Of all the different species that I care for, there’s one in particular that really grabs the public’s attention and that is of course koalas. We’ve seen this happen on an international scale during the bushfire media coverage a couple of years ago, where footage of burned koalas being rescued from fires attracted widespread
notice and an influx of donations to some of the larger organizations who were lucky enough to be featured on TV. I also notice the koala effect often in my own efforts, with my community project to grow eucalyptus trees for koala food getting by far the most community engagement of anything I’ve done.
Late last year I received a call from Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital to care for a very young koala that had been found on a “Keep Left” sign in a busy intersection in Cleveland. After four days and nights of trying to find her mother to reunite her with, rescuers resolved that the juvenile koala would need to be raised by a carer and I was lucky enough to be chosen as her foster mother and she was named Grace.
Koalas require a special licence and a lot of trust in order to be assigned to a carer but in a lot of ways they’re actually very straightforward to rear, especially compared to how difficult many of my macropods have been. Grace was a delight to care for except for her fussiness on eucalyptus leaves. Koalas are renowned for being picky eaters, but my job as her carer was to ensure that she had the opportunity to browse a variety of fresh eucalyptus branches known to be popular with koalas each day. From a mail drop in the neighbourhood, I had identified locations where I could search for fresh tips either on private properties or roadsides. I had noted particularly good trees as I drove around the neighbourhood and received permission to trim branches from the Sunshine Coast Council.
Finding fresh, appropriate leaves to feed a koala every day is challenging and time consuming work. Eucalyptus leaves are not very calorie dense so a growing koala goes through an unbelievable amount every day. To help me cope with this, earlier this year I put a call out to residents of the Sunshine Coast to assist with growing koala food trees from seed. It was lovely to see so many offers of help, several local businesses offered to be distributors. I purchased appropriate seeds and they were sold at cost price. Some people were successful in the germination of the seeds and have now passed on seedlings for planting. The local neighbourhood have stepped up to help out with many of the seedlings now planted on their properties close to boundaries to enable koala carers to access leaf in years to come. The trees will be kept around 2-4m to enable the fresh growth to be within easy reach.
A koala’s favourite leaves are the new tips that are often found at the top of eucalyptus trees, nice and green and tender. These are often out of reach on mature trees, so younger sapling trees are ideal for harvesting. I presented Grace with a wide variety of eucalyptus species but she predominantly chose to only eat Blue Gum (Eucalyptus Tereticornis) leaves. A koala develops its taste for particular leaves from the pap it has received from its mum. (Pap comes from the koala’s caecum, part of the digestive system, and is produced by the mum when stimulated by a joey as it reaches around 400g). Grace arrived into care at 1.2kg so her favourite eucalyptus leaves was already determined.
In early March Grace returned to Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital to practice climbing trees in a fenced plantation and to socialise with other koalas and make the adjustment to more natural living so she could be released. A month ago, Grace was finally ready to head off into the wild. She had been selected to participate in a research program run by the University of Sunshine Coast and so is fitted with a satellite tracking collar. Queensland Department of Environment Guidelines recommend that koalas are returned to a 5km radius of their original location so she was returned to parkland near Cleveland where she was found. Within a few days some local male koalas were seen to seek out Grace’s company and then return to their own favourite trees. Grace was also tracked visiting the boys and then returning to her little parkland of trees in the urban area near Cleveland.
Currently I have a new orphaned koala in care named Locket. Fortunately, she’s much less picky about what kind of leaves she eats, and I have been very lucky to have the assistance of Montessori College in Forest Glen who had established a plantation to support koala carers four years ago. The juvenile eucalypts are now at the perfect age and size for leaf harvesting, which is done for me, and I feel very spoiled by being able to collect “drive through” leaves three times a week. The school has also taken on some of the germinated seedlings from the community project and one day their plantation will be able to support even more koalas.
Wildlife care isn’t a one woman show, and I’m deeply thankful of our community members who choose to give their time, land or money to help me and other carers out. Any and all offers of assistance are thoroughly appreciated.