Moreton Bay Koala Rescue has been using Nearmap since 2015 to track developments that might disturb natural koala habitats, and to research the best places to release rescued koalas that have been raised in home care.
When she started using Nearmap, “I was really pleased with what I saw,” said MBKR president Anika Lehmann. “You can go back to any moment when you do aerials . . . . so we can show people what used to be koala habitat is now a big housing estate.”
MBKR is “similar to an ambulance service,” but for koalas. The organisation, which was found in 2001 by Lehmann and her husband, fields about 3000 calls a year reporting distressed or injured koalas. Of these, “we usually go to about 1000 calls where animal is in trouble and needs to be seen by a vet,” said Lehmann.
Once the staff retrieve an injured animal, they’ll place it with a home carer if it’s a joey, which can take two to three months, or with a hospital for rehabilitation.
Nearmap comes into the picture once a koala is ready for re-release back into the environment. By Queensland state law, koalas have to be released within five kilometres of where they were rescued.
“If I pick up a koala and I know that area — I know my council area — and it’s going to be taken to hospital, then when it gets to the point of release, if I know there is a good habitat within five kilometres, I don’t look at Nearmap,” explained Lehmann. “Especially with adults, they know their area, they have map in their head, which trees they frequent, rest in, eat in.”
But this “within five kilometres” requirement can be problematic — for instance, if MBKR isn’t familiar with the area around where the koala was originally rescued. The stipulation can also become difficult if there’s been a new housing development and there’s very little habitat left in which to release the animal; or if the animal is a joey and doesn’t have the “map” of its original environment well learned because it is still “pouch-bound.”
In these kinds of cases, Lehmann relies on Nearmap to investigate the best areas to release the koala. When the area where the koala was originally picked up is undergoing development, or if the koala is young enough that it’s likely it will have issues reintegrating into its original environment without help, Nearmap shows Lehmann alternative release areas for the animals.
“The ones we pick up in areas that are still in development, especially with the joeys . . . that’s when I used Nearmap a lot. I like to see whether [the potential release area] is prone to flooding, next to a river, whether it’s a mountainous area,” explained Lehmann.
For example, by observing whether an area has had recent flooding, Lehmann can determine whether the trees are likely to be strong and healthy, meaning they’ll be a good source of shelter and food for the koalas. “I look at aerials from a year or 18 months ago, to see if the trees had a lot of water. Even eucalyptus will die without water for a long period. But if there is a constant supply of water, usually the koalas do very well.”
She can also compare the vegetation and terrain of the release area with the rescue location, since koalas have trouble acclimating to a new location that’s substantially different from their home terrain.
“If the koala came from an area that is flood-prone and you release it in a mountainous area, they are not always able to digest the leaves” in the release area, even if the leaves are from the same species of plant they were eating in their original habitat, Lehmann explained.
The work of MBKR is critical to the sustainability of Australia’s koala population. In the past twenty years, the koala population on the Koala Coast near Brisbane has declined by 80 percent, according to a 2016 report.
“We are cutting down all the trees that koalas favour, especially trees that grow alongside rivers with good rainfall — and that’s exactly where people want to live. Many of the council areas have no vegetation management act, so anyone can clear whatever they like,” said Lehmann. Unfortunately, without stronger policy intervention, “extinction is inevitable in certain areas.”
With the koala population endangered, finding the right place to release newly healthy koalas is crucial to ensuring they can re-integrate in new habitats and thrive. The fact that Nearmap’s imagery is up to date and high resolution means that Lehmann can see an accurate version of what’s bush and what’s developed, as well as identify the best access points for entering a new habitat to release the koala.
“At one stage, I started looking at Google Maps, and these were from 2004. I would look at a particular section, and it looks like it’s bush, but I know there’s absolutely nothing there for the koala” because she knows that the area has since been developed, said Lehmann.
“Google was not good enough for what we needed,” she explained.
Lehmann also uses Nearmap to track vegetation clearing activity that the local council may not be aware of. “Every now and then I notice a new area that I didn’t know was going to be cleared. I’ll actually call the council and say, ‘what’s going on in that area?’ Once or twice they did an investigation and came back and said it was illegal. And this is why Nearmap is really great — it’s regularly updated.”
Recently, MBKR rescued a joey named Rowen near a huge development adjacent to a new 12km rail link. “Rowen was found totally alone, by himself, non mum, dehydrated, afraid, 700 grams,” said Lehmann.
“We lost over 300” of the koala population in the area near the new rail link, explained Lehmann. “Next to that area is a big lake, and there is one strip of land that [the government] left after they built the rail. We know there were about 20 koalas happily living there.” During the last breeding season, eight of those koalas had joeys, and “we needed to make sure these joeys have a place to disperse to.”
Rowen is now part of a koala tracking program and is set to be released in 6-8 weeks. Thanks to Nearmap, Lehmann knows exactly where to set him free.