I find myself on the passenger seat of a koala rescue van at 8 a.m. on a Sunday morning – a typical spring at Friends of the Koala (FOK). Two residents in the Northern Rivers, New South Wales have called FOK to report koalas in need of help. This type of call isn’t unusual at all; in fact, since July 1, 2017, the center has rescued 77 koalas.
Located in Lismore, NSW, Friends of the Koala have been leading the way in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of koalas for over 30 years. During the two weeks I spent volunteering there, I was lucky enough to take part in each of these stages.
On my first Sunday with the team, we discovered a young male koala stuck in a palm tree, surrounded by a cow paddock and three cattle dogs. After managing to get the dogs under control, we were safely able to rescue the frightened koala and bring him back to the care center. Under observation, he will be fed fresh eucalyptus leaves daily and will be treated for any diseases or ailments he may have.
Before arriving in Australia, I did not know how endangered this iconic species is. Koalas are commonly injured in car accidents, attacked by dogs, or even by cows. I realize that it all boils down to one major threat: the destruction of koala habitat. NSW recently loosened its land clearing laws and one consequence is that koalas now have to cross longer distances to find food trees.
So, the FOK team not only provides hands-on conservation work but is also actively campaigning to ensure better protection of koalas and their habitat. A great example of that work is FOK’s ten-year campaign to try to divert Section 10 of the Pacific Highway in order to save the habitat of 200 koalas known as the Ballina 200.
If it weren’t enough that koalas are losing their sleeping and feeding trees, another consequence of reduced habitat is the increased threat from the spread of disease, among which is chlamydia. Notably, one koala currently in care is Indy, a partially blind male. He suffered from severe conjunctivitis, one of the symptoms of chlamydia which caused his blindness. However, there is still hope to release him once his treatment finishes. At FOK, each koala is taken to the vet and rigorously monitored every day, so that the animal gets released back into the wild in perfect health.
One of the highlights of my volunteering experience and one that I will never forget was the release of Elsie, a mum carrying her little joey in her pouch. A joey spends on average six months in their mum’s pouch which means that when orphaned joeys are rescued by FOK, “human mums” have to take on the full-time job looking after these orphans, which involves feeding them every few hours throughout the day – and night!
What is so amazing is that FOK is solely run by a fantastic team of volunteers who engage in advocacy work with the local Councils and offer educational outreach and fundraising so they can provide day-to-day koala care. I was impressed by the incredible dedication and passion of all the volunteers who donate their time and efforts to operate a “hotline” 24 hours a day, seven days a week for any emergency.
Moreover, I learned at FOK that protecting koalas truly serves a larger purpose: the preservation of the Northern Rivers’ biodiversity as a whole. Initiatives and actions undertaken to conserve koalas include habitat protection and traffic management, which often benefit other species. The survival of koalas is at such a critical stage that the powerful words of Susannah Keogh, FOK’s care center coordinator, still resonate with me: “If Australia cannot save its koalas, how can we save any other species?”
As we enter into spring – usually the busiest season in terms of rescues – FOK needs your help more than ever. If like me, you cannot imagine Australia without its national icon, why not offer up time to volunteer – especially if you live close by. Just two to three hours of your time once a week can provide great help at the koala care center, all the while getting the chance to look after such fascinating animals.
All Image Source: IFAW