Strzelecki Koala and Fire

Strzelecki Koalas 2303 Koala in tree (1)

During the Fire Season all of us, particularly people living in bush and farm areas, need to be alert and ready with their fire plan. It is a very dangerous time so how does the Strzelecki koala cope when they smell smoke and experience flames?

Scientists have investigated post fire destruction but little is known about koala behaviours during the threat of fire.

Koalas when they sense danger will usually seek higher places in trees. Do koalas go further into the tree tops and stay there or do they try to escape the smoke, heat and fire? This is yet to be fully researched. If koalas stay high in the trees, they will definitely be overcome by the smoke and heat. Koalas are not fast movers particularly over vast distances, so injury or death is most likely if they try to outrun the fire.

What happens to the individual koalas and the koala population in.the fire affected environment after the fire?

Scientists Phillipa Beale, Kara Yangentob and Karen Mash investigated areas in NSW and East Gippsland post 2019/2020 Fires. Their findings are in the document, “Effects of fire on koalas and their habitat”

These scientists reported on the many impacts of fire, some of which are:

  • The koala’s survival during and after fire.
  • The loss of food sources and protective vegetation.
  • The success of rehabilitation for rescued koalas.
  • The regeneration of forest, changes of soil composition, seeding, planting and tree removal.
  • Fire mitigation processes like fuel reduction burning.
  • Present and future directions for the protection of koala populations.

This study emphasised the lack of pre-data. Koala population numbers and population dispersal were unknown prior to the fires. However it is estimated that numerous koalas were lost. The rescued koalas were thought to be less than 1% of the fire affected population, and of these koalas many did not survive to be rehabilitated and returned to their habitat.

Strzelecki Koalas 2303 - Koala in tree (2)

It was also found that after the fire, the koalas were more susceptible to many life threatening stresses. Loss of understory plants and the koalas home range trees caused the koalas to be more exposed to dehydration, starvation, predators like dogs, foxes and cats, and disease. Pre existing and post fire weather conditions like drought and heat waves often precede fire events and can weaken the ability of koalas to fight infections and outside threats. Of course road deaths are a possibility as surviving koalas look for new habitat.

The scientists discovered that koalas could eat the leaves regenerated on their preferred food trees. The “epicormic regrowth”, that is the leaf growth on trunks and branches of some trees, contain “more moisture than mature leaves”.They also found that animal and plant survival depends on areas that were consistently very moist and wet. Creek and river gullies in forests are exceedingly necessary for refuge and future vegetation propagation. They also noticed that untouched diverse forest areas that are alongside the burnt out area, provide seed banks for forest regeneration as well as recolonisation by animals. (The Morwell National Park offers these wet areas and diversity in flora and fauna, but more areas like this are needed for the survival of the Strzelecki koala.)

Another concern that requires more research is the prevention of devastating fires through fire and habitat management practices. More research is needed on conducting fuel reduction burns and other forestry practices. It is suggested by Zylstra et al, 2022 and Price et al, 2022 that “culturally burning practices are the lowest in severity, have the least risk and encourage seed regeneration” and also Melzer & Ellis 2009, state that the height of the trees needs consideration as anything “below 1.5m does not allow koalas to avoid the heat of fire and low canopies can be scored.”

How does this study and its findings relate to the Strzelecki Koala and its survival ?

Firstly more data needs to be collected. The SKAT team needs your help in mapping the location of individual Strzelecki koalas and the extent that this unique and precious animal is spread through out the Strzelecki Ranges and surrounding district. If you are willing to help contact or Friends of Gippsland Bush Inc. Ecologist Kelly Smith also needs help in collecting koala scats (the poo).

Secondly the Strzelecki koala’s habitat needs protection at all levels whether it be private, local, state or federal. Gullies, creeks and river localities require conservation. These places provide safe environments for animals and plants during fire and the hot weather of summer. Forest that is diverse in its vegetation and animal species needs to be preserved, because these are animal and plant reserves for the regeneration and re-population of land damaged by fire, human activity and natural disasters. Therefore write to your local councillors and politicians asking for more protection for the Strzelecki Koala and its environment.

Thirdly the defragmentation of habitat and the formation of single species vegetation needs to be controlled as these conditions prevent animal movement and seed dispersal. It can cause loss of suitable Strzelecki koala habitat and with it, loss of animal and plant biodiversity and genetic diversity. Fragmentation also increases “the flammability of the landscape.” Therefore protect and plant trees that offer food and shelter for the Strzelecki koala. If you have rural land consider planting corridors of food plants like Blue Gum, Mountain Grey Gum, Yellow Stringybark and Manna Gum and other native plants that offer shelter. ( (20/2/23) Project of the Yinnar-Yinnar South Landcare Group/Cherish Our Unique Strzelecki koalas.

Lastly and most importantly, let others know about the Strzelecki koala and its habitat.

Interesting Facts

The Strzelecki koala like all other koalas is a Specialist Folivore that is “an animal whose diet is restricted and made up only of leaves.”

The Strzelecki koala like a number of other animals relies on “Refugia” that is “A habitat that provides spatial and or temporal protection from one or more threats.”