of the Gippsland Bush since the mid 1990's. Biolink are an environmental consultancy firm based in northern NSW.

Contact details:

Dr Steve Phillips (Biolink) 0409 778 633

Kirsten Wallis (Biolink) 0423 986 708

Susie Zent (Friends of Gippsland Bush) 51 691 588

Anthony Amis (Friends of the Earth) 0425 841564



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