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Courtney Waugh: Koala in the Semi-Urban Bushlands of Australia

Courtney Waugh is a wildlife and conservation biologist studying Chlamydia and Koala Retrovirus in Koala populations in Queensland, Australia.

Name: Courtney Waugh

Species: Koala (Phascolarctos cinereus)

Location: Queensland, Australia

Twitter: @

Bio: Courtney is an early career researcher based at the University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, interested in animal health, physiology and ecology. Her previous research involved looking at threats posed to our humpback whale populations from man-made chemicals, such as pesticides, like DDT.

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Koalas must be one of the few species that everyone has heard of, what can you tell us about the area you are studying?

I work in the highly fragmented bushlands of south-east Queensland (QLD), home to one of Australia’s most iconic species, the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus). Much of south-east QLD is currently a priority koala assessable development area. This region is also home to an ever expanding human population which is currently at 400 000, and koalas are struggling to survive within these semi-urban areas.

What can you tell us about the biology of Koalas?

The koala, native to Australia, is an arboreal herbivourous marsupial that inhabits open eucalypt woodlands, and has a specialist diet of eucalypt leaves. The koala is generally found in coastal areas of the mainland’s eastern and southern regions, inhabiting Queensland (QLD), New South Wales (NSW), Victoria (Vic) and South Australia (SA). Koalas in QLD and NSW are listed as vulnerable, whereas in other states they are listed as ‘of least concern’, and indeed in some cases are overpopulating.

Are there specific threats that scientists are concerned about? How does this relate to your work?

The koala faces a myriad of threats daily, indeed at the moment it is breeding season, which means that koalas are leaving their trees more and moving around on the ground. This time has been termed ‘trauma season’ by our local wildlife hospital, as they receive a major spike of admissions from car accidents and dog attacks. Just the other day a koala was hit by a car at 110km/hr on a highway neighbouring a popular koala habitat. The driver left the koala to die on the side of the road, a carer found it, eventually, but it was too late. We are asking people to slow down and be mindful when they drive. And of course there is the ever pressing habitat destruction and fragmentation that is occurring.

In QLD and NSW (the more northern states) the koala faces the same threats as koalas in other states, however, they are also more severely afflicted by two infectious diseases, Chlamydia and Koala Retrovirus (KoRV). These diseases can also be detected in the koalas in the more southern states; however the diseases remain largely asymptomatic here, whereas in the north, animals that are infected can progress to a severe disease state that can lead to infertility, blindness, lymphoma/leukaemia, and death. The reasons for this discrepancy between disease states, and ultimately population stability, remain a mystery that we are currently trying to solve. Alongside this, we are also working on a vaccine against both Chlamydia and KoRV in the koala. We have shown that the anti-chlamydial vaccine is safe and effective in captive koalas, however, we now need to track the efficacy of this vaccine in koalas in the wild. We are still working on the KoRV vaccine.

The vaccine started development by a team of top scientists at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) about 5 years ago.  The team is now spread across two universities (QUT and the University of the Sunshine Coast) but still work closely together towards the common goal of saving this iconic species.

TOP LEFT: ‘Little Perry’ has received his anti-chlamydia vaccine at Friends of the Koala Inc. and is patiently awaiting his eyes to clear up and his collar to be funded before release.  Photo credit: Friends of the Koala Inc, Lismore, northern NSW. TOP RIGHT: Wild Koala “Andrew” in care undergoing a health check and being vaccinated at Endeavour Veterinary Ecology, Queensland, Photo credit: Courtney Waugh. BOTTOM: “September” an 11 month year old joey undergoing his first health check at Endeavour Veterinary Ecology, Queensland. Too young to receive the vaccine yet he will be re-released back into the wild with his mum “August” who received the vaccine. Photo credit: Courtney Waugh.
"Ultimately a cure that works in a petrie dish is no good to us unless it also works in a wild setting."
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What do you hope to do to understand and tackle these diseases?

We are currently running a crowdfunding campaign as part of Landcare’s new Environmental collection on Pozible, to try and raise the funds for a set of radio collars. There is a cohort of koalas currently at care centres in QLD and NSW who have received our Chlamydia vaccine, and if we can secure funding we will be able to radio collar these animals before release, and track their progress in the wild.

These two diseases sound terrible. Are local people in Australia aware of them and supportive of your work?

The scientific community and local koala care groups are very aware of these diseases in the koala, however more often than not I get a very surprised reaction when I mention Chlamydia or koala AIDS to people, as they had no idea. Local people are extremely supportive of our plight; in fact we have almost raised $4000 to date with our Pozible campaign, with the majority of supporters from the local community.

We have some local artists on board with the project too, who have come up with some great rewards for donations. Please take a look at our project here, and spread the word!

Crowdfunding for conservation seems to be growing in popularity recently which is really exciting. How did you get the idea? Do you know of any other projects that have been successful?

I was asked by Landcare to be a part of their new Environmental collection on the crowdfunding website Pozible. It really gives people the chance to donate directly to a conservation issue that they really care about. There are some great projects in the Landcare environment collection, and just recently one raised over $50 000 to track endangered bunyip birds in rice fields. It is a great project, I pledged, and one of the great things about pledging to a project is you get the inside knowledge on how it progresses.

Interaction like this between the local community and researchers are rare, but should be encouraged. One of our rewards includes a trip out to the field to meet me and the koalas, or for me to come out to your school/lecture theatre/business to give a talk on the project and koalas. For international groups I can even Skype in. We also have some other great rewards by a local artist Brooke who is busily painting all the koalas in the project for bookmarks, gift tags and larger artworks.

TOP: Fume hood set up at Queensland University of Technology (QUT) to analyse the blood of a vaccinated koala to determine if the vaccine had induced an immune response (yes it did!). Photo credit:Courtney Waugh. BOTTOM LEFT: PhD student Alyce Taylor-Brown at the University of the Sunshine Coast working on analysing chlamydial levels in wild koalas (Alyce is now working on characterising Chlamydia and Chlamydia-like organisms in fish!). Photo credit: Courtney Waugh. BOTTOM RIGHT: Freezer box full of the life-saving koala vaccine antigen. Photo credit: Courtney Waugh.
"If we can secure funding we will be able to radio collar these animals before release, and track their progress in the wild."
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Tell us more about what you hope to spend the funds on, if you are successful.

The money will go directly to purchase the collars and to pay experiences tree climbers to catch and release the koalas. But, how will this actually benefit the koalas and the project? So far we have been limited to studying these diseases in a laboratory, or captive, environment. This is always a great first, and necessary, step, however, organisms (Chlamydia and koalas alike) may act different in the wild, and ultimately a cure that works in a petrie dish is no good to us unless it also works in a wild setting.

We already have five koalas currently being held at our collaborating institute Friends of Koalas (FoK) in northern NSW, QLD (Elmo, Cato, Knox, Buddy and Perry). Each koala has severe chlamydial disease at the ocular site, and if not treated they will become blind with time. We have now vaccinated each koala and are tracking their progress to date. So far their eye infections are on the mend. However, they are due to be re-released very soon and we desperately need to be able to track these guys in the wild to see how they respond out there.

Can you tell us a bit more about what it’s like to work out in the field in Queensland? What are the daily highlights and challenges?

Walking through the bush in the hot Aussie summer  to track the koalas, with flies and mosquitos buzzing, can be less than comfortable, to say the least. But when you have found a koala, and you get close to it, you remember just why you spend countless hours in the lab and in the field. To be able to help and conserve this (or any) species is an amazing job.

Capturing a koala from a tree requires special skill and patience. The tree needs to be climbed by experience tree climbers with ropes and harnesses. The koala needs to be coaxed down with a flag and caught in a net/tarpaulin when it ‘jumps ship’ to race to the next tree. It is a stressful event for the koala if not done with skill, and ultimately we are there to help the species, so if a capture event is deemed too stressful it will be abandoned post-haste regardless of the loss of samples.

TOP: “Zook” is a wild koala currently in care at Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital (AZWH; Beerwah, QLD.  Zook was hit by a speeding car and is undergoing treatment for a broken leg.  Zook is on the mend and has now been enrolled in the world first vaccine trial for Koala Retrovirus, a collaboration between AZWH, University of the Sunshine Coast, and the Robert Koch institute in Germany.  Photo credit: Courtney Waugh. MIDDLE LEFT: Courtney with wild koala “Poppy” at the field lab of Endeavour Veterinary Ecology, QLD.  Poppy had a high level chlamydial infection and cystitis before receiving the vaccine, she is now on the mend with her infection levels decreasing and her cystitis clearing up.  Photo credit: PhD Student Ev Walker (Ev is characterising chlamydial infections, and working on a vaccine, in livestock!). MIDDLE RIGHT: This is “Karen” happy to be released back into her natural habitat after finishing her treatment at Friends of the Koala Inc. in Lismore (NSW).  Photo credit: Friends of the Koala Inc. Lismore, northern NSW. BOTTOM: “August” (little “September’s” mum) on the table undergoing her health check and receiving her vaccine at Endeavour Veterinary Ecology (QLD). Photo credit: Courtney Waugh
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Can you offer some advice to aspiring conservationists who might want to work in this kind of field?

1) This sort of research requires and integrated approach. There needs to be a balance between the lab and the field work. For example, at this stage we have focused on the lab- but it is now imperative to test the vaccine in the wild where ultimately it is needed.

2) Collaborate with people inside and outside of your field. No one man is an island. You will need skills and expertise from many to be successful.

3) Be prepared to work long hours in both the field and the lab. Both are equally exhausting, but at the end of the day the results are more than rewarding enough!

4) Be positive! Don’t listen to negative peoples thoughts on your work, persevere through and stay focused on your goal.

Lastly, at the moment it sounds (from the UK at least) like conservation and environmental issues in Australia are coming under increasing pressure from the government. Are you optimistic for conservation over the next few years?

To be honest, no I am not optimistic at all for conservation issues in Australia; it just does not seem to be a pressing issue for our current government.

For example, in my local area we are currently trying to fight against a development of a new casino and a cluster of 17 towers that are higher than allowed in the town plan, on an absolutely pristine 20 hectare beachfront site. This site is home to many native and vulnerable Australian species, including the koala, kangaroo (I saw one on the beach there just last weekend), the endangered glossy black cockatoo, and not to mention that it is a critical breeding site for the vulnerable green sea turtle. Yet, the government are not listening to the local people, and instead are allowing the Japanese developer Sekisui House to go ahead with the plans.

Thanks Courtney, and good luck with your project!

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