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Restored plant diversity not an indicator of koalas returning

If the flora returns, it doesn’t mean the koala’s will.

A study from the University of New South Wales found that the “build it and they will come paradigm,” the idea that if a disturbed landscape – such as a mine site – is restored so that plant diversity returns, the animals that once lived there will return too is not necessarily the case.

According to the researchers, their findings show that mining rehabilitation can be successful for fauna and flora but are not necessarily congruent, especially when we’re talking about the iconic yet vulnerable Australian marsupial - the koala.

“The general belief is that if you provide great quality flora, fauna will recolonize. What we found is that for koalas, at least, in practice that simply isn’t so in most cases,” said Romane Cristescu, a former PhD student at the U.N.S.W. school of biological, earth and environmental sciences.

The rehabilitation of landscape degraded and disturbed by commercial and industrial interests is of great concern to many sectors, as it is critical to addressing habitat and biodiversity loss.

The researchers noted that the goals of a rehabilitation project often overlook fauna with no requirements to include them in rehabilitation monitoring. This is true even in closely regulated countries, such as Australia and North America.

For the first time, they decided to test scientifically whether the criteria for a successful restoration of flora translated into success for fauna and chose the koala as the species to monitor.

“They are vulnerable and charismatic animals, and everyone wants them to benefit from rehabilitation. So our question was simple: if we built a great flora, will koalas come?” said Ms. Cristescu.

The area chosen for study was a sand-mining operation on North Stradbroke Island, where the Sibelco mining company, endorsed by the Australian Government, became the only second Australian mining company to reach an agreement with all stakeholders regarding rehabilitation success criteria.

“We measured flora quality based on the very goals mining companies and government are using to measure rehabilitation success, then we looked at what koalas themselves judged to be success; that is, which rehabilitated areas they recolonized,” said Ms. Cristescu.

It turned out that human goals and koala goals were different. The most successful areas in terms of flora goals more often than not were not recolonized by koalas. However, koalas were found in other rehabilitated areas rated much lower for floral success.

“We need goals to measure whether we are succeeding in rebuilding a functioning ecosystem, and many ecosystem functions actually rely on fauna for services such as pollination and nutrient cycling,” noted Ms. Cristescu.

The researchers work was financed by Sibelco in order to better understand how fauna respond to rehabilitation. They hope that the work will influence the mining industry and legislators to include fauna in their rehabilitation success goals. – EcoSeed Staff



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