Koalas are cute, cuddly and in need of our support. We spoke with Mornington Peninsula Koala Conservation Group president Dirk Jansen about ways we can live in harmony with our fluffy friends and how the act of helping out can have a positive effect on our own lives.

I’m joined today by Dirk Jansen, president of the Mornington Peninsula Koala Conservation Group, who are on a mission to protect koalas along the peninsula by restoring their native habitat. Thanks for joining us, Dirk and welcome to AMR.

Dirk: Thank you for having me.

Can you tell us about how the Mornington Peninsula Koala Conservation Group came to be?

I lived in Seaford, in the Frankston area for a long time, and then moved to the peninsula, to Rosebud about six years ago. And we live quite close to Arthur’s Seat State Park. I started seeing koalas in there and I was trying to figure out what was actually going on with koalas on the Mornington Peninsula, because you hear that they’re declining everywhere else. There are a lot of news stories in the media about their decline on the East Coast. And so, I started contacting Landcare, the council, Parks Victoria, yet no one really had any information.

People without prompting would say exactly the same thing, ‘we used to see lots of them, and now we don’t see them anymore’.

We know that there’s an overabundance of koalas on French Island, which is problematic. But no one really had much data. Then I created a Facebook group, to hear from other residents on the peninsula and just to see if I could encourage people to log some (koala) sightings. And that went gangbusters! It really did very well. But, the story all of a sudden was the same everywhere. So, my neighbours here in Rosebud were saying that, ‘we used to see them all the time and now you’re really hard pressed to find a koala anywhere’. And the same was true for Somers, the same in Balnarring, in Flinders, up in Frankston South, Mount Eliza and Langwarrin. From everywhere, people without prompting would say exactly the same thing, ‘we used to see lots of them, and now we don’t see them anymore’.

And it turns out that the Shire and Parks Victoria and the authorities have virtually no data on koalas on the Mornington Peninsula at all. So, I started logging sightings and getting more and more people interested. And then I sort of hit that ceiling where you couldn’t really do anything and couldn’t apply for funding unless you became a formal group. So, about three years ago, we became a Landcare group and registered formally with Landcare Victoria, which then allowed us to apply for grants, funding, donations and actually become a more established group. And in the last three years we’ve been planting trees and re-vegetating the habitat on the peninsula. And that’s going really well. We’ve grown very, very quickly from just a handful of members to over 300 members now. This year, we’ve got funding in the order of about $100,000 to plant 20,000 trees. It restores your faith in people seeing, you know, the amount of great work that’s happening on the peninsula, that’s for sure.

Absolutely. So, what began as a general concern and quest for knowledge ultimately became something bigger, leading to greater community involvement. So, what are some of the reasons koalas are in decline and what activities do you take to help address those issues?

You hear a lot about disease in koalas, about roadkill, but really, the primary reason why they’re declining is because their habitat, our forests, are disappearing.

The main reason why koalas are disappearing anywhere in Australia is because of loss of habitat. Right? There’s really no other main driver. You hear a lot about disease in koalas, about roadkill, but really, the primary reason why they’re declining is because their habitat, our forests, are disappearing. On the Mornington Peninsula more than 70% of koala habitat is also on private property, meaning it’s not as easy to control what happens there. Public Land is very few and far between. We’ve got beautiful national and state parks on the peninsula, but that area alone is not enough to maintain a viable koala population.

And really, it’s death by 1000 cuts and the tyranny of small decisions, right? Every decision individually is really not a problem. With an abundance of small properties, the fact that you’re removing one tree here and one tree there individually looks small, but over time it adds up to a lot of tree canopy loss and a loss of native vegetation overall.

Our prime objective is twofold. One is to educate people on koala conservation and the issues that they are having on the Mornington Peninsula. So obviously, removal of vegetation, roadkill, for sure, but also the fact that people don’t consider that they are fencing out wildlife, out of their sometimes very large properties. Most of the time, it’s just an education thing. We can talk to a lot of new land holders, and people who have moved down here just to educate them on the importance of maintaining our beautiful, mature gum trees. And then secondly, rather than just talking about it, we also want to do something. And really the prime objective here is that we, when we say we plant trees, we really plant back habitat, no just tree plantations, but that we’re trying to bring back what was originally in an area, and we’re really quite careful on the type of vegetation that we use. The peninsula is very, very diverse, and has lots of different ecosystems and types of vegetation that that grow in different areas. Ultimately, we want to bring back what was originally there.

Got it. Sounds like on one hand, a lot of small, innocuous decisions can compound to create a bigger problem, but what are some of the more impactful projects you’ve worked on to counter that?

There’s actually a couple. From the Landcare network overall, there’s a couple of very inspirational projects that are linking Greens Bush and Arthurs Seat State Park, they’re the two biggest parks that we have on the peninsula. And all of the private properties in between those two parks, most of them, pleasingly, are now part of linking those two parks back together and that project is run by Landcare and their network, very successfully. And we contribute wherever we can, if it’s just with plants, or you know, any form of funding, we try and contribute.

But our biggest project was probably Somers last year. We planted 15,000 trees in Somers over winter last year, on I think 15 different properties. And it is really nice to see now when you drive past and you can see that after 12 months, the plants are already a metre, metre and a half tall and doing very, very well. We had a smaller project in and around Arthur’s Seat State Park as well and there’s a few areas that Parks Victoria chose for us to revegetate and plant trees in, but Somers last year was probably our biggest one so far. And now we’re trying to scale up, so this year, we’re trying to get to 20,000 (plants). Maybe next year, we will be able to hit the 25,000 mark and scale up what we’re doing.

Of all the projects you’ve been involved in, do you have a favourite? One you’ve especially enjoyed?

The second biggest driver on the peninsula, in terms of koala decline, is roadkill and especially over spring and summer. In spring of 2020, we had one koala a week that was getting hit and killed on peninsula roads very, very regularly. It’s like, from September, October you’re turning a tap on and all of a sudden it goes bang-bang-bang, because the tourist season coincides with the breeding season. It means we have much, much more traffic and much, much more active koalas and that’s just not a good combination. And we’ve been working now with the Mornington Peninsula Shire, with Vic Roads, and most recently for this spring and summer that’s coming up also with Frankston City Council on increasing road signage. And we designed a sign, a koala activity sign, with a ‘koala activity, drive safely’ label and a picture of a koala sitting on the road. And that’s been installed at about 35 different locations in the Frankston City Council and Mornington Peninsula Shire areas.

For me, that was a major achievement, because road signage is so massively complicated. No one wanted to do anything! And I got this massive list initially of what not to do and what we weren’t allowed to do. And then I was scratching my head thinking, ‘what am I actually allowed to do?’. Now we’re in the second year of it and Frankston City Council have come on board. Also, this year the Mornington Peninsula Shire, they’re doubling the number of signs that are going to go out on key roads. And look, I don’t know that our signs can claim all the glory, but definitely in the 2021 season, as opposed to 2020, we had about a 30% reduction (of deaths) on those roads that had signage. It’s not a foolproof way of protecting koalas, but every little bit helps. On Frankston-Flinders Road, for example, we usually have around three or four dead koalas in a season and when we had the signs installed, we only had one. So, I’m hoping that the awareness overall is helping a little bit. But that was really a major achievement for us.

Did you find it strange that the various administrative groups weren’t fully on board to begin with and why do you think they eventually came to the party to help get these signs out there?

I think one of the issues was initially there was no data. It wasn’t until 2020, until we really had a good set of data over a few years that showed every spring and summer, the amount of koalas that were killed, and also, where they were being killed, on which roads and which sections. Because the council had no data, so for them, this problem didn’t exist. And I also think initially, people were thinking that we were overstating how often it happens. It really wasn’t until we could prove, you know, with our data that it was happening very, very regularly. And I would report every time it happened. I would send an email to the council and let them know where and when and how, then they too started recording. Only then was there sort of some awareness that this is actually a problem, both for koalas and people, because if you sustained damage to your car or just a shock, you put yourself in danger. Because you’re getting out of the car and you’re walking on the road, potentially at night.

You may have just answered my next question. Hhow does logging and reporting koala activity help preserve their population? And have you noticed a change in their activity levels?

It’s been absolutely fantastic. We’ve had upwards of 1500 sightings reported to us over the last three, four years now.

It’s been absolutely fantastic. We’ve had upwards of 1500 sightings reported to us over the last three, four years now. And really, it tells us a number of things. It tells us where they get hit on roads, or even just spotted near the road or on the road. You wouldn’t believe how many near misses we have on Balnarring Road on Frankston-Flinders Road. Or how often people see koalas on the road, on the peninsula. That amazed me, I didn’t expect that.

It also shows us where they’re still breeding, because people report koalas with joey’s, Recently, we had a koala with a joey reported from Flinders. And I mean, when you drive through Flinders and you see how few trees, how little tree canopy is left in Flinders, it amazes me that koalas are still breeding there. But it seems like every year we’re getting joey’s reported from Flinders, even from Tyabb and some from Langwarrin too. It gives us a good picture of where they are, where there are issues, where they’re still breeding. And we use this data all the time. In conversations with the authorities, but also when we apply for grants, when we work out where to plant trees, and which areas to focus on. It’s very, very valuable.

And that data informs where you should focus your efforts regarding re-vegetation?

Yes. The type of trees really depends on the area itself, because we try and bring back what was originally in that area. That means it is koala habitat, some type of forest or forested grasslands. Most habitats on the peninsula are palatable for koalas, except for coastal vegetation, like for example, from Rosebud onwards down to Portsea. There were never any koalas down there. It’s mainly coastal shrub and tea tree and not really koala habitat. But most other areas on the Mornington Peninsula really do provide valuable koala habitat, if you bring back what was originally growing there.

The layman might just think to put gum trees everywhere, but it’s obviously more complex than that?

Yes, yes. And koalas also need a diverse environment. You may have heard of reports around Portland, where there’s always issues with koalas and tree plantations. And they tend to reproduce very fast in those tree plantations, because there’s an overabundance of food. And, again, that’s generally problematic. So, you want to really bring back a natural habitat, that’s definitely what we’re trying to do. Deakin University have done a number of quality studies on the Mornington Peninsula and their data helped us to identify the key areas.

Most of the sites there that were surveyed for koalas all had koalas present at the time that they were surveyed. And so, we could tell that even though the vegetation there is quite sparse now that there’s definitely still areas that had more koalas or a sort of a larger population of koalas than others. They have become the areas that we’re focusing on now for tree planting.

I get a sense throughout this conversation, that you’re someone that is obviously very passionate about the issue of koala conservation. But what do you love most about what you do?

What really inspires me every day is just how people respond to this, and how much work people are doing on the peninsula out of their own motivation.

Yeah, that’s a good question. I like the idea of just bringing back nature in areas where it’s really sort of just very barren. You know, land or areas that have been completely cleared, potentially for a long period of time, but it’s really amazing to see what can come back. But also, what really inspires me every day is just how people respond to this, and how much work people are doing on the peninsula out of their own motivation. Without even really needing much encouragement, or, you know, much support, it really is amazing. I mean, apart from generally hearing very negative news stories about our environment, when you actually see the amount of work that is happening on the peninsula on private property, it’s fantastic. So that really just makes me feel good every time.

I used to be very, very anxious about the state of our environment, and was very depressed at hearing how everything is just disappearing and declining. And I must admit, since forming the group and doing this sort of work, it actually, it helps me to feel amazing, mentally, especially, after tree planting day. Like, recently, when we planted 1,300 trees in about three hours and we had a really nice group of people again, planting trees. It’s fantastic.

I love how you were able to have your own wellbeing experience whilst looking after the wellbeing of koalas. Aside from restoring the natural habitat, what are some actions that everyday people could take?

Look, firstly, whatever you can do on your own property is fantastic. There’s some amazing indigenous nurseries on the peninsula with a wealth of knowledge that are open to the public, that people can visit and get advice from. Or they can contact us for advice on what to plant on their property, what type of vegetation can be used and we can help work out what species are appropriate to be to be planted in an area. That’s easy.

Also, people can report koala sightings to us and should be driving carefully at night and early morning. People can donate to us or get actively involved and involvement doesn’t mean that everyone has to plant trees, because that’s also not possible. But we actually need a vast array of skills to make a group of our size run, you know, from IT skills and marketing and comms and, you know, really any, any type of skill that you would find in a normal business. We run markets all summer and any sort of awareness events that we can contribute to. There are many, many different ways to get involved.

Beyond the projects you have lined up, what’s next on the horizon for your group?

Over time, we need to get to a more sustainable lifestyle. Ultimately, I want to get to a point where our group actually isn’t needed because things are good.

We do want to keep scaling up. And hopefully also over time see that we can professionalise more in the sense that we’re probably following a couple of models of other koala groups in Western Victoria. There’s the Koala Clancy Foundation, who have been running for quite a few years. But also in Byron Bay. There’s Bangalow Koalas and Linda Sparrow. They’re the group that have planted upwards of 100,000 trees every year, which is just absolutely amazing! We do have a while to go yet until we can get to that sort of level but also sort of continuing to work out how we can attract sponsors for more than one season.

Generally for us, at the moment we can’t really forward plan very far because your funding is only ever for the next 12 months. We’d like to get to a point where we can find some multi-year sponsorships and longer-term support, which we’re starting to get to. That will also obviously help us, again, scale up what we’re doing.

But also, we’re working with the Mornington Peninsula Shire to work out how we actually get on top of the ongoing destruction. At the moment, it sort of feels like you’re, I don’t even know, with 20,000 plants that we’re planting every winter, if that, at least evens out what is being lost every year? There’s some projects going on at the moment to try and measure the tree canopy on the peninsula on a regular basis to ensure that, we can start monitoring trends and see how things develop over time.

But we do know, through an absolute flood of planning applications that the Shire processes every year, that a lot of them still do contain significant vegetation removal. And so trying to get on top of that is sort of a bit of a longer-term game, because often it’s state government legislation and you know, ongoing issues that need to be changed and resolved. There’s also a koala management plan for the State of Victoria that’s currently being reviewed. We’ve had input into that and then providing feedback on that plan. Over time, we need to get to a more sustainable lifestyle, because ultimately, I want to get to a point where our group actually isn’t needed because things are good.

On the topic solving problems, one thing that I really enjoy, especially with these types of chats, and meeting people such as yourself, is getting insight and ideas on how we can move toward a better tomorrow. What would you consider to be a modern remedy for the challenges that we face today?

A lot of this comes down to awareness, thoughtfulness and education. Most of the time you can find a more sustainable solution.

A key thing here on the Mornington Peninsula, for sure, is education. And just being sure that people are well educated on their impact on the environment. Because often, people don’t necessarily do things, you know, out of a disregard for nature, or with any sort of malice. Most of the time, people are just not really thinking about it. Education definitely is key. And we’re trying to educate wherever we can. We do a lot of work with schools, and you know, just trying to educate people on what’s around them.

And I think just generally getting closer to nature again, because it feels like in our cities, we’ve been very far removed from nature. But also, look, generally, we keep talking to the authorities about just being smarter about what we do. Because most of the time, we have the technology, we have the solutions and the smarts and the know how to do better. We just don’t because of, I don’t know, outdated regulations, or just because it’s been the way it’s always been. So, I feel a lot of this comes down to awareness, thoughtfulness and education. Most of the time you can find a more sustainable solution. I feel like the solutions are there, we just need to actually apply them.

That speaks to what you mentioned earlier, with the road sign. We know how to make road signs, we know the safety precautions but perhaps the public isn’t aware of the danger they may present to wandering koalas on the roads. How can people get involved with your organisation and where can where can they find you?

Anyone can come to our events, you don’t have to be a member of our group to get involved. But if people do want to be more active, they definitely can become a member of our group by signing up at our website. Signing up for an annual membership helps to support us, it covers the administration and insurances that we have to pay for and helps to keep our group running.

And probably the best thing that people do is just help spread the word about our group and what’s going on. The more people know, the more chance we have to make a meaningful impact.

And if someone wants to find out more about your events, they should check out your website?

Yeah, definitely. We generally plant on the weekends. From August to the middle of October, we’re planting almost every single weekend, somewhere on the peninsula. All our events are also on our website and people can register there via Eventbrite and book in. We’re always very, very happy for more volunteers.

Dirk, it was great to speak with you, thank you for coming on AMR and helping us feel more optimistic about the future of koalas here in Victoria.

Yes, thank you for having me today. ■

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