Koala populations were already threatened before the current drought tightened its grip on the country. As their habitats dry out and koalas are forced to hunt for water, a world-first research program is urgently looking for solutions.
Australia has always been tough on its native animals, throwing heat, floods and droughts at them across millennia. They’ve evolved to cope.
The current drought though is different; the worst in 400 years, according to some measures that factor in duration and how widespread the dry has become.
And yes, this drought is even challenging Australia’s native animals. One sign among many is the unusual behaviour of koalas in Gunnedah, north-eastern New South Wales.
Dr Valentina Mella (PhD (Research) ’14), an animal behaviourist at the University of Sydney, had been working for some time in Gunnedah, a place often called the koala capital of the world, when locals began contacting her.
“I was receiving photos, emails and text messages from locals telling me that they had a koala in the backyard that was drinking from the birdbath,” she remembers.
Ask almost any Australian, and they’ll tell you that koalas don’t drink because they get all the moisture they need from the eucalyptus leaves they eat. This isn’t strictly true. During extended droughts, the leaves actually become drier, forcing koalas to leave their trees and search for water.
Koalas are dangerously dehydrated
Looking more closely, Mella found things were worse than just koalas drinking from bird baths. Heat-stressed and dehydrated koalas were literally dropping from trees, a fact backed up by locals who said they were seeing generally fewer koalas.
This is happening at a time when national koala populations are already endangered. As recently as the early 20th century, koalas numbered in the millions. Today, generous estimates suggest there may be 100,000 left in the wild. Others put the number at around 40,000 and falling - rapidly.
A terrible state of affairs for a creature we claim to love, that we use as a national symbol, and that has lived happily on this continent for 25 million years.
Providing lifesaving access to water
Realising how threatened the Gunnedah koalas are, Mella immediately began working to understand if something could be done to alleviate the effects of climate change on koalas.
One of Mella’s first ideas went straight to the heart of the problem, “I approached a couple of landowners and I said, ‘How about we put out some water, and see what happens?’”
Running with the idea, Gunnedah local, Robert Frend, created a drinking station that could provide water for distressed koalas.
“It’s a fantastic design,” Mella says. “You can put the bowls in trees and they automatically refill. We also have cameras there, so we can see how much time they spend drinking.”
The Gunnedah community has been instrumental to the cause, “They've been a huge help and give such generous support, even allowing me to conduct studies on their properties. This research wouldn’t be possible without them.
Paving the way for thirsty koalas
The University of Sydney community is also supporting Mella’s research through its annual giving day, Pave the Way.
This work, and the drinking stations could have national significance as the indiscriminate nature of climate change reaches far beyond Gunnedah to include places where koalas have previously flourished.
The good news is, koalas have quickly taken to the drinking stations while providing data that could lead to more insights to create practical conservation solutions. Mella is thrilled with the progress and the community support that has made it possible, while keeping in mind the enormity of the challenge and how much that still needs to be done.
“Climate change is endangering koalas everywhere,” Mella says. “It's important that we do something about it. Without community support and funding for research, the future doesn’t look very bright for koalas.”
The coming summer is predicted to be hot and dry. Your support of Mella’s work through Pave the Way, will mean more drinking stations can be installed and the people of Gunnedah will see more of their beloved koalas returning to the trees.
How you can make a difference
On 18 September the University community will come together for a 24-hour fundraising challenge called Pave the Way to raise funds for this research and to install more drinking fountains for koalas.
With no administration fees, 100 per cent of your donation goes straight to this project, so every gift counts. The generosity of students, staff, alumni, parents and friends has already made such a huge difference, and with your help today, we can continue to make a real impact.
It’s never too early to give – and even the smallest gifts can go a long way to help us protect an Australian icon.