In 2006 we started researching koalas in the You Yangs Ranges regional park, and in 2008 we started a second research area, also in the You Yangs, but in a more remote area. Whenever one of us had some spare time we would nip over to the new area and have a look around. At first, the resident koalas were nervous of these human intruders, and did their best to hide from us (with a fair degree of success some days!)
Finally, a few hardy individuals decided to let themselves be seen. Marpeang & Worinyaloke – two mature ladies – and Benbo & Winberry – their two fellas – started to “appear” regularly. (Of course, they had been there the whole time, but hiding!)
Marpeang is a lovely mature brunette. She and Benbo keep watch over the north-east of the area. They spend quite a lot of time together, more than would be expected just for breeding.
Then, in May this year, Wildlife Guide Martin noticed that Marpeang was not looking well. She had what appeared to be a respiratory infection. He called Koala Researcher Donna, who is also a registered Wildlife Carer, and she went out that day to check on her. Donna decided that she had to come into hospital to be treated.
Roger and I were away in Scandinavia, but that didn’t stop our team.
Wildlife Guides Martin, Scott and Koala Researchers Mary, Donna and Melinda converged on the You Yangs the following day. But Marpeang had other ideas – she was very high in her tree. You can’t believe how difficult it is to capture a koala high up in the gum-tree – some of our trees are 30metres (100feet) high! They tried the normal method, but she wouldn’t budge. Martin climbed the tree, she wouldn’t budge. After hours they have to give up. For the next week every Guide and Researcher monitored her.
Finally, a few days later she was spotted low down and Donna dropped everything and was there within the hour. They succeeded in capturing her. But that was just the beginning of a long saga.
In the next two months Marpeang was X-rayed, ultrasounded, blood checked, nasal swab analysed and discussed by koala vets all over Australia. Corio Vet Hospital were fabulous – they tried everything. Donna said Marpeang was a pin-cushion from injections of antibiotic and sub-cutaneous fluids. Throughout all of this Marpeang remained calm, aloof and elegant. She rarely complained about her treatment. Believe me, if a koala is not happy they will let you know about it!
Our biggest concern was chlamydia – a disease present in many animal species, including humans. It can affect the eyes and reproductive/urinary tracts. The koalas in the You Yangs do not suffer from this disease very much, but some do have it. Current scientific thinking is that the disease can lie dormant in healthy animals, and flares up when animals are under great stress or ill health. The disease is highly contagious, though, so if she had it she couldn’t be released back to the wild without treatment. Treatment can only be curative if administered early in the disease.
Testing for chlamydia is possible, but not easy. It took 2 months to get a diagnosis.
While Donna was waiting for the chlamydia test results, she treated her, checked her and tried to rule out every other possibility. An Xray was done to check for brain tumours and bone disease. None found. Great. Here’s the Xray:
Isn’t it fascinating to see a koala inside? Their heads are much longer than expected, and their jawbones are massive and strong.
Her teeth were checked. From her teeth her age could be estimated. She is about 10 years old. Also, tooth and jaw injuries and damage cause the deaths of many wild koalas, so her jaw was checked carefully for abscesses, rotting teeth and infection. None found. Great.
Mucus from her nose was treated with antibiotics. It cleared up. Then it recurred. Another course of a different antibiotic was prescribed. It cleared up. Koalas are notorious with antibiotics. On the one hand, their super-livers break down and expel antibiotics before they can do any good. On the other hand, if the wrong antibiotic gets into their tummies, it can kill the sensitive gut flora they need to digest their food. So wildlife vets and carers have to be very careful about treating koalas.
Slowly, Marpeang started to put on weight. That’s a great sign.
Then, almost exactly two months after she came into care the test results came back. Chlamydia: Negative. Woo hoo! Finally, she could go back home!
We don’t know yet what role koalas like Marpeang play in the wild koala community. But we do have evidence that suggests they are important to the fabric of koala society. Before coming into care, Marpeang and Benbo were spending a lot of time together. We don’t know why, but we do know it is significant. Maybe now we will learn something from the relationship between these two koalas. Marpeang’s return to the wild offers us an opportunity to discover more about koala social behaviour.
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UPDATE 8 AUGUST 2013: Marpeang seems happy, healthy and well in the Bush. She has been back in her home for nearly 2 weeks now, and has started to move around her home range normally – that is, to move quite a lot.
UPDATE 29 AUGUST 2013: Marpeang was found again today after not being seen for a few weeks. She was in a different part of her home range, which is a good sign.
Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours has been conducting a citizen science research project in the You Yangs since 2006, and Brisbane Ranges National Park since 1998. All research is funded by our tours, and guests on tour participate in finding koalas, sending photos and helping to create koala habitat. For more about our research go to: Koala Research and to join a tour to visit Marpeang and her wild koala community go to: Koalas & Kangaroos IN THE WILD!
Many of our Wildlife Guides and Koala Researchers are also voluntary wildlife carers and rescuers. Capture and care of Marpeang was done in a licensed facility and within strict wildlife care protocols. Marpeang’s veterinary expenses were paid for by Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours. We are really grateful to Corio Veterinary Hospital for their thorough medical assessment and procedures, and their willingness to explore all avenues.