Kangaroo Island koala numbers estimated to be down to 8500 from 48,000 before bushfires

INCINERATED WILDLIFE: An incinerated koala on the floor of a blue gum plantation off Turkey Lane near Parndana, Kangaroo Island in early January. Photo Stan Gorton
INCINERATED WILDLIFE: An incinerated koala on the floor of a blue gum plantation off Turkey Lane near Parndana, Kangaroo Island in early January. Photo Stan Gorton

A count of koalas on parts of Kangaroo Island using drones and infrared cameras has provided valuable information regarding the status of the post fire population.

The survey results support the estimate earlier this year of about 8500 koalas remaining.

Koala count

This is down from the estimated population of 48,000 before bushfires burnt almost half the Island last summer.

Department for Environment and Water conservation and wildlife director Lisien Loan said the survey of 34 sites found that koala density had not increased in areas that were untouched by the fires.

This supported the initial assumption that the majority of koalas in the fire zone did not survive.

"What is important now is to protect the habitat of the remaining koalas," she said.

"Further work will be undertaken next year to survey and monitor their habitat more broadly across the island and assess whether the koalas are having an impact on surviving trees through over-browsing."

The survey was conducted in June this year by researchers from the Queensland University of Technology, who developed the artificial intelligence that supports the drone technology.

It includes an algorithm that identifies koala heat signatures in trees at night. The drones were operated by Airborne Data Acquisition.

Associate Professor Grant Hamilton, leader of the QUT team that developed the koala detection methodology, said it was accurate and cost-effective and could cover large areas rapidly.

Science and the conservation community was only now coming to grips with the scale of the loss of wildlife from last summer's bushfires, he said.

"Kangaroo Island was affected badly, but there are many other areas across Australia that were burned and where this kind of accurate monitoring has not been undertaken," he said.

The Island's koala population was introduced in the 1920s, when 18 were moved there from Victoria in an attempt to recover the species because numbers across Australia had been reduced by hunting for the fur trade.

Koala numbers on KI were disputed even before the the fires, but Sam Mitchell at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park believes up to 80 per cent of the Island 50,000 koalas were killed in the fires.

A dedicated group of rescuers, including Kangaroo Island locals, brought in 648 injured koalas from the burned timber plantation and natural scrub to the emergency triage centre at the KI Wildlife Park at Parndana run by Sam and Dana Mitchell.

The good news is that 230 rescue koalas have now been released onto the 130-acre bush block near Parndana purchased specifically for this purpose by the Mitchells.

Just last month, they released their single biggest group of 10 koalas, and yet others are still being bottle fed back at the widlife park.

Koalas who survived to now are doing well, although there are the usual car accidents and endemic disease bringing in casualties.

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