New colony of koalas discovered in Sydney

By Angela Heathcote 16 November 2021
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Heathcote National Park is home to a growing colony of koalas, much to the surprise of locals and scientists.

In rare good news for Australia’s iconic koala, an all-new colony has been discovered in Heathcote National Park, just a 60-minute drive south of the Sydney CBD. 

The healthy colony of koalas is made up of approximately 100 individuals, including many females with joeys, and is believed to be an extension of the well-known Campbelltown population. 

Citizen scientists Steve Anyon-Smith and Tom Kristensen carried out survey work of Heathcote NP between July and September 2021.

“We saw some heavily scratched trees in a remote part of the park, which suggested that a scarcely known population of koalas might exist,” says Steve, “and the Covid lockdown rules allowed us to exercise within our local government area.” This gave the duo time to make the recordings.

Before this discovery, koala sightings in Heathcote NP were believed to be rare. 

“Not too many people search for wildlife here – it’s the poor cousin to the better-known Royal National Park across the road,” Steve says. “Despite koalas being fairly obvious once you see them, few people see them accidentally. You really have to be looking.”

According to University of Sydney ecologist and Associate Professor Mathew Crocuher, the Heathcote NP koalas may not just be a new colony, but a new population.

“Koalas had been sighted in Heathcote NP before, but this is significant in that so many koalas have now been sighted there, and includes breeding females,” he says. “This indicates that they are more than dispersing koalas from the Campbelltown population, but a population in itself.”

(Image credit: Steve Anyon-Smith)

The National Parks Association (NPA) of NSW, which worked closely with the citizen scientists to compile their findings into a report, has written to NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean asking the koalas be declared an Asset of Intergenerational Significance (AIS), which is a new legislative measure that seeks special protection for habitat of threatened species.

“The Heathcote NP koalas need all the help they can get if they are going to survive into the next century,” says NPA Executive Officer Gary Dunnett.

According to the NSW Government, there are between 20,000–30,000 koalas living in NSW. Figures released by the Australian Koala Foundation show a 41 per cent decline over three years in the NSW population. 

Michael Crocuher says the Heathcote NP koalas face a number of threats. 

“Being so close to Sydney makes it an important population for the people of NSW. If, like the Campbelltown population it’s probably chlamydia-free, the population is vital for the conservation of the species.

“However, being close to Sydney brings other conservation concerns. Many koalas die on nearby roads, including Heathcote Road, so work needs to be done to mitigate koala deaths. Heathcote NP has also been subjected to major bushfires in the past, and this risk needs managing. Dogs can be a problem, too, if the koalas go into urban areas.”

The NPA highlighted the role citizen scientists can play in conservation. 

“The results are only possible because of the hundreds of hours they [Steve and Tom] spent in the field, which has given us a standard of coverage that most researchers could only dream of,” Gary says.  

“These two citizen scientists have provided the National Parks and Wildlife Service with detailed information worth tens of thousands of dollars at absolutely no cost.”