Janine Duffy, co-owner of Echidna Walkabout, began observing koalas in the Brisbane Ranges National Park and the You Yangs in 1998.

Her project started partly out of interest in mapping home ranges (which would help easily find koalas whilst on tour) and grew into a serious citizen science research project sponsored entirely by Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours and now the focus for Koala Clancy Foundation.

The research aims to:

  • Track the behaviour of koalas in the wild to learn how koalas interact with each other and with humans
  • Monitor the impacts of tourism on koalas
  • Monitor full life cycles of koalas in a known location
  • Learn to recognise any indications of failing health in a wild koala

A Scruffy Beginning

For 7 years before beginning the project Janine had been monitoring the activities of a large male koala she named Scruffy - she knew his home range so intimately that she could locate its boundaries to individual trees. However, even with this level of detail, Scruffy could still elude us. It was Scruffy's death (of old age) in 1998 that moved Janine to begin Echidna Walkabout's Wild Koala Research Project.

Our research begun in the Brisbane Ranges National Park has extended and grown in the You Yangs Regional Park.

You Yangs Regional Park

The You Yangs Regional Park has a healthy population of wild koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus). In our two research areas, both about 1 square kilometre each, we usually have 20 to 30 resident adult koalas. The koalas prefer the River Red Gum (Eucalyptus camaldulensis) gullies with Yellow Gum (E. leucoxylon) edges, but a mixture of species is important to them. They are regularly seen in Blue Gums - both local E. globulus and planted E. pseudoglobulous - and, particularly in hot dry weather, Red Ironbarks (E. sideroxylon), Red Box (E. polyanthemos). Manna Gum, Grey Box and Yellow Box are also used. Introduced Sugar Gum, Swamp Yate and Brown Mallet are used but rarely. On extremely hot days they take shelter in Cherry Ballart trees (Exocarpos cupressiformi), which are not food trees, but provide excellent shade. We have also seen koalas sheltering in large tree hollows.

The koalas range in age from babies to old males and females. The population appears to be stable or slightly decreasing. Drought from before 2006 to 2010 had a huge effect on the koalas, with one-third of the population dying in one year (2009-2010). Fortunately, the drought broke in 2011 and the habitat and the koalas have started to recover.

We have been amazed at the large home ranges of You Yangs Koalas, compared to a nearby wild population in the Brisbane Ranges. In the Brisbane Ranges it was rare for us to see a koala move further than 200 metres in a day, and the home ranges of females was only about 200 - 300 metres in diameter. In the You Yangs one older female has been seen in an area 1km long and 500 metres wide, and most of the females have home ranges that seem to be over 500 metres in diameter. It may be due to their food resource, which seems patchier and more limited in the You Yangs than in the Brisbane Ranges, or it may be due to weather conditions (drought) that seem to be more severe in the You Yangs than in the Brisbane Ranges.

The koala population seems to be healthy - while there is a large population of koalas, they do not seem to be overabundant. Koalas are not sharing trees with others very often. We have seen one to three babies per season in a population of 16 breeding-age females, and there seems to be koalas from all age classes from the young to the very old. Food trees are not being defoliated by koalas, even during the extended drought. Also the individual koalas look generally healthy and well - which is a great sign.

Another interesting asset of the You Yangs - perhaps due to the higher human visitation (compared to the Brisbane Ranges), the wild koalas seem to be fairly relaxed with the sounds, smells and behaviour of humans. We often see koalas low down in trees in the You Yangs. And, when we come upon a koala low down in a tree, they are less likely to scamper up the tree to a safer height. Some of them don't look at us at all, others acknowledge us but don't move, and very few exhibit signs of stress or fear - even in close proximity to humans. 

There are a few notable exceptions - two mature males and a mature female - all of which live in areas not intersected by major tracks, so they certainly would have had less contact with humans, or perhaps have chosen their home ranges because they are distant from human activities. This suggests that, even if the humans don't see the koalas (we often hear from regular visitors that they have never before seen a koala in the You Yangs!!) - the koalas have learned to live with humans. All this, added to the substantial bird population, commonly-seen resident Eastern-grey Kangaroos (Macropus giganteus), Swamp Wallabies (Wallabia bicolor), Echidnas (Tachyglossus aculeatus) and Brush-tailed Possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) makes the You Yangs a fantastic introduction to Australia.

Brisbane Ranges National Park

The Brisbane Ranges National Park is still recovering from January 2006 bushfires which burnt about 40% of the park. Some of the Koalas and other native wildlife escaped, others were rescued and many died. The area is well know for its diversity of flora and fauna. As well as the Koalas that we have been researching there are Eastern Grey Kangaroos, wallabies, echidnas, possums and gliders. More than 170 species of native birds have been recorded in the park. The formerly small number of Koalas had been increased over the years with stock from Phillip and French Islands in 1957 and 1977.

Home in the Range

Once Janine has seen a koala a few times she gives it a name and a page in her Koala ID Book. From then, each time a koala is seen it is recorded, both in the ID book and on one of our special Koala Day Maps. Every Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD tour, Great Ocean Road tour and special group tour we do contributes to this research - travellers and guides work together to find koalas, guides identify koalas (or describe new ones on the back of the map) and a dated Koala Day Map is produced with the location and name of each koala sighted. We now have thousands of Koala Day Maps on file.

As more information is collected it becomes apparent where an individual is commonly seen and from this we get a picture of the so called “home range” of that animal. We combine this with all sorts of other information including colour, ear shape and disposition, to form an overall picture of the koala and its place in the environment.

Home range is never definitive - koalas will move in and out of their home range as and when they see fit, (causing all sorts of confusion to their human observers! Ah, the joys of research!) Males and females both have home ranges. Males have a tendency to defend their home range whilst females seem to overlap significantly without too many problems.

On Nose Patterns

So Janine could learn about koalas she had to work out a way of identifying them. She did not want to catch and tag them because she thought that would upset them too much - also it is very difficult to catch a koala. Without doubt the most exciting and useful discovery Janine has made is that each koala can be identified by a pattern of markings on and around its nose. As a wildlife artist Janine's eye for detail led to the realisation that the pattern on a Koala's nose is as individual as a human fingerprint and can be used to identify koalas with great precision.

Now we can use home range knowledge, noses (and in the future DNA) to identify a koala wherever it may be - radio collars and other disruptive equipment are not required.

Who's Who?

Many wildlife researchers will not give their subjects names because they believe it brings them too close to the animal and clouds their perception of their subjects. Others feel that by naming animals they give them anthropomorphic qualities. Janine disagrees with both these assumptions. Once a koala has been identified by nose pattern it is given a name and is referred to as “he” or “she” not “it”. By using this approach we find that everyone associated with an individual koala feels an attachment to it and a genuine interest in its well being. When a new baby is born we all know the name of the mother and sometimes the name of the father. We have seen a number of our named koalas move from healthy adults into old age and finally death. All this has allowed us to form a generational perception of the environment and the individuals that live in it. Certainly Janine could use numbers instead of names but a name is more sympathetic to the fact that each koala is very obviously an individual.

Wild Things

All Janine's research is done in the wild so that we get a genuine understanding of the animals. Koalas like to be near each other but not too close - in the wild their personal space is rarely less than 40 metres. In the wild it is extremely unusual to see two koalas in a tree except in the mating season or when a joey (baby koala) is with its mother for a few months after it leaves the pouch. Although koalas in the wild are generally well removed from each other they are very aware of each others location in the forest - even if they cannot see each other they still seem to know where other koalas are located. They will often look in the direction of another koala which may not even be in sight. They have very highly refined senses of smell, hearing and sight and, because sounds and smells have a tendency to rise, a koalas location high in the treetops gives it a far greater awareness of what is going on than ground-based animals.

Males produce a powerful scent through a gland on their chest which they rub on each tree they climb and females almost certainly give off pheromones in the mating season that waft through the forest. Both the droppings and the highly concentrated urine of koalas have powerful scents that, to a human observer can be obvious, but to a koala would indicate the presence of certain individuals. Added to all of the above, koalas are very perceptive and have a clear and intelligent knowledge of their broad locality - probably on a tree by tree basis. This knowledge would also increase exponentially as the koala grows older.

If we place koalas together in a caged environment we are radically altering their natural desire to keep their distance from each other and dramatically increasing the degree of “koala-ness” (scents and sounds etc) around them. This sensory overload seems to affect koalas by “dumbing them down”. They may appear more tolerant of each other but there is a cost. Generally males must be kept away from each other to avoid fights and all animals of both sexes seem far less active than they are in the wild. It is almost like there is a “koala overload” - too much of a good thing. They may look happy but they are definitely not doing things the way they would in the wild. This is part of Janine's reason for researching koalas in the wild but she also believes in the dignity of wildness. As she said in a recent paper to the Australian Koala Foundation:

“Why is dignity important? I believe that we preserve what we love. Humans can love koalas because they seem cuddly and cute, but this is a myth and bound to be discovered eventually. Or, humans can love and respect koalas for their real attributes - their calm approach to life, their quirky sense of humour, their courage and their determination to get that out-of-reach juicy leaf! Their exceptional maternal qualities, their balance and ability high in the small branches of a tree, and their ability to learn are all visible IN THE WILD.”
(Excerpts from the address Janine gave at the 2002 Conference on the Status of the Koala).

Up a Gumtree

Movement between trees is either by short jumps from one branch to another, or by climbing down the tree, walking along the ground and up another tree. They will jump up to about three body lengths between branches and can leap about 4 times their height from the ground up a tree. They regularly walk short distances (around 100 metres/yards) and have been known to walk very long distances (up to 12 kilometres/7.5 miles in one night) if they are removed from their home range.

On the ground koalas have a humorous and laborious stride that appears to be aimed at avoiding tripping over their large, sharp claws. But they will run in a fast bounding gait, when frightened, seemingly completely unconcerned about their claws. In a eucalypt tree a koala's movements are nothing short of miraculous as they firstly bound up smooth trunks then, with great care and agility, negotiate slim upper branches until they are up in tiny branches amongst leaves. Here they will carefully select leaves and devour them with periodic rests mid-chew. We have seen a koala in the very top twigs of a tree, whipping around in a howling gale, hanging on with three limbs whilst pulling leaves into its mouth with a free hand.

Koalas rarely fall out of trees but we have seen one koala fall six metres to the ground, lie stunned for a few minutes then get back up the tree it fell from to exactly the same position it was in before it fell. It appeared completely unaffected by the fall.

Births and Deaths Notices

Since Janine began her research she has observed nearly every aspect of koala life. Koalas become very active each year in the months leading up to Christmas (Australia's summer). The forest resounds with the guttural roaring of male koalas letting the world know where they are. Both males and females wander out of their range in search of the opposite sex. There is a subtle change in the whole koala community which culminates in late spring and summer when koalas mate high in the trees. Like most marsupials the embryonic, two centimetre long, hairless koala is born about a month later, then immediately moves - under its own power - all the way to the mother's pouch.

Surprisingly the pouch opens downwards! But the mother has a tight muscle which closes the opening when the baby is inside and safely attached to a nipple. Over the ensuing months the pouch gradually expands until the extraordinary appearance of the nearly fully developed but tiny koala in late Winter or early Spring. All of this happens above ground in the trees!! We have never seen twins.

The arrival of a new joey (baby) is a time of great celebration and activity for Janine and the Koala Research Team. There is a new kid on the block, a new generation, a new cycle to monitor and follow as the joey clings to its mother's back (or front at first), learns how to feed and how to move about independently without falling on the ground. Finally the mother somehow induces the young one to leave and find its own home range - always a difficult time for all involved - for the young koala and for us for we may never see him/her again. But Janine has detailed records of its nose and other identifiers so if we do come across it again or it returns (which sometimes happens) we will know who it is.

At the other end of life is a sad time is when we find koalas dead or dying. Males can damage each other so badly with their raking claws in territorial fights that they will die of their wounds often weeks or months later. Tooth abscesses can develop in both sexes (unknown cause) that lead to infection and death. In old age, koalas' teeth wear down so much that they can't process eucalyptus leaves adequately. Also there are a few diseases that koalas have that can impact on a whole community and weaken some individuals to the point where they succumb and die. Diseases can become more serious when koalas are weakened by the effects of drought - this has been a minor problem in our research site over the past few years of low rainfall.

Janine has lost a number of koalas since she began her work in the Brisbane Ranges. We find their bodies on the ground, sometimes after years of watching them, not knowing until near the end that they have failing health. It is never easy to say goodbye to old friends who have shared their lives with so many people from all over the world and never taken anything in return. But then the next baby is born and a new cycle begins.

Bushfires in January 2006

These bushfires in the Brisbane Ranges National Park were heartbreaking for everyone. A large number of native animals including many of our Koala population were lost. A few Koalas were lucky enough to be rescued, cared for and released healthy.

The bush is taking a long time to recover. We hope that some koalas escaped the fires and lived happily somewhere else later returning to return to the area.

We have learnt such a lot during this painful time as it gave us an opportunity to be involved in rescue, attend vet visits, help the carer and see koalas up closer than normal. We have been able to see how they respond to being in care. Overall they have been tolerant of humans during their care but still stressed with all the strange things happening to them. The koalas had wonderful support from Marilyn at Beremboke Wildlife Shelter and Dr Anne Fowler was always there for the rescued koalas. She carried out a full range of tests including necropsies. All the information gained from the experiences is valuable for our research and the future of the koalas.

In June 2007, Mumma K who had been badly burnt in the January 2006 bushfires was finally released after her claws had grown back. She was tagged, released and Marilyn monitored her daily by GPS until she disappeared somewhere. She was also released with five koalas who were burnt in the January 2007 Framlingham Forest bushfires. Two years later she reappeared and was easily recognised - she looking healthy and happy which delighted everyone. She was then seen again briefly in the rain looking heathly another couple of years later - wonderful!

Lend a Hand

There is one aspect of koala life that we can help with. Boneseed, an introduced weed, is ruining large areas of koala habitat in the You Yangs.  Make a Home for Koala Clancy program encourages tour participants to help pull out some weeds. Over 8,000 weeds are removed annually by this program. In addition, regular Koala Conservation Days are planned for locals to tackle some of the larger weeds. To donate to this program please contact us.

People and Koalas

Janine's research has helped us to provide a much better understanding of how we should deal with koalas. Echidna Walkabout has been watching people and koalas since 1993. We offer a range of tours throughout Victoria, NSW and NT. Four of our tours spend time with koalas in the wild: Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD and the 3 day Great Ocean Road (Kangaroos at Serendip & Koalas in the You Yangs), the Wildlife Journey (at Raymond Island) and the Croajingolong Journey (near Mallacoota). We have a strong focus on environmental responsibility and sustainability. Since 1993 we have seen thousands of tourists and their reaction to koalas. As part of our belief in sustainability we conduct koala research while on tours and on personal extended visits.

Our koalas are recognised by their nose patterns and introduced to tourists by name. We spend an average of 3 days per week all year in the research site (on tour), plus Janine makes regular visits to the site.

Tourism Impacts - what Koalas expect

There has been little noticeable change in koala activity since Echidna Walkabout has been running the Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD tour into the research sites. Most koalas come to recognise the guides and researcher and seem more relaxed than when we first met. We have even had koalas come down onto the ground in front of our guests and walk slowly and deliberately to another tree with the guests following quietly behind at a respectful distance. Koalas that see us often display little adverse reaction upon seeing us.

There is one thing we have learned that really worries koalas - they are highly aware of their vulnerability to attack from below. For this reason we ensure that a group of people never surround the tree a koala is in and guests are NEVER allowed to touch the tree. These two requirements are carefully explained to our guests before they enter the forest - if anyone breaks these rules the visit to the site ceases.

Importantly, the koalas maintain their dignity - wild koalas have control of their situation and can move away if they are uncomfortable.

What people expect

KOALAS IN THE WILD. This is not negotiable with many tourists. They don't seem to mind if they see fewer koalas this way, or if the koala is hard to see. Strangely, many people expect koalas to be more active - to climb, feed and jump through the trees like monkeys - while others expect them to be slow-moving like sloths. These expectations are given to them, mostly by Australians, through the media or nature shows/documentaries, postcards and tourism information which so often show many koalas on one branch, koalas being cuddled by people and fluffy, alert, perfect koalas posing for photographs. Most of this kind of activity happens in wildlife parks or on islands where koalas have been introduced by humans. The fact is that in a natural mainland environment wild koalas are not numerous and they never congregate. Also a wild koala will not tolerate being handled or cuddled - they react violently to this and will lash out with their long, sharp claws and inflict deep painful raking wounds.

What people think of koalas

Most love seeing them in the wild and enjoy the challenge of finding them. They can then go home and say they've really seen a koala. With wild koalas there is a greater chance of watching some exciting and natural behavior.

The thrill of being the first in the group to find a koala will often stay with the traveller all day - their fellow travellers and guide congratulate them. A gentle competition sometimes begins amongst the group which often helps people focus more on their surroundings. Tourists are most impressed by how close to the koalas they are (the area we work in has small trees) and how the koalas don't try to run away. Travellers who have seen koalas in captivity are pleasantly surprised at how alert the wild koalas are, in contrast to the captive ones. Introducing the koalas by name has a big impact on people - they often refer to them later by name, and even send photographs back with names attached! As soon as a new koala is spotted, they often enthusiastically ask the Guide: “Who is this? Do you know this one?” Each koala has become an individual, a personality, not just another animal.

In the wild does work

Of course it is not always easy. Wild koalas can be hard to find some days, weather can interfere, they can move out of their normal ranges. But there are ways of reducing the problems. We research the koalas - home ranges, tree preferences and seasonal movements. Guides are involved in and contribute to Janine's research. We allocate a decent amount of time on each tour to looking for koalas.

When we don't have much time,  koala researchers search in advance of the tour group. This has several advantages - the researcher finds a few koalas, records them for our research, and then chooses which ones are best suited to the situation. The Koala Researcher's knowledge allows us to avoid nervous or sick koalas altogether - mothers with babies and koalas that are very low down are approached more quietly.

In the wild is worth it

The challenge of finding wild koalas adds to the excitement of the tour. The memories of the experience are special, so koalas achieve a status that not many animals have. Seeing koalas in the wild encourages research and understanding of these unique marsupials.