A friend of the koalas

Maria Matthes, Bagotville
Maria Matthes near her Bagotville home. Photo: David Lowe

I was just thinking, Get me out of here – my koalas are on fire!

When the Black Summer fires started I was giving evidence to the parliamentary enquiry into habitat for koalas at Ballina RSL Club. We were just in the last twenty minutes of our session and I was looking out the window down into this area – looking at the home of Ballina’s koalas – and as I was talking I saw smoke. 

I don’t even remember the last bit of the evidence I gave, ’ cause my brain was just thinking, Get me out of here – my koalas are on fire!  

I didn’t stay for lunch. I got in the car and raced down. The RFS had the road blocked. They said that a fire started in the Ngunya Jargoon Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) and they’d had to back-burn and that they’d tried to keep it out of the canopy as much as they could. 

I said, ‘Look, I’ve got koalas down there, Makawee with her joey, and I need to get there.’ They let me know when it was safe, and we had a bit of a look around. There were still big trunks burning but I figured that I could safely go in and check some of her trees without having to walk in the fireground where it wasn’t safe. I found her post-fire scats and her joey’s post-fire scats, so I knew she’d survived.

I had a good relationship with the RFS, from the ground up to the local head person, David Cook. He was ringing me at night, saying, ‘Where have you got your koalas? The fire’s trickling through here, so it hasn’t got over to that eastern bit where your koala trees are.’ An hour later he rings and says, ‘Look, I’m sorry, the wind’s come up and we’re gonna have to back-burn from this spot.’ And I said, ‘Well, if it has to be done then try and keep the trees if you can, and go in a bit deeper to start the back-burn.’ Which they did, but the wind carried it across.

Finding koala scatts after the fires gave Maria hope some of her koalas had made it through. Photo: David Lowe

After two weeks of slow trickling the fire jumped into the next section. That was early November, and that section was hot and devastating. I had Bear the koala-detection dog from University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC) Detection Dogs for Conservation (DDC) team and International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW), so we had this unit of great people.  Bear found Makawee’s scats, so we started with that area that had burnt first. We found several koalas that had survived unscathed, lots of trees still unburnt, but we couldn’t find Makawee, so she became this thing I fixated on. 

A few days after the fire had gone through and they were still mopping up, the Jali Rangers and I went through the southern burnt area. When we got in, it was just like, ‘My goodness!’ When fire burns really hot, you don’t get black ash, it’s white. You would have thought you were looking at pure-white beach sand in places. We could see that there were surviving koalas. RFS had told me that there were patches where the wind had swirled around, that didn’t get burnt. Some were just single trees and some were a bit larger patches that if the koala could make it to them they were alright. 

One day when we were surveying, I found this little alphitonia, a red ash, that would’ve been two-and-a-half metres high. It had a few scorched leaves, but was mostly dead. Underneath it were a few koala scats that had been left post-fire. I thought, Oh well, there’s a survivor somewhere here. Two metres from that shrub I found this huge pile of koala scat. I could only imagine that this koala had gone up the closest thing it could to get away from the fire, and that after the fire it went down and had nothing else left in it just sat there and pooped what was left in it and died. 

I got a call about another one down at Tabbimoble. I met the landholders and they took me in and we used their buggy to go down and get the koala, who I named Tabby. Tabby’s fur was sticky, greasy and singed, and he had burns on him. We got him in to Currumbin and they checked him out and his lungs were cooked from the insides, from breathing in the radiant heat. They said they could try, but they didn’t think it would be successful. I said, ‘Look, if he’s not going to make it, don’t put him through it.’ 

Another day Bear had signalled that he’d found a koala. But we couldn’t find the koala anywhere. The rangers, some Jali people, UniSC DDC team, IFAW people, me – we couldn’t find the koala that Bear was telling us was there. Then one of the boardmembers of Jali Land Council said, ‘Oh’, and there was a skull and it still had fur attached to it. So Bear had found this dead koala that didn’t make it and we had evidence that it didn’t make it. 

Bear found Makawee’s scats…
But we couldn’t find Makawee

Bear found another koala and we got help from the UniSC DDC team and got it down and took him in and he went up to Currumbin. This was four months after this fire. His fur was really dry and brown. He looked pretty good, like he’d managed to survive those four months okay. But when he got to Currumbin they stethoscoped him and checked his lungs. His left lung was crackling from all that smoke inhalation back then. They pulled copious amounts of soot from his nostrils. 

So that then made me start thinking that even the ones that are out there, that had survived, that we’ve said are okay, may need help still. Because they might be having trouble breathing, with their noses that they use to tell about leaf toxins and everything else. If they’re clouded by copious amounts of soot, how does that affect them? 

I tried and tried to get funding but everyone was interested in planting trees. We’ve got trees; we’ve got to take care of the lantana to look out for future fire risks. And we need to be health checking. We were lucky because of the work we’d done with RFS, I think we’d minimised the impacts. I think we got most of them that were in need of care really quickly and early. Except for Makawee. Poor Makawee. I tried to get funding from every imaginable source but no one wanted to fund something for one koala. 

For the first five to six months, I was out every week checking Makawee’s trees to see if she came back. When the fire first started they’d back-burnt the road that she lived on, so I kept going back and going back. I found one of her young that was a few years old and I found other koalas. But I didn’t find her. I hadn’t given up hope that she had made it across to the range and I wanted funding to get Bear out to search the range for her and any others that might have escaped as well. 

Twelve months and two days after the fire, October the 18th 2020, my neighbour rings and says I’ve got a koala having trouble climbing. I get there and I’m looking at it through the camera and I’m going, ‘Oh, maybe she’s been hit by a car, and like rolled on the bitumen or something. I’ll go and put a trap up for her cause she looks terrible, all wasted.’ I went home, got the trap, and set it. Later, when I was looking at the photos, I went, ‘Oh my God, that’s Makawee!’ 

That night I trapped her and put her in the car. I went and grabbed as much good food as I could find for her and she just pigged out. 

She was fourteen years old. The tops of her paws were all burnt, no fur. Her rump, no fur. Her scats, when she pooed, they were coated in fur. Any fur that was starting to grow couldn’t hold in the follicles and just was falling out. And she was just raw bum, sitting side-saddle in the tree. Koalas have this tail, this small tail, and usually you can’t see it for the fur, but you could see hers and the end was charred. Above her nose the fur was missing, and her eyes – she always had funny eyes – but she almost looked like Gizmo out of Gremlins. She must have survived and decided to get out of there and when she went to go, she’s walked through some peat or something that was burning, and then sat in it. That, or the flames had gone up the tree and burnt her rump and paws. 

If we’d gotten her early, it’s possible that her eyesight may have been saved. Given her age and her level of wastage that she wasn’t going to recover from, and even if we’d looked after her, that would’ve been at least another eighteen months of rehabilitation.  

So again, I said, ‘Is there any funding to search for others who are out there?’ 

I went to a Council meeting when they discussed the bushfire recovery money. That was March 2020. We’re now nearly at March 2022 when we end up implementing that. It’s frustrating, that whole side of things, when you know how much money everyone had, and how much everyone put into things to know that the actual welfare of the koalas sits somewhere below all those things. 

Makawee in a eucalypt with year-old burn wounds. Photo: Maria Matthes

Just two months ago I got a call on Friends of the Koala’s rescue hotline. They said that they wanted to report a sighting because they hadn’t had a koala there in the thirty-five years they’d lived there, but they’d seen one saw that day. 

I went out there and there was this little fella up in a paperbark in amongst vines. I could see his head. There were flies buzzing around him and he looked quite wasted. I looked around and found scats. They were little. 

I got all excited; that he was a little boy that was a ‘back young’ at the time of the fire, that he’d survived, that his Mum had survived to raise him. I had this glimmer of hope, but I needed help to get him down so I rang a couple of rescuers that came out and helped. 

When we got him he was so wasted you could see his spine. He turned out not to be the little two-year-old that I’d imagined in my fantasy world, but a six-year-old boy. He’d spent the last two years wasting away, starving to death. His gut had shut down. He couldn’t digest food. His poos were like a two-year-old’s. He weighed like a two-year-old. He looked like a two-year-old, but he was six. 

So when people say, ‘If they’re going to survive they will,’ or ‘They’re not going to be there after so many months,’ they can stick that. These koalas are out there using every ounce of their energy to try and survive in what’s left of their habitat. 

We need funding for post-fire monitoring. For health and welfare. Not so the government can say, ‘Oh there’s twenty koalas in this area.’ Because twenty koalas in that area – not knowing how they are and not fixing the ones that need to be fixed – you know, twenty koalas means nothing ’cause they’ll fluctuate in each colony depending on what’s happening at that time. It’s nice to know but unless it’s done as part of something meaningful, and for these burnt areas, that needs to be still an important thing. 

We can’t be leaving them out there starving to death. It’s just so cruel, nasty, mean and evil. You know, with a good team of people with a good detection dog there’s so much we can do.