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What does it take to ‘soft release’ koalas?

Soft release is the final stage of releasing a koala back to the wild

We are delighted to have our first six joeys of the season back in the wild following soft release. Here is an account of what it involves.

Pikachu*, Nightshade, Panko and Frankie as well as Baby Bear and Minni Mae have been released and all of them have been spotted since. It has been a long way for most of them and required the dedication and skill of many to get to this point.

We have different stages in joey care to ensure we give them the best chance to survive in the wild. When a joey comes to us, they either move on to a home carer or stay at Friends of the Koala. The decision on this is usually based on their health status and weight and is decided upon by our IFAW-supported veterinarians. All home care joeys will move into the the Koala Kindy at Friends of the Koala once big enough. After Koala Kindy they go into plantation for a couple of weeks, where most of them get to climb real trees for the first time. The last step is the soft release and that’s the one we want to tell you a bit more about about.

A soft release is a fenced in area with at least one large koala food tree. Most of the time we aim to have more than one tree included in a soft release for various reasons – climbing and transfer skills, shade, different types of food etc. We have several permanent soft releases, but as we can’t release all joeys in just a few soft releases, we build temporary ones using corflute. These are set up in the areas the joeys are to be released in. This is quite a delicate and lengthy process.

Koala Soft Release Northern Rivers NSW
Busy building corflute for koalas soft release

First, we have to look for a suitable area. There needs to be enough good habitat as well as other koalas, ideally not too far from where they were found. This requires experience and, as most land is privately owned, good liaison with landholders. Once a good tree or batch of trees is found and agreed on, we start the building process. For the six joeys we built four different soft releases ranging from twenty to fifty square meters in size.

Thankfully, we had some volunteers helping, as it is a time consuming and sweaty process in the heat of the Australian summer. Some builds required some clearing and grass cutting before we were able to start putting up the corflute. Some ants weren’t happy about the disturbance and we had to dodge their attacks and received some painful bites in the process. We didn’t encounter any snakes, but they surely were around!

Once the area was prepared we drove metal stakes into the ground and attached the corflute. If the ground was a little uneven we filled potential gaps with leaf matter or placed logs in those spots to prevent the joeys from escaping. We also set up support perches or logs for easier access to the supplemental leaf, that is supplied to them while in the soft release.

Once the joeys were retrieved from plantation and had been checked and okayed by the vets, they moved in. Some were very confident, others more timid…but all of them were curious.

Over the next week they were tended to at least daily, sometimes 2-3 times a day as the supplemental leaf and water in the pots had to be changed, as well as the joeys having to be monitored, including some evening visits.

This is a vital part of this last stage in their journey back to the wild. Those tending to a soft release need to not only be willing to spend a lot of time, but also have a high level of experience to be able to determine if a joey is doing all the right things or if there are signs of concern, which could lead to the decision to bring them back to Friends of the Koala.

We are so happy, that all six went really well and we were able to open the soft releases and let them continue their life without us…well almost without us, as we try to find them every now and then to snap some photos.

Thank you to Nicci and April spending countless hours prepping and taking down soft releases with me, as well as Maria not only for her wealth of knowledge and experience, but also for taking care of Pikachu’s soft release. 

Big thanks also to Dale, Nicole and Lili, who helped me tending to Nightshade’s soft release. 

And then there were Ire and Chloe, who helped built a second soft release for Frankie and Panko after the first one was invaded by another koala, who was found to have conjunctivitis and was subsequently captured, treated and released.

Written by Ina Egermann – Lismore Area Coordinator

* Unfortunately, since writing the article, Pikachu has passed away. We are uncertain about the circumstances and reasons for her passing yet. This is yet another illustration of how fragile our little joeys are and how heartbreaking the work with koalas can be. RIP Pikachu.

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