With shovels and saplings in hand, a community of passionate volunteers have joined efforts to help threatened koalas across eastern Australia by planting 350 eucalyptus trees for patients at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie.
Supported by NRMA Insurance, dozens of Conservation Volunteers Australia (CVA) members and other helpers donated their time at Moripo Park Research Plantation, a food tree and koala nutrition research site near Wauchope, which now holds more than 950 trees. One day, their leaves will sustain hospitalised koalas recovering from bushfires, car collisions, drought, dog attacks and other illnesses.
Koala Hospital Conservation Manager Scott Castle says the tree-planting day, part of a three-year partnership between NRMA Insurance and CVA to help the dwindling population of koalas across NSW and Queensland, is vital for the organisation.
“It was a great day and we were very happy to receive the help from CVA,” he says. “We’ll harvest the leaves for food in about four years, but, before that, we’ll be taking leaf samples to test how soon after planting trees we can harvest from them.”
Helping protect our precious koalas
Established in 1973 and the first of its kind in the world, the Koala Hospital requires large amounts of eucalyptus leaves. Koalas eat half a kilo of fresh leaves per day and the hospital’s daily patient numbers can range from 30 to 70, depending on the season or natural disasters such as bushfires or drought.
Scott hopes projects such as this will throw a spotlight on the plight of koalas in the wild in general. Although unlikely to become extinct across Australia, the koala population in eastern Australia is under threat. A 2019 report by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) found koalas were declining at a rate of 21 per cent per decade in the region, which could mean total extinction by 2050 in NSW.
Factors such as habitat clearing, disease, hunting and natural disasters have reduced the wild koala population in NSW to between 20,000 and 30,000.
“The main problem is always habitat loss,” says Scott. “It’s the same for all animals. It’s happening everywhere and it's terrible.”
Environmental project coordinator for Friends of the Koala in Lismore, Julie Reid, who has devoted years to the restoration of threatened species habitat, agrees. She says vital projects such as rebuilding koala corridors in the Northern Rivers region are only successful because landowners, government authorities and community organisations such as CVA, Friends of the Koala and Landcare Australia work together.
“The whole thing about successful projects is partnerships with other organisations,” she says. “So many people out there are doing the right thing and it's good to get together rather than the fragmented way it has been in the past.
“I’m a longtime nature and animal-lover, whether native or domestic. That’s what motivates me to help.”
Inspired to help Australia’s native animals
CVA project officer Kelly Saunderson says projects such as the Moripo Park tree-planting inspire optimism about regenerating sources of food and shelter for native animals.
“Koalas, in particular, are in a dire state at the moment,” she says. “But, since being in this job, I do have hope that they can survive, because we have so many lovely property owners who want to give homes to the koala.
“It actually doesn't take much to plant a tree sometimes. And, if landowners know what kind of tree to put in, where to put it in strategic spots, they can help link up populations of koalas. I think it's still all possible once everyone's on board.”
Community volunteer efforts such as CVA’s tree-planting day also give Scott hope for the future.
“When you’re conserving koalas, you're not just conserving one animal,” he says. “You're protecting everything that lives in those forests underneath them. Koalas are a flagship species. If we can’t protect them, what can we protect?”