GROUNDBREAKING and controversial new research suggests that relocating koala from one location to another - under the right circumstances - may boost population health, particularly in the wake of the horrific 2019-20 bushfires.
Dr Janette Norman, a molecular biologist and Senior Research Fellow at Southern Cross University, said there was a pressing need to return koalas rescued from bushfire affected regions like the Mid North Coast back into the wild.
But there are a number of roadblocks in the way - including a NSW Government standard that koalas should normally be released within a single kilometre from where they were found.
"Restrictive translocation policies mean that some healthy koalas won't be returned to the wild because their immediate habitat has been lost," Dr Norman said.
"We've got to be a bit bolder in our conservation before it's too late."
While koalas moved from one area to another traditionally can face a higher mortality rate, Dr Norman said suitable sites could be found if there's enough data on the population.
"The problem we have is that we don't have the information for most populations in Australia," she said.
With koala numbers decimated, Dr Norman said it was important that as many koalas as possible are released back into the wild in bushfire-affected areas.
"Even a small increase in the number of breeding koalas can improve the rate of population recovery and limit the loss of genetic diversity," she said.
The proposal, contained in a paper published this month in the Wildlife Research journal by Dr Norman and Professor Les Christidis, also from Southern Cross University, suggests that NSW Government policies governing the release of rescued and rehabilitated koala may hinder the recovery of bushfire-affected populations.
"In most cases release back into the wild can only take place within one kilometre of the animal's original location. With the extent of habitat loss in many areas it will be difficult to meet this requirement," Dr Norman said.
The authors propose using a spatial genetic framework to inform the selection of release sites for rescued and rehabilitated koalas.
"Using DNA-based approaches we can easily determine how koala populations are structured and prioritise release sites accordingly," Dr Norman said.
"Depending on the extent of habitat loss, koalas can be released back into their existing home range or translocated to another area within the population. In some cases, it may be beneficial, or necessary, to translocate koalas into another population."
The concept could see koalas relocated close to where they were found - or even across State lines, for instance from NSW to Victoria to boost genetic diversity.
"The intensity of the fires and the dramatic impact on habitat means that if populations are to recover they will need every bit of help that we can give," Dr Norman said.
The accepted hazard of moving koala from one area to another can be managed with science: "These risks can be minimised when koalas are translocated into areas that they would disperse to naturally - the spatial framework enables those areas to be identified," Dr Norman said.
The need for a more flexible approach is supported by recent research that showed koalas disperse further than previously thought.
In a 2019 study, Dr Norman and colleagues found that koalas in the Lismore area, dispersed on average 5.6 kilometres, with long distance movements up to 16.8 kilometres being relatively common. Koalas are known to disperse even further when their habitat is disturbed, such as during a bushfire.
"Release sites for translocated koalas should be based on these natural patterns of dispersal rather than being constrained by inappropriate translocation limits such as the one kilometre rule," Dr Norman said.
"We've got to try something different because what we have been doing clearly isn't working."
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