"Koala-Friendly" Subdivision Seems to Be a Hit

Elizabeth M. Tasker
for National Geographic News
December 30, 2002
On the north coast of New South Wales, Australia, koala researchers, a
property developer, and local citizens have joined forces to create the
first housing development planned around the needs of koalas.

Koalas and people thrive in the same places, along the fertile east coast of Australia. The native forests are rapidly being cleared and converted to urban landscapes. Because most koalas live on private land, their survival depends on community support.

The six-year-old housing development, known as Koala Beach Estate, is proving to be an example of how human development can be more friendly to resident wildlife.

A Famous Australian

Koalas are Australia's best known tree-dwelling marsupials, coming to the ground only to move from one tree to the next. More than 20 Eucalyptus species provide sustenance for koalas, but in any given region, the marsupials eat only a few species.

"Even with the species that they do eat, koalas choose the trees in fertile areas, those that grow on farms and on river banks," said Dan Lunney, a koala researcher from the New South Wales (NSW) National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Koala numbers decreased drastically in the 20th century. Until the late 1920s millions of koalas were killed for their fur; in August 1927 alone, the last open season for koala hunting, more than half a million were killed in Queensland. Most were exported to fur factories in the United States. The Australian government accorded them legal protection in the 1930s.

However, land-clearing and fragmentation of the remaining forests have had an even greater impact, and now pose the greatest threats to the species' survival. Many koalas live in New South Wales and Queensland (QLD), two states with the highest current rate of forest clearing in Australia. In NSW, a majority of the koalas live along the north coast. But the beaches, sunny climate, and beautiful scenery are people magnets, and housing developments threaten to consume most prime koala habitat.

Protecting these coastal populations of koalas is critical. The Koala Beach Estate demonstrates that urban development does not have to mean the loss of koalas.

A Koala-friendly Development

Before development of the Koala Beach Estate near the New South Wales-Queensland border began in 1996, Steve Phillips, then a researcher with the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF), conducted detailed studies of the koala populations living in the area.

Every koala living on the site was fitted with a collar equipped with a small radio-transmitter.

"We used a radio-tracking study to discover how koalas were using the site, whether they were permanent residents, which areas and trees were important, and the social structure of the population," said Phillips, who is now a lecturer in ecology at Griffith University in Queensland.

The AKFs goal was to identify every tree used by the koalas. "There had to be no loss of food or home-range trees at all," Phillips said. "This meant the entire subdivision had to be designed around those trees."

And it was.

Nearly 75 percent of the original site was heavily forested; the developer donated that land to the local council for permanent conservation. In the remaining area, every tree used by the koalas has been kept, and additional food trees have been planted along the streets.

Banning dogs and cats from the estate was the next crucial decision.

"Dogs are an immense problem for koalas in some areas," said Lunney. Studies he conducted elsewhere show that many koalas in urban and rural areas are killed by dog attacks.

Convincing the developer to accept a no dog/cat restriction was a hard task, said Phillips. There was a fear it might make the development less attractive to potential residents and reduce its value.

But as it has turned out, these fears were unfounded. Some people were so keen to be part of an estate with koalas that they even found new homes for family pets so they could move to the neighborhood.

The developer recently tried to relax this policy; residents protested with no-dog banners in every front garden. This left potential buyers and the developer in no doubt about the strength of the pro-wildlife attitude.

Being hit by cars is a common cause of death of urban koalas, so traffic "calming devices" such as speed humps and signs were installed throughout the estate.

Because koalas have favorite routes between their food trees, all fences were raised one foot (30 centimeters) off the ground to allow the koalas to pass freely underneath. Swimming pools were fitted with ropes to allow koalas to climb out if they accidentally fall in.

A Resounding Success

Six years after the development began, and with 75 percent of the proposed 400 houses already built, the skeptics have been silenced. Subsequent surveys by Phillips have shown there are now more koalas living in the estate than before it was built.

A bonus of the koala-friendly restrictions is that many other native species are flourishing also. The residents love the wildlife, and are proud of the fact that several endangered species have moved into the development to raise their young.

The Koala Beach Estate model is being taken up by other communities in other koala "hotspots." The NSW government's planning department is also incorporating many of the ideas into its official urban planning policies.

Long-term studies by researchers such as Lunney have resulted in other important gains, including the first comprehensive koala management plan for a Local Government Area.

"Koalas have enormous iconic status, and the best option is to work with communities to conserve them," he said.

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