Conserving koalas in suburban and peri-urban areas
By Nicole Shumway (University of Queensland)
Knowing there is a problem and doing something about it can sometimes be entirely different things. Koalas, while much beloved by the Australian public, have been in steady decline for at least the last decade. A combination of threats like habitat loss and modification, car collisions and dog attacks, led to the koala being listed under the EPBC Act in 2012. Increasingly, more councils (and Local Government Areas) are drafting and implementing local koala management plans and developing strategies to combat losses and aid in population recovery. However, in order for these conservation goals to be effective, members of the general public must be willing to adopt the suggested actions and incorporate them into their everyday routine. How feasible is this when such a large gap exists between peoples’ intent to conserve and their actual conservation behavior? What might influence those decisions?
The human dimensions of koala conservation
Studies aimed at understanding community beliefs toward wildlife are the human dimensions of wildlife research. They can aid in the management of a wildlife species by incorporating public opinion into decision-making. At its core, human dimensions research aspires to determine the behaviours, attitudes and values of stakeholders and community members in order to understand the factors that guide them. Human behavior, however, is complex both in its diversity and the factors that influence it. It is connected to things such age, gender, culture, values, attitudes and beliefs about nature. Some of these are easy to measure, others are not.
We examined the influence of values and demographic characteristics on people’s perceptions and attitudes toward koalas and koala conservation in the urban and peri-urban (larger, urban adjacent properties) environment. The study was carried out in Southeast Queensland in the communities of Elanora and Currumbin Waters within the Gold Coast Local Government Area.
Elanora and Currumbin Waters are some of the few areas remaining in southeast Queensland that still have a relatively large population of urban koalas, and at the time of the study, the area was the focus of the Gold Coast City Council’s conservation efforts as part of a new Koala Conservation Plan. There is a mix of dense urban settlements, larger more vegetated peri-urban properties at the outskirts and a wildlife ‘friendly’ eco-village in the Currumbin Valley. Residents in different urban density neighborhoods were surveyed and the results were analysed using Principal Component Analysis (PCA) and Analysis of Variance (ANOVA). The goal was to compare conservation views between residents of different locations within the same community and their accessibility to and knowledge of local koala populations.
Can demographics guide management?
In this study, men and women both had highly positive views of the intrinsic value of koalas. They liked seeing koalas in their neighborhoods. However, there were gender differences in the actions that respondents would undertake in this study. Men were considerably less likely than women to drive slowly at night or support decreased speed limits in koala habitat areas.
One of our key finding was that there was a significant difference between attitudes toward koala conservation in respondents living in different urban densities. This study found that area of residence, whether respondents lived in the suburban, peri-urban or eco-village areas, was more influential in determining the likelihood of a respondent’s participation in conservation actions than any other variable or demographic. The results of our study indicate that suburban residents are significantly less likely to have a positive attitude toward koala conservation and are therefore significantly less likely to take action to improve the conservation status of koalas in their neighborhoods. This suggests that participants living on larger, peri-urban properties with more exposure to native wildlife were more likely to take positive action toward koala conservation.
Without further study, however, it is difficult to determine whether living in suburban areas with little access to bushland and native wildlife is the cause of a lower regard for koala conservation, or if individuals with less conservation education are simply more likely to live in denser, more urbanized areas. By quantifying what influences attitude toward native wildlife, we can more accurately determine causes of species decline and formulate ways in which to minimize human impacts.
Incorporating Social Science into Management
Understanding residents’ knowledge and attitudes toward koalas can help alleviate declining populations and provide more informed and effective management decisions. This study gives local managers a better idea of the attitudes and level of knowledge of residents and where to focus education to encourage increased effort in koala conservation. For example, targeting suburban populations to raise awareness of local koala populations may increase conservation interest, whereas in peri-urban areas, conservation actions are more likely to be implemented successfully.
So why are koala declines continuing to occur, despite all evidence that Australians appreciate and value koalas? The answer is simple, though not easily remedied: everyone has an important role to play in wildlife conservation, and it needs to start with the decisions made at home and at work. Governments alone cannot be held completely responsible for the conservation of at risk species. Thus, understanding the values of citizens toward wildlife is crucial for effective conservation management and planning.
The social science behind these values is equally important; what is the point of management planning if no one participates. If indeed area of residence is as important for positive attitudes and actions as this study suggests, giving urban residents greater access to bushland habitat will only enhance koala conservation. Incorporating these human dimension issues into management will help minimize wildlife declines in growing urban areas.
More info: Nicki Shumway firstname.lastname@example.org
Shumway N, L Seabrook, C McAlpine & P Ward (2014). A mismatch of community attitudes and actions: A study of koalas. Landscape and Urban Planning 126, 42-52.