On Sunday 7 February at 1pm a momentous event occurred at Black Rocks off the access road to the sports field. An 18-month-old female koala juvenile (named Lucia) found just before Christmas 2015 with conjunctivitis and taken into care at Currumbin Wildlife Hospital was released, fully recovered, back to the tree where she was found. She is the only sick Black Rocks koala to be treated and released. Several people were there to witness the event including carers from Friends of the Koala and volunteers from Threatened Species Conservation Society Inc.
Why was this such an important event? Lucia is the first female koala at the Black Rocks area that was captured sick but found without cysts in the reproductive area. Black Rocks/Pottsville wetlands is critical to the survival of Tweed Coast koalas. Up to 98 per cent female koalas with chlamydia develop ovarian cysts (which are inoperable) and are euthanased if captured. Lucia was in the ‘lucky’ two per cent without ovarian cysts and was captured in time for treatment. Her future is very important because she has great breeding potential in an area that is desperately needing to build up numbers, especially after the Christmas 2014 fire that severely damaged over 200ha of koala habitat. According to renowned koala expert Dr Steve Phillips 30-60 per cent of local koalas may have perished as a result of that fire.
In the last two years a total of four koalas have been captured at Black Rocks with chlamydia and euthanised. Others have been sighted (such as Lucia’s mother) with symptoms of chlamydia but were not captured and may have died painfully.
What causes chlamydia? In normal populations chlamydia acts as an inbuilt control mechanism limiting the population so trees are not overbrowsed, ensuring only the strongest and fittest survive. However according to Dr Steve Phillips noise and human disturbance causes aversive response up to 725m away. Koalas have long been regarded as reacting poorly to disturbance. His peer reviewed paper studies the impact of a music festival on koalas and was published by the Journal of Mammology, January 2016. There is a perceived link between elevated stress levels and the onset of chlamydiosis. Koalas need 18-20 hours sleep a day and if they are continually woken by noise they suffer from sleep deprivation, their immune system is depressed, chlamydia becomes evident and they die.
What kind of noise could cause sufficient stress to cause chlamydia and death to Black Rocks koalas? Noise like extremely loud paramotoring, petrol-powered model aeroplanes, low-flying helicopters, trail bikes, hooning, council whipper-snipping/mowing/slashing on the access road next to their breeding area, loud drunken parties, go-carts, shooting and more. Over 300 such koala-impactive human activities have been reported to Council without effective ranger surveillance or regulation enforcement.
In fact Tweed Shire councillors Longland, Byrne, Polglase and Youngblutt voted to remove the koala protection gate in May 2015 and approved an industrial-like Men’s Shed to be built just 20m from koala habitat even though another location was available. There will be noise from power tools and plant equipment during its operation and construction with a substantial increase in vehicular traffic.
The only chance for Lucia and her future joeys and koala friends is for the sports field to be revegetated with koala food trees and for the gates to be permanently locked.
‘Once the trees have grown sufficiently and the koala population has recovered to sustainable levels, perhaps council could consider making the area into a koala sanctuary with viewing platforms, picnic areas and guided tours through the wetlands? The human footprint would be better controlled as the entry would be monitored and closed at 5pm. All monies received would go into Council coffers. Noise generated from foot traffic would be massively less than it is now.
The community could be compensated for the loss of the sports field similar to the Tyalgum tip where residents were given back the annual money spent maintaining the old tip site and they decided how that money was to be spent. Whatever Council now spends on mowing and brushcutting the sports field and surrounds, and paying a security company to open and lock the gates, could be given to the Black Rocks/Pottsville community for them to spend as they wish.
Black Rocks Koala Sanctuary could become the only place in Australia where international tourists can see koalas in the wild. What a great opportunity! It would put Tweed Shire on the map, be a big boost for local businesses and the koalas could get the rest they need to stay healthy and survive.
It’s the midnight hour for Lucia and her friends. Please write to Council and Councillors Longland, Youngblutt, Polglase and Byrne asking for their support of this idea. Also please sign our petition at http://www.tinyurl.com/4koalas.
Menkit Prince, Uki