An Ecological History of the Koala Phascolarctos cinereus in Coffs Harbour and its Environs, on the Mid-north Coast of New South Wales, c1861-2000

Daniel Lunney, Antares Wells, Indrie Miller

Abstract


This paper focuses on changes to the Koala population of the Coffs Harbour Local Government Area, on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, from European settlement to 2000. The primary method used was media analysis, complemented by local histories, reports and annual reviews of fur/skin brokers, historical photographs, and oral histories. Cedar-cutters worked their way up the Orara River in the 1870s, paving the way for selection, and the first wave of European settlers arrived in the early 1880s. Much of the initial development arose from logging. The trade in marsupial skins and furs did not constitute a significant threat to the Koala population of Coffs Harbour in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The extent of the vegetation clearing by the early 1900s is apparent in photographs. Consistent with the probable presence of Koalas in the Coffs Harbour town centre in the early 1900s, available evidence for the period 1920-1950s strongly suggests that Koalas remained present in the town centre and surrounding area. Large-scale development began in the early 1960s. Comparing aerial photographs allows us to discern the speed of change from a largely rural landscape in 1964 to one that is predominantly urbanised by 2009. The 1999 Comprehensive Koala Plan of Management for Coffs Harbour City Council, drawing on the 1990 Community Survey of Koalas in Coffs Harbour, detailed specific examples of habitat fragmentation through development. Local media coverage offered a wealth of information on the persistence, and rapid eradication, of Koala habitat over the 1970s-2000, in addition to the level of community interest in the issue. Taken collectively, the evidence allows us to draw two main conclusions: that the Koala population of Coffs Harbour was widespread but never abundant, and that habitat loss has been relentless since European settlement. The transformation of a rural-forest to a largely urban landscape, particularly in the south-east of the Local Government Area, over the past four decades is the most recent stage in the incremental loss of habitat since European settlement. Consequently, the conclusion can be drawn that the Koala population had been reduced from its pre-European size by 2000. Concurrent research on the Coffs Harbour Koala population showed that it declined during the 1980s, but was relatively stable and endured over the period 1990-2011. These findings point to the necessity of employing historical analysis to interpret change in Koala populations in Coffs Harbour to complement current assessments of population status.

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