IF YOU WANT TO see wild koalas in NSW, don't venture into remote bushland. Just drop in to Gunnedah Golf Club - around 7am is best.
On daybreak, course superintendent Ian Elphick says you'll almost certainly see a koala moving between fairways or drinking from one of the dams. "I'll see about eight koalas a week," he says. "They're usually shy, but big males might grunt if you drive the buggy too close."
A township of 12,000 people in the state's northwest, Gunnedah currently calls itself the 'Koala Capital of the World'. Although numbers don't exist to categorically support this claim, the town can confidently say it's home to one of the largest populations of koalas in NSW.
But this impressive record is not just a chance occurrence. The koala population here is increasing - a trend in opposition to the steep decline of koalas in the rest of Australia's east.
Gunnedah is an exemplar of how restoring agriculturally degraded land can have beneficial effects for both farmers and wildlife - including Australia's most iconic species.
Koalas vulnerable in NSW
The iconic status of the koala belies its conservation woes. Although populations in SA and VIC are thriving, koalas across the rest of eastern Australia face troubling decline. In NSW koalas have, for some time, been protected under state legislation. Recently, the species has also been afforded Commonwealth protection
, following a decision to split their conservation status along geographic boundaries.
It's still unknown exactly how many koalas are left in NSW. "Absolute numbers are hard to determine, so we focussed instead on understanding koala distribution and how this is changing over time," says Dr Mathew Crowther, koala researcher from the University of Sydney.
The most current NSW information hails from a 2006 study, conducted by Mathew and colleague Dr Dan Lunney from the state Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH), which determined that koalas are rare south of Jervis Bay, and more common north of Port Stephens. Yet across NSW, koalas are declining, and in some places such as Iluka, they have disappeared entirely.
There was one curious anomaly, though - Gunnedah's koala populations were expanding against the state trend.
Koala success in Gunnedah
"We wanted to know what was happening in Gunnedah," says Mathew, about the koala population increase. "We knew many trees had been planted there some years ago, so we wanted to determine if koalas are able to use these young trees and if this habitat is helping their population increase."
Attaching GPS collars to 55 koalas in Gunnedah over three years, Mathew and Dan obtained detailed information about koala movements. They found that koalas are not restricted to using old-growth eucalypts and will frequently use 10- to 20-year-old tree plantings, often moving several kilometres between patches to find the right food and shelter.
However, this movement does put them at risk of being killed by cars or domestic dogs.
Importantly, the researchers confirmed that the roughly 2-3 sq.km of new trees, which were originally planted by farmers during the '90s to combat drought and salinity, have been a key factor in expanding habitat in Gunnedah and allowing the koala population to expand.
"The restoration has had a holistic effect, with benefits flowing from soil to vegetation to wildlife," says John Lemon, a farmer turned OEH resources officer, who has planted roughly 11,000 trees in Gunnedah. "Seeing the range of wildlife now using trees I planted on bare, 70-year-old, unproductive farm country is magic."
Farmers helping koalas
Today, farmers are continuing to collaborate with researchers and land care groups on strategic tree planting to improve both their own land and koala conservation. Farmers are being advised to plant the right mix of the koalas' favourite trees - which include river red gums for food and even Cypress pines for shelter - and to avoid planting near roads and train lines where koalas can be killed easily.
In an exciting new project, some farmers are also planting trees to connect the isolated patches on their properties so that koalas have a larger, continuous network of woodland available, which is critical for their survival under the future changing climate.
"Koalas are a great example of the coexistence of grazing and wildlife," says David Walker, executive officer of Liverpool Plains Land Management, who is leading the tree connectivity project. "Koalas and grazing animals both like fertile, flat woodland, but they also both benefit from a healthy landscape."
"People may not realise how important farmers are to successful conservation. In an altered landscape, good conservation requires good management. And the best management you'll ever get is from an interested farmer."
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