Education

Koalas are under threat in Australia. This Cal Poly professor’s research could help

A koala feeds on eucalyptus leaves in its new enclosure at the Singapore Zoo in 2015. Cal Poly professor Greg Brown is working with a team of researchers in Australia to help protect the country’s koala population.
A koala feeds on eucalyptus leaves in its new enclosure at the Singapore Zoo in 2015. Cal Poly professor Greg Brown is working with a team of researchers in Australia to help protect the country’s koala population. Associated Press

A Cal Poly professor is working with a team of researchers in Australia to help protect the koala population that has been devastated over the past century.

Greg Brown, who heads Cal Poly’s Natural Resources Management and Environmental Sciences Department, has worked closely with three universities and four local governments in New South Whales to come up with defensible actions for koala conservation.

Brown said the exact number of koalas living today is unknown. But the marsupial species unique to the Australian continent has seen its population decrease from millions to less than 80,000.

“It could be as few as 40,000. Those numbers are really fluid,” Brown said Thursday. “The bottom line, though, is perhaps not so much the absolute number — which is not known — but the trend, and the trend is downward.”

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Habitat loss from human development and encroachment are the two biggest drivers decimating the koala population, said Brown, who worked at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, for six years before coming to Cal Poly in 2016.

According to the Australian Koala Foundation, koalas are in serious decline and suffering from the effects of habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks, brush fires and road accidents.

In order to combat the downward trend, Brown and the research team set out to identify locations that provide high koala conservation value and are backed by community support for conservation.

The project required extensive collaboration between the university researchers and local governments in New South Wales, Australia, a pairing Brown said is “a bit unique.”

It also relied on an internet study that asked citizens to identify koala locations using Google Maps, and asked them where they would favor or oppose “certain types of land uses and activities that would have a barring upon koalas.”

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NSW North Coast Koala Study map.JPG
A Google Map shows the area where Cal Poly professor Greg Brown and a team of researchers conducted a study on koalas in New South Wales, Australia. Courtesy of Greg Brown

The survey took an average of 20 minutes to complete, Brown said, and about 500 people participated. Most were recruited through local government newsletters, emails, social media and local newspapers.

Using the public as an extension of wildlife research led to some perhaps surprisingly accurate results, Brown said.

“There was a really good correlation between what the citizens observed and what the expert ecologists said,” Brown said. “If the citizen observations are valid, we can actually do it more often because it’s much more cost effective to do these special surveys than to send a biologist out into the field and do koala surveys.

“That’s very time intensive. Plus, you can’t really cover a huge geographic area.”

Brown recently submitted the first of several planned research articles addressing the many challenges of koala conservation to Biological Conservation, a leading international journal for conservation science.

The article Brown authored is titled, “Assessing the validity of crowdsourced wildlife observations for conservation using public participatory mapping methods.”

It concludes there is strong evidence for the potential of citizen science to contribute to biodiversity research.

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Brown said he is now shifting focus to develop a map of the study area where conservation efforts are feasible and have public support.

Brown said he hopes local governments will take the findings from the study and engage an action plan to protect and conserve areas identified through the research. More over, he hopes to see future financial investment in koala conservation.

“I’m not an ecologist, I’m a social scientist,” Brown said. “But what we know is that conservation really depends on community commitment to conservation actions.

“Humans are the source of the problems when it comes to conserving or protecting species, so humans have to be the source of the solution as well.”

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