Not so long ago, staff at the Ballarat Wildlife Park used to find unexpected marsupial guests. Julia Leonard, one of the park's owners, remembers a time when koalas would stray from nearby Canadian Forest - now Woowookarung Regional Park - onto the grounds. "It wasn't uncommon for one to get in the collection," she told The Courier.
That does not happen now. Ms Leonard has also noticed another change: the calls the park used to receive about koalas in residents' backyards have dried up. People would phone to ask what they should do, she recalls. "We just don't get those calls any more."
The tale is just one of many that suggest that the koala population in Ballarat is on the brink - not just dwindling, but on the verge of being wiped out. In fact Greg Parker, the park's founder, already believes they are "pretty much extinct" in Ballarat.
Much of the evidence of the koala's demise around the city is anecdotal. Take the signs put up a few years ago in Mount Buninyong that tell you to expect koala sightings. Dave Mitchell of the Australian Koala Foundation recalled that a few years ago "you just drove to the top of Mt Buninyong and you would see half a dozen or so. Guaranteed." Now spotting one is a real rarity.
The animal sanctuaries have similar stories. Donna Zabinskas of the Greendale Wildlife Centre said they used to receive calls all the time from people in Warrenheip, Mount Clear and Mount Helen. "They have dwindled to near zero," she reports.
There would ideally be more conclusive scientific data at our fingertips. The numbers would be tracked, had previous strategies worked out. The Ballarat Koala Plan, adopted by the City of Ballarat Council with much fanfare in 2006, included scope for tracking the numbers, but the funds never came through.
Perhaps the most reliable current data available comes from the Friends of Canadian Corridor (FoCC), who have been recording sightings of the koala around Woowookarung since last August. In total, they believe they have seen eight individual koalas since they began keeping count. The figure was greeted by shock when mentioned at last week's full council meeting.
One car crash, one futile plod to new feeding grounds, one dog attack at a time, the marsupial is fading from the wild around us
"You mean 80?" asked one councillor. "No, eight," replied Bob Hartmann of FoCC. He freely admits there are limitations to their "citizen science". But as an engaged and serious local community group, they may well have the best picture of the existential threat facing koalas in the area.
Residents of Ballarat have worried about the decline of this iconic native animal for many years. Such was the concern about numbers that a "koala overlay" plan was worked into the city's planning scheme, part of the comprehensive Ballarat Koala Plan designed to protect the species. This plan even included a liaison officer from the Australian Koala Foundation embedded into the council.
Read the second part of the original Ballarat Koala Plan
"Many positive outcomes will continue to be achieved for the koala and people in Ballarat and surrounding areas," the then mayor David Vendy said at the time. "Council is confident the plan will become best practice nation-wide."
WHY IS IT HAPPENING?
But, as well intended as the plan undoubtedly was, that never happened. The theory may have worked but it was never effectively enforced. There were many factors at play. There are competing planning guidelines - such as the bushfire management overlay for example - which meant crucial habitat still disappeared.
I think the relationship between the development industry and councils is too close. I do not believe that any council in Victoria is taking their koalas seriouslyDeborah Tabart of the Australian Koala Foundation
And, like many councils, the City of Ballarat has to balance development with the impact of the environment. No matter how sensitively approached, growth inevitably has an impact. Even if the eucalyptus habitat is preserved, vital wildlife corridors that allow koalas to travel between feeding grounds are eroded, leaving them isolated in shrinking pockets of land.
The roads too are a well known danger to a slow-moving marsupial that travels between feeding places. As habitat thins, the animals have to travel further - the Geelong Road and Midland Highway are particularly known as danger areas for the the animal.
Another wider issue are blue gum plantations - which Ms Leonard calls "koala death traps" - where animals can wander then get caught out when logging time comes.
Whatever the reasons for the decline, the sad irony is that one of Australia's best loved and most recognisable species - the winning face of 1,000 tourism brochures and adverts - is in serious trouble. One car crash, one futile plod to new feeding grounds, one dog attack at a time, the marsupial is fading from the wild around us.
Deborah Tabart of the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) helped broker the original partnership between her organisation and the City of Ballarat Council.
It culminated in wildlife expert Rolf Schlagloth working as a koala liaison officer with the council for an extended time.
Ballarat would be so much poorer if it lost this flagship species. Especially after its residents showed such great spirit initially in wanting to protect it.Rolf Schlagloth, former koala liaison officer in Ballarat
Ms Tabart does not hide her intense disillusionment with how things turned out, saying her "hopes and dreams of having partnerships with councils like Ballarat" have shattered.
"I have no respect for the system. The system is broken," she told The Courier. "I think the relationship between the development industry and councils is too close. I do not believe that any council in Victoria is taking their koalas seriously."
Also deeply cynical about the ability - or willingness - of state governments to intervene on the koalas' behalf, Ms Tabart is focusing her efforts on lobbying federal government. "I don't believe the laws as written are anywhere good enough. The koala is in such a terrible situation," she said.
She wants proper protection enshrined in law and cites the Bald Eagle Act in the USA as the type of legislation that she would like to see in place.
She also highlights that koalas in Victoria - along with South Australia - have a disadvantage compared to other states. Koalas are not listed as vulnerable here, while they are in other states, including Queensland, New South Wales and the ACT. It is a situation Ms Tabart attributes to dodgy accounting, which meant the vulnerable listing was missed by just one per cent.
There is little truck with the argument that there are pockets of the state with vigorous koala populations. "Most of those animals have all the same gene," she said. "They are not a viable long-term population."
If there is one factor that gives a glimmer of hope for koalas in the area, it is their undoubted popularity with locals, and status as an iconic Australian creature. It was that passion that was behind the move to the Ballarat Koala Plan in the first place - even if that did not have the desired effect. And Ms Leonard says whenever the Ballarat Wildlife Park asks for extra gum leaves for their koala collection, the response is invariably positive. "Whenever we put out a call, so many people just want to help."
But the tone of the pleas for their wild counterparts seems to have shifted from urgent to desperate. Now the AKF estimates just 80,000 of the animals remain, and indeed last month created a number of headlines suggesting the animal is "functionally extinct".
Read the full AKF press release
Some scientists dispute that description and population estimate, but there is broad agreement that koalas, which once used to number in the millions, are in serious trouble. Scientific consensus also suggests that local extinctions - including potentially Ballarat - are likely to become much more common.
Mr Schlagloth pointed The Courier towards research that suggested koalas could thrive in urban areas if given enough suitable gum trees. The most stressed creatures tend to be on the urban fringes - exactly where the population has collapsed around Ballarat.
"Ballarat would be so much poorer if it lost this flagship species," he said. "Especially after its residents showed such great spirit initially in wanting to protect it."
Or as Greg Parker of the Ballarat Wildlife Park put it: "Wouldn't it be nice if they came back?"
- The Friends of Canadian Corridor are hosting a talk "Do Ballarat's Koalas have a future?" at Earth Ed Science Centre, Olympic Avenue, Mount Clear at 7pm next Wednesday (June 19). The guest speaker is Dave Mitchell, a landscape ecologist for the Australian Koala Foundation. All welcome. Gold coin donation requested.
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