Koala Ecologist, Rebecca Montague-Drake

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Tell us about your educational & career background in Ecology?

I grew up on the slopes of Middle Brother Mountain, at Kendall where my parents had a rural property (also the business Norfolk Punch which is remembered by many!). We spent our childhood camping, running and horse-riding through the bush. I always knew from a very young age that I wanted to study Ecology and work with Australia’s beautiful fauna. 

I left home to study Environmental Science and then eventually went on to do Honours and a PhD. My PhD was an amazing experience- living and working in the desert of remote Sturt National Park studying the magnificent birds, mammals and reptiles of the arid zone. It’s amazing how much life thrives out there when at tims everything looks so dry and lifeless! 

I’ve spent the last 25 years working with universities and government departments- primarily undertaking wildlife research. This has taken me across Australia from the Box Gum Woodlands of southern Australia through to the Tropical Savannas of Kakadu National Park- where I was even fortunate enough to help discover a new species of glider, locally known as the Lambalk, while working for Charles Darwin University

I feel very blessed with the opportunities and experience my career has given me. 

How long have you lived and worked as an ecologist in the Port Macquarie region?

I came back to the Port Macquarie area in 2014 and have been working in Ecology since then. I was fortunate that just at the time I moved to the area, the then Port Macquarie-Hastings Council Ecologist, Bill Peel, decided to retire and even more fortunate that I got the job! It was a fantastic opportunity to work hard to protect the environment of our beautiful area, to learn so much and to meet so many great people that donate their time to the area’s flora and fauna. We are so blessed by the rich biodiversity that our local environment has, and indeed, it is what draws people to the area, but it is a challenge to protect the region’s natural assets when we are growing so fast. 

You have had an interest in the local koala habitats and population for some time, tell us briefly what work you have previously done in this area.

Surprisingly, one of my very first paid jobs in Ecology, while I was a young 20 year old home on university holidays, was looking for koala scat! At the time, I probably thought that this was not the glamorous Ecology role that I had dreamed of scratching about in leaves for poop! Who knew I would voluntarily come back to scat-searching all these years later! In fact, Koalas were a major driver of me wanting to study Ecology in the first place. When my family first moved to Kendall, we used to be lulled to sleep every night by koala’s bellowing. As the years went by, we heard fewer and fewer, until one day, we couldn’t even remember when we had last heard on. That gets you thinking…

It was inevitable in my role as the Port Macquarie-Hastings Council Ecologist that I would have a lot to do with koalas. They are culturally, economically and socially important to our region. The Saving Our Species grant funding scheme was introduced by the NSW Government while I was at Council. This enabled us to start some good projects to better help koalas… and things have led from there. 

You are part of the newly formed Hastings Macleay Koala Recovery Partnership tell us what the organisation does and its objectives.

The Hastings-Macleay Koala Recovery Partnership is a joint venture between the NSW Government (under their Saving Our Species, Iconic Koala Project), the Koala Hospital and the newly-formed Mid North Coast Joint Organisation (Kempsey Shire Council, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council and Bellingen Council). It seeks to reverse the threats that impact koalas in our region using a variety of science, on-ground and community engagement endeavours. We are really excited to be able to work together with our partners to do some really novel and meaningful activities. We are really keen to partner with community, corporate and government stakeholders. 

What are the current projects that the group is working on?

Year 1 of the project has a few central projects. The Koala Smart Program, a joint project with the Koala Recovery Partnership, Lions Club Tacking Point and the Hello Koalas Sculpture Trail, seeks to engage school students and their families in koala conservation through improving understanding of threats and identifying actions that can be undertaken to reduce those threats. We are really excited by this project. Who knows what novel ideas those creative young minds may come up with and we are sure they are going to enjoy it!

Year 1 will also see the continuation of the Hastings-Macleay Fire and Biodiversity Consortium. The Consortium includes land management and fire agencies, such as the Rural Fire Service, NPWS and Forestry Corporation NSW. This project helps local brigades identify koala habitat in their region and provides metrics about fire history in these patches. It is designed to raise awareness and stimulate discussion about fire management in the context of koala habitat. 

Other key endeavours include working with rural landholders, hopefully through a grant scheme, to improve the protection of koala habitat, and also undertaking science to improve our understanding of how many koalas we have left in the key study area. We are here to support the community and the NSW Government with their koala conservation efforts, such as through implementation of the NSW Koala Recovery Strategy. 

What are the key concerns for our local koalas now.

The number one threat to koalas is loss and fragmentation of habitat. Koalas ideally need large areas remote from any development. Only in such environments can they be adequately protected from key threats such as dog attacks, road strike, and disease, which while a background factor in koala populations, tends to be exacerbated when koalas are under stress and have inadequate nutrition. Unfortunately, any losses of koala habitat cannot be offset in the short-term through planting, as such plantings take on average 20 years to be of proper use to koalas. Intense willdfires are also a major threat- and unfortunately hotter, drier summers only make this worse. 

How can we find out more about what work you are doing?

We will soon have a webpage up and running with all of our contact details. Find us by googling Koala Recovery Partnership. In the interim, please feel free to call Port Macquarie Hastings Council on 6581 6111 and they will connect you. We look forward to working with people!

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