VAL Richardson has cared for countless babies in the past 35 years, mixing bottles and waking every three hours to feed them.
Not one of her charges has ever said “thanks Mum” – because they are too busy trying to scope out where the nearest eucalypt tree is.
The Tinana grandmother has devoted her life to being a wildlife carer, a challenging and often thankless job.
She specialises in koalas, and has seen countless numbers of the marsupials come and go through the years.
But sadly, there is a heart-breaking death toll despite all the love and care that Mrs Richardson can lavish on them.
“Only 4% of koalas that come into care actually get released again. The others die or have to be euthanised because they are just too sick,” Mrs Richardson said.
“They’re a lot quieter than human babies, but you do get attached to them.”
While she has a soft spot for koalas, Mrs Richardson’s caring career started when she was given a joey to look after when its mother was shot.
“It turned out that I was more successful than the average person at looking after them, so people started bringing them to me,” she said.
Mrs Richardson said improvements in technology had been both a blessing and a curse to wildlife carers.
“The formulas for feeding animals have improved, because they weren’t very good when I started out,” she said.
“But the survival rate of joeys whose mums have been hit by cars is actually much lower than it used to be. The cars are going much faster than they used to, so the joeys are getting killed by the impact too.”
One baby koala, Edwina, was brought to Mrs Richardson when she weighed about 90 grams and would fit in a tea cup.
“A delivery man found her mother in the middle of the road and moved her to a paddock,” Mrs Richardson said.
“When I got there, the mother had a little baby in her pouch. She was about three months old, with one eye open and one eye still opening.”
Usually koalas don’t leave their mum’s pouches until they are six months old – and baby Edwina would have died if it were not for Mrs Richardson’s care.
She nursed the tiny marsupial until she weighed one kilogram and could be sent to pre-release care.
“We used to be able to release them from here, but it’s too built up now,” she said.
“We don’t get nearly as many brought in as we used to either, there’s too many people and too much development.”
Mrs Richardson’s daughter Natalie Richardson grew up with the cuddly looking companions, but learnt fast that the animals would need more help than just she and her mum could provide.
Following in her mother’s footsteps, she has become a koala crusader for the Fraser Coast.
Natalie said koalas faced four major threats that could see local populations wiped out if nothing was done to save them.
“The biggest problem is the loss of habitat. That forces them to move around more, and that leaves them more vulnerable to dog attacks and to getting hit by cars,” she said.
“The other problem is that the stress leaves them more vulnerable to diseases that will kill them.”
She is working on a project to map all the local areas where koalas have been spotted recently and where they are known to have lived in the past, to try to catalogue which areas should be considered for protected habitat.
“There are a lot of places where we know they used to live, but they haven’t been seen in years,” she said.
“Some people report they’ve gone from seeing quite a number every month to seeing one in the past year.”
She plans to put together a proposal for the Fraser Coast Regional Council for suggested guidelines around what vegetation should be planted and whether off-leash dogs should be restricted from known habitats.
After a story in the Fraser Coast Chronicle last month, several people contacted Natalie to report koala sightings – and sadly, their stories revealed that the damage was too far gone to be undone.
“One lady called up, and she would be in her 80s. She lived out at North Aramara (near Biggenden) during the Great Depression, and she has clear memories of her neighbours shooting a thousand koalas,” she said.
“She said she distinctly remembers this family of boys saying they had 999 koalas and they wanted to go out and get one more to make it a round 1000.”
Despite the ban on the koala fur trade in 1927, the lean years saw struggling families selling koala furs by passing them off as possums.
“Another lady recalled her husband’s grandma talking about a boat of people coming up the river to shoot koalas,” Natalie said.
While it’s possible the koalas may never reach their pre-fur trade levels again, Natalie believes simple measures could protect the animals we do have left.
“I’m aiming to work with the council to get things like some signage alerting people to koala habitats; and making sure there are spotters and catchers when any trees are felled for new development,” she said.
“We need to try and protect what we have left.”
To help collate information on the Fraser Coast’s koala populations, telephone Natalie Richardson on 4121 3146 or email email@example.com.
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