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Faces of FOK: Q&A with Maria

Friends of the Koala rescuer, Area Coordinator and Koala Watch Officer, Maria Matthes was awarded Ballina Shire’s 2021 Environmentalist of the Year, 2021 NSW Women of the Year, and most recently 2022 Citizen of the Year, primarily for her work in recovering Ballina’s Koalas.

What is your background?

I grew up in Broadwater NSW, with the bush, the Richmond River, and the beach at my doorstep. We spent a lot of time in the natural environment. The locals were great advocates for koalas, planting trees, rescuing and treating koalas before FOK, fire was a regular occurrence, and our school logo was the koala. I did my Associate Diploma of Applied Science at Northern Rivers College of Advanced Education (now Southern Cross University), when we started annual koala surveys and did my Bachelor of Applied Science at Charles Sturt University.

I have been working in many positions, basically as a threatened species conservation ecologist for 34 years. I worked for the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service and Department of Environment and Conservation for over 20 years before starting my own business. Being an ecologist has provided a good grounding in understanding the environment threatened species inhabit, the requirements of threatened species to complete their lifecycle, the threats and risks to their persistence in the landscape, and population dynamics. I specialised in recovery planning, threatened plants, endangered ecological communities, koalas, translocation, fire ecology, research and monitoring, and avoidance and mitigation of risks and threats. I have an interest in habitat rehabilitation and restoration, genetics and evolutionary processes, co-evolution, as part of understanding and recovering our threatened species. 

What is your FOK story? When did you join and why?

I joined FOK in 2016. My local community had been fighting since 2006 against a proposed Woolgoolga to Ballina Pacific Highway Upgrade route through the habitat of 38 threatened species who call our area home. When the route was announced, it became clear that several of these species, particularly four of our koala colonies, were going to be significantly impacted by the Section 10 route selection, with longer-term flow-on effects for the subpopulation and population. I had been working over this time with landholders to save Ballina’s Koalas, to understand what koalas were where, and where possible work out their home ranges.

In 2013, the Save Ballina’s Koalas campaign ramped up, and Lorraine Vass (FOK President at the time) brought FOK on board as a major supporter and driver of the campaign. Through the campaign, also supported greatly by IFAW, we managed to get the Federal Government Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt, to acknowledge Ballina’s koalas as a nationally important population, and consequently, he required RMS to undertake further studies about the population.  In 2014-15, I was working with Ecosure and Biolink on the RMS population study, where we captured koalas, tagged and microchipped them, undertook health assessments, swabs for chlamydia, fur for chemical analysis, and genetic samples. While the population was relatively healthy, there were a number of koalas I had taken into care at Friends of the Koala.

After the study was completed, I continued to monitor an understanding of our koala colonies and population. There were still a number of koalas requiring rescuing. Lorraine asked if I would join FOK and be a rescuer as Ballina didn’t have anyone. How could I say no? I couldn’t.

What roles have you been in during your time at FOK?

Koala rescue, education, research, and advocacy have been the areas I have mostly focussed on. I have been the primary koala rescuer for Ballina, coastal Richmond Valley (east of Coraki), and south east Lismore local government areas. I am on the FOK rescue sub-committee, and am currently preparing a Draft Emergency Response Operational Plan for FOK for dealing with fires, droughts, heatwaves, floods, storms and habitat loss.

I was employed part-time to implement the Koala Watch – community-led koala recovery in the Northern Rivers project. This was a huge NSW Environmental  Trust project that included preparation of educational materials (glovebox guides and Koala Watch kits) and delivery of workshops in identifying koalas in need of care, understanding and managing koala habitat, understanding and managing fire for healthy koala habitat, and the role of SES in emergencies to help koalas in need of care.

During the Highway construction, I was on the Koala Interest Group for RMS. I am the Area Coordinator for Ballina and assist with rescue in my area. While I have facilitated and/or contributed to a number of research projects, it is an area I would like to see FOK expand. I have been an advocate for FOK and for our koalas. I am on the Submissions Sub-committee, which prepares responses to developments, plans, strategies, policies and legislation with the potential to impact our koalas.

What has been your biggest achievement/special memory during your time volunteering?

What a question! Every koala I have met, rescued, and/or released, the people I have met, from FOK volunteers, teachers and students, researchers, landholders, community members, all hold special memories. Every moment is precious as are all our koalas and the people who care.

The Black Summer fires tested my stamina and commitment. Working with the regional and local Rural Fire Service, and the Ngunya Jargoon rangers, the IFAW emergency response team, University of Sunshine Coast Koala Detection Dog team, to search and rescue koalas in need of care, the silence, the starkness, the koalas released (Jalu, Kajika, Jali Cruz, Gahwang), the koala skull lying in the ash, will be forever etched in my memory.

Makawee was a koala I had known for years prior to the Black Summer fires. She had a joey at the time of the fires. I knew she had survived the fires as her scats were under her trees. I searched every week for a year. The rescue teams couldn’t find her in the fireground either. I suspected she may have made it to the unburnt adjacent range. Unsuccessful in gaining funding to search these areas, I asked the community to report sightings, in case she was there, and she was, showing up 12 months and 2 days after the fire – difficulty climbing, emaciated, blinded by flames, and still suffering from burns to her paws, head and rump. I never gave up finding her.

Mimi is a koala who was impacted by the Highway construction. She was seen in the local town every now and then. We quickly fell in love with her and her annual joey. In November 2020, Mimi and her joey Carlisle, were observed. After a couple of days watching them, I finally saw Mimi’s eyes. It was obvious Mimi’s left eye was going to rupture soon. For the following 12 days I, with community support, monitored a trap set, unable to get a tree climber until the day we got her. Her eye was removed. Mimi was released home in April 2021. Mimi was seen in her trees early this year, looking fantastic. It was another week before I rescued Carlisle. His bad eye was treated and he is doing well in the wild too.

My biggest achievements is yet to come – fighting for over 6 years for proper funding to search for, health check, vaccinate against chlamydia and retrovirus, and monitor, our koalas, will hopefully soon be realised.

How has volunteering impacted you?

Volunteering with FOK has been both the most rewarding and the most heartbreaking of any of the volunteer organisations I have been associated with. It has been a place where my knowledge and skills have been both put to use, and expanded. Every now and then a koala comes by that is heartbreaking to say the least. You think you can’t keep going then the phone rings and it is another koala in need of care. Every koala has something to teach me, and for a species, I have loved since a small child, I grow to love it more every day. Volunteering at FOK has helped me to see the harsh reality our koalas face and why they are heading toward extinction. This has really compelled me to fight harder and do more to set our koalas up for the next 1000+ years.

Maria pictured with Sharon Cadwallader, Mayor of Ballina at the Australia Day Award ceremony