Koala Habitat Atlas

Act or Axe - koala numbers in your electorate

The Spot Assessment Technique

The Spot Assessment Technique (SAT) was developed by the Australian Koala Foundation in 1995 to provide important tools for conservation planning and management, and has been subject to undergoing refinement since that time. It was last updated in 2009. The SAT identifies local Koala tree species preferences by measuring the rate at which each species is utilised by koalas.

It is important to note that the SAT does not attempt to predict the abundance or density of local Koala populations. However, determining Koala tree species preferences is useful as it allows us to identify critical habitats for conservation planning. Vegetation communities can be ranked in order of importance, on the basis of the proportion of preferred tree species present, and this information is used to develop the Koala Habitat Atlas.

To succeed in conserving the Koala in the wild, adequate areas of Koala habitat must be preserved. Unlike projects which map the location of individuals within a species, the Koala Habitat Atlas can show us where suitable Koala habitats occur even when the animals are not present. In places where Koalas no longer occur for historical reasons, the potential is also there for them to be restocked in the future.

The SAT has been detailed in two peer-reviewed publications:

  1. The tree species preferences of Koalas (Phascolarctos cinereus) inhabiting forest and woodland communities on Quaternary deposits in the Port Stephens area, New South Wales.
  2. Tree species preferences of a Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) population in the Campbelltown area south-west of Sydney, New South Wales.

A third peer-reviewed publication is currently in review, and will discuss the incorporation of the SAT into the Koala Habitat Atlas methodology: Ranking and mapping Koala habitat quality based on tree species preferences for conservation planning: a case study of Noosa Shire, southeast Queensland.

Where the Atlas is up to and where are we going?

If you were charged with the responsibility of overseeing the national effort to 'save the Koala', where would you begin? With habitat protection? Acknowledging that roughly 80% of the Koala's remaining habitat occurs on privately owned land, how would you go about protecting that habitat or at least channelling limited funds towards that goal?

In 1992, the Australian Koala Foundation embarked upon an ambitious project called 'The Koala Habitat Atlas" which aimed to identify, map and rank all remaining Koala habitat across the Koala's geographic range - roughly one and a half (1.5) million square kilometres.

A selection of Australian Koala Foundation Koala Habitat Atlases:

Maps Copyright Australian Koala Foundation. These maps have been reduced in size to A4 for easy web viewing and printing, therefore causing some loss of detail. To obtain full size and resolution versions of these maps, or for more information contact [email protected]

The Koala Habitat Atlas (KHA) was designed with specific issues of scale in mind. Because remaining Koala habitat occurs predominately on private land, it is necessary to be able to plan at local government level down to individual properties for habitat protection, taking regional planning into account.

For this reason, the KHA is unlike other existing vegetation maps or species inventories. It provides a comprehensive assessment of where Koalas remain or more to the point where Koala habitat remains, including areas of habitat that for one reason or another no longer support living Koala populations, but could do so in the future. The KHA makes it possible to plan for future habitat protection in urbanising areas, particularly coastal shires, where Koalas are most under pressure from a growing human population.

Given the level of detail required to make informed planning decisions, up until now the KHA has been a slow and costly process. To date the AKF has mapped roughly 4 million hectares. Because of the extent and diversity of the Koalas range, the AKF has chosen those areas strategically where Koalas are most under pressure and with the development of regional habitat models in mind.

"We have a long-range vision based on the need to map all Koala habitats quickly, accurately and cost-effectively .. now we're focusing on how to achieve that" says Deborah Tabart, architect of the KHA and Chief Executive Director of the Australian Koala Foundation.

Interestingly, it seems that technologies developed as part of the US space program may provide assistance with the development of this Koala habitat mapping tool by assisting with the latest remote sensing and satellite technology to speed up the process.

The potential exists to extrapolate the results of the KHA into bio-regional Koala habitat maps covering large areas which may be defined by the geographic distribution of key food tree species. To this end, the forthcoming availability of high resolution satellite imagery offers enormous potential.

The AKF is currently collaborating with CSIRO and the University of Queensland to develop spectral signatures for tree species identified as key to koalas. Rather than seeking to identify the specific spectral signatures of each and every tree species in a given forest community as most previous remote sensing research has done, we propose to focus our efforts on those tree species that have been identified as being preferred by Koalas within a specific area. It is our hope that detailed interpretation of such imagery will enable us to identify and map the occurrence of individual trees or clusters of these Eucalyptus species.

Individual Eucalyptus tree canopies are often in excess of 4.0m-5.0m in diameter, and clusters are commonly much larger. Test projects (by D. Mitchell) using airborne multispectral video data were able to successfully delineate individual trees and tree clusters using images acquired with 1.0m and 2.0m pixels. Preliminary results with the CASI (Compact Airborne Spectrographic Imager) data indicate a high level of accuracy in the delineation of individuals and clusters of Tallowwood E. microcorys.

While conducting research into the AKF Koala Habitat Atlas (KHA), the AKF has accumulated a database of records for over 80,000 individually assessed trees from 2,000 field sites across the Koala’s range.  KHA maps are complete or underway in the following areas;

  • NSW: Port Stephens, Campbelltown, Greater Taree, Richmond River and Tweed (Coast section) LGAs and the Pilliga region
  • Queensland: Brisbane, Redland, Logan, Noosa, and Esk shires
  • Victoria: Ballarat City, Strzelecki ranges

"The Koala Habitat Atlas is not a book of maps like an Atlas in the classic sense" says Tabart. "It's a highly dynamic set of data which is providing information crucial to good planning for the conservation benefit of wild koala populations."

"There's no question that Koala habitats and therefore Koalas have been (and continue to be) severely impacted by clearing of habitat. But because the Koala's range is large and some populations are still relatively healthy, Australian Governments are slow to take decisive steps towards protecting their habitat" says Tabart.

"Hopefully, the US Government's decision to list the Koala as a 'threatened species' under the US Endangered Species Act in 2000, will provide the impetus for our country to take seriously the need for long range environmental planning to secure natural assets like Koala habitats, before it is too late" said Ms Tabart .

"To save our biodiversity and our heritage, we need decent maps" is Tabart's theme-song.

"The technology we are developing for Koalas could be used all over the world to solve land-use problems where conservation is an issue. To put precious and limited conservation dollars to the best use, maps like the KHA can provide the blueprint of how to maximise efforts to save the Koala" said Ms Tabart.

For more information email us or call 61 (07) 3229 7233

Background Information

The Koala Habitat Atlas is the spearhead that encapsulates the Australian Koala Foundation's prime objective - conservation of Koalas in the wild - using GIS technology to identify, map and rank koala habitat and to give land-use planners this vital information in a practical format.

The Koala Habitat Atlas uses a combination of sound science and sophisticated Geographic Information System (GIS) technology to identify the tree species and the areas of habitat that koalas need to survive. The bottom line with conserving any species in the wild is the protection of its food and shelter resources, yet to translate such a basic premise into reality is always a battle.

The Koala Habitat Atlas is central to the AKF's multi-pronged strategy to effect the conservation of wild koalas. It provides the information and the means to argue and sometimes fight more effectively for conservation. The Atlas also complements the AKF's other activities of pure research, education, information dissemination and the establishment of koala conservation zones.

Since white settlement of Australia, Koalas, along with much of the continent's native fauna, have suffered greatly at the hands of the human race. During this time approximately eighty percent of the Koala's natural habitat has been destroyed and of the remaining twenty percent, most occurs on privately owned land. In many cases it is 'prime real estate' be it for urbanization, forestry, sandmining, agriculture and their associated infrastructures. With pressure on this land for development every day, it is fundamentally important to have information available on where Koala habitat occurs so that compelling arguments based on facts can be put forward to plea for its protection.

The Koala Habitat Atlas has been designed to illustrate the results of enormous amounts of data collected from tens of thousands of trees. Analysis of this data allows us to identify, rank and quantify the Koala habitat that remains standing in Australia's bush. It has made the process of mapping such huge areas far simpler and quicker than was previously possible from traditional survey methods because of the GIS' ability to predict and model data.

To succeed in conserving the Koala in the wild, adequate areas of koala habitat must be preserved. Unlike projects which map the location of individuals within a species, the Koala Habitat Atlas can show us where suitable Koala habitats occur even when the animals are not present. In places where Koalas no longer occur for historical reasons, the potential is also there for them to be restocked in the future.

By looking closely at the way koalas use the bush we have learnt a great deal about the preferential use of tree species by Koalas, as well as their social and home ranging behaviour. Koalas are incredibly habitat specific. The Australian bush is a mosaic of different vegetation communities and by walking 10 meters (30 feet), one can go from critical or core koala habitat to marginal habitat which is unable to support koalas.

Furthermore, our work on the Koala Habitat Atlas over a broad geographic range has dramatically illustrated that Koala populations are still suffering the effects of the decimation of their populations from hunting earlier this century when millions were shot for their fur. There are thousands of hectares of suitable habitat which are relatively intact today but no longer support healthy koala populations.

Having this information enables us to open up several opportunities for the implementation of effective conservation measures. We can and do work with planners and communities to protect Koala populations living in areas that are being developed for human use and we can also project forward to the possibility of restocking or assisting the natural recruitment of Koala populations into areas of intact habitat that are isolated from human uses.

While it's not very 'sexy' to the Media, land use planning is the key to the Koala's future. Deborah Tabart, Executive Director, Australian Koala Foundation, recognized this the instant she was introduced to GIS technology and realized that here was a tool that would provide the information planners needed to make effective Koala conservation decisions. She and her team is educating the world's media to that effect.

The Koala Habitat Atlas is the 'horse' that needs to go in front of the 'cart' of effective habitat conservation, not only for Koalas, but for any species that has human beings wanting to encroach upon its territory. Until planners understand specifically where and what the Koala, or any other species needs to survive in the wild, decisions made in the name of conservation will fall short of what is really required. The serious decline of Koala populations throughout the country, even in places where measures have been implemented for the Koala's protection, illustrate this discrepancy perfectly.

In Australia, there are three tiers of Government; Federal, State and Local. Most decisions that are made about land-use planning are the responsibility of town-planners, bureaucrats and parochial politicians at the local authority or 'county' level. Local authorities have the lowest level of scientific or 'wildlife systems management' expertise and also the lowest budgets to fund environmental impact studies. Unfortunately, it is here that the fate of Koala habitat is decided.

While the Koala enjoys adoration and a high profile at a global level, there has previously existed a gaping void of information and understanding about its habitat requirements or even its social habits. This translates into the ongoing and relentless destruction and fragmentation of Koala habitat, as one by one, decisions are made by people who generally have little or no understanding about the way the Koala uses its habitat or indeed what constitutes Koala habitat.

Koala populations face death by a thousand cuts - 'the tyranny of small decisions'. In the planners' defence, there is also a paucity of information about where Koala habitat occurs and what it is comprised of. There are broadscale maps that have been compiled by State and Federal Governments, but they are grossly inadequate for planning at a local level.

That is the gap that the Koala Habitat Atlas has evolved to fill.