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The primary school students saving their tiny town's koala population, one tree at a time

By Donal Sheil, Sunday October 11, 2020 - 07:58 EDT
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Students at Delungra Public School see koalas every day. - ABC

Between bushfires, drought, rampant disease and land clearing, the fate of the koala is looking increasingly bleak.

However, in the town of Delungra in north New South Wales, the animals have the locals on their side.

A busy koala corridor runs right through the town of 500, and daily sightings are guaranteed at the 26-student primary school.

When students spot a koala, they log the sighting at the front of the school and make a note of when and where they see them, giving them names and keeping tabs on new joeys.

But after dozens of trees around town died during the latest drought, local koala habitat was looking increasingly scarce.

"What that's actually done is cut off some of the corridors the koalas used to get through the township," Delungra Public School principal Toni Withers said.

Students have now taken the recovery effort into their own hands by growing trees for the town in their new greenhouse.

Ms Withers said the long-term project was focused on empowering students to build a brighter future.

"Teaching is a privilege, with kids, and it's so great to be able to give them the gift of actually believing that they have power to change things," she said.

Eleven-year-old student Edward Baker said the small school was determined to help the local koala population.

"I really do think that we're all part of a team that is all together, and we're doing something," he said.

"It feels really good to just do something and not just stand there and go, 'Oh, it's so bad, the koalas.'"

Making the next generation the stewards of the land

The greenhouse project is primarily about growing trees, but teachers have used it as an opportunity to transform the school's curriculum.

To learn more about biodiversity, students travelled to the regenerative learning space The Living Classroom in the nearby town of Bingara.

CEO Rick Hutton said focusing on koalas was not ideal for a holistic recovery, but that if they could represent something greater for the students it was a solid start.

"The more we can respect it as a symbol, and other plants and animals as also symbols and necessary in our agriculture and in our culture — the more we can do that, the more respect we can get from our children for it," he said.

The full extent of tree deaths caused by drought in NSW

Environmental consultant John Lemon has researched koalas in the nearby region of Gunnedah for decades.

His work and analysis paints a grim picture for koala survival for the decades to come.

Between 2009 and 2019, he said a warming climate and disease had driven koala populations in the region down by as much as 75 per cent.

"What happens when koalas are stressed, chlamydia, which is endemic, presents itself, and they just die, it's terrible," he said.

"Stress is often induced by climate change, extremes of heat, and lack of water in the leaves, so less access to nutrients in the leaves."

While towns like Delungra recover from loss of habitat caused by drought, Mr Lemon said the full extent of tree deaths in regional NSW was yet to be assessed.

"In some of the rocky ridges we've lost in excess of 50 per cent of the stringy barks and some of the eucalypt species, as well as other species," he said.

"That's just from drought, not from bushfires. To my knowledge there hasn't been much on-ground work to determine how many trees we've lost out of the landscape."

‘Our little secret emblem’

With decades of growth and maintenance needed to truly restore the trees lost during drought, principal Toni Withers said engaging students in the recovery at an early age was invaluable.

"And if they can take that message to other parts of their life, if they want to change something they can," she said.

"Even how small you are doesn't matter. Every individual counts."

"We're only a small school, but we can empower a local community to save the koalas, that's a pretty important thing."

Students like Edward Baker feel the weight of their responsibility to do their part to give koalas the best chance at survival.

"We say it's like our little secret emblem, it's our school emblem basically, it's our representative at the school," he said.

"We feel a big responsibility to try and keep them alive and keep them safe."


© ABC 2020

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