How Pat Rafter is using his Byron Bay property to help save koalas

DOING IT FOR THE KOALAS: Pat Rafter and Linda Sparrow on Pats property near Byron Bay. Photo: Elise Derwin.
DOING IT FOR THE KOALAS: Pat Rafter and Linda Sparrow on Pats property near Byron Bay. Photo: Elise Derwin.

"Her passion is inspiring," says tennis legend Pat Rafter of Linda Sparrow, the current president and co-founder of Bangalow Koalas.

"She makes you want to get involved."

Pat, who describes himself in a video on the Bangalow Koalas website as a 'tree planter and OK tennis player', met Linda after deciding he wanted to do something with his 70 acre block near Byron Bay other than run cattle.

"I was inspired by other planting and re-vegetation that companies in the area were doing," he says.

"I also feel bloody good about putting some good back into not just the area but society in general."

As any tennis fan (or, indeed, anyone over the age of 30) will know, Pat Rafter is way more than an 'okay' tennis player. His career saw him achieve the Number 1 ranking and win 11 singles and 10 doubles titles, including back-to-back US Open titles. In 2002, he was Australian of the Year.

Pat, who will celebrate his 49th birthday at the end of this year, knew a fair bit about koalas before moving to the Northern Rivers.

"My charity has over 70,000 trees that have been planted in the Ipswich region of Queensland," he says.

"The trees are all advanced and have koalas back in the area."

MILESTONE: Celebrating the 100,000th tree planted in May this year at Bungawalbin. Photo: Contributed.

MILESTONE: Celebrating the 100,000th tree planted in May this year at Bungawalbin. Photo: Contributed.

Until nearly six years ago - coincidentally around the time that Pat moved to the Northern Rivers - Linda Sparrow, 58, didn't know that much about koalas. Then, she received a phone call from a friend, Pete Doherty, the co-founder of Bangalow Koalas. His message was simple: "I need your help."

When asked how she would have responded if she realised just how all-consuming this quest would become, Linda laughs. "I wouldn't have taken the call," she says, before quickly adding, "I'm kidding!"

The koalas are far from saved. In fact, their plight was worsened by the devastating bushfires in 2019. But, their future in this region is looking more hopeful, thanks to something that is tall, green and leafy.

You see, koalas only live in, and eat the leaves of, certain species of eucalypts. Without trees, there can be no koalas. And, without those trees being in 'corridors' rather than isolated small plantings, koalas can't move about in the ways they need for food and mating.

"There's a lot of fragmented stretches of habitat and we're trying to connect it all together," says Linda.

Pat explains: "Corridors allow koalas to move without spending too much time on the ground as this is where they are vulnerable to predators, mainly wild and domestic dogs."

And, so, planting trees is the main aim of Bangalow Koalas, the organisation that formalised in 2017 from its beginnings as a simple Facebook group of like-minded locals who wanted to ensure a 400 metre stretch of trees just outside Bangalow was not at risk of being cut down.

Their work has grown from that 400 metre stretch to a triangle stretching down towards Grafton in the south, Tenterfield in the west ,and the Queensland border to the north. In 2020 alone, 35,000 trees were planted and, overall, Bangalow Koalas over half the way towards their staggeringly high aim of seeing 250,000 trees in the ground by 2025.

"We've done 57 plantings on 43 properties and some of those are big properties," says Linda.

"Our success comes from building relationships with people, working with Friends of The Koala, councils, landcare groups, community groups, schools and more; everyone's working together for the one cause."

Planting koala trees is not cheap. Linda estimates it costs $15 per tree (sounds cheap? Try multiplying that by 250,000!).

This includes preparing the land, planting the tree, as well as looking after it for the first three years. This care is an essential element that can see tree survival rates as high as 95 percent. And, some trees can grow quickly enough to start to provide resources to koalas within two to three years.

"It depends on the site," says Linda, "but a planting we did with Ingrained, the charity arm of Stone & Wood, now has evidence of koala scats and scratching. That's two years."

INSPIRING: Bangalow Koalas president with bush regenerators Charlotte and Tess at a tree planting day. Photo: Contributed.

INSPIRING: Bangalow Koalas president with bush regenerators Charlotte and Tess at a tree planting day. Photo: Contributed.

Planting tens of thousands of koala trees also means a whole lot of work. Fortunately Linda, who is on the ground during plantings as well as working in the background to coordinate, plan and apply for grants, is not afraid of hard work.

"I grew up in The Blue Mountains so I had bush as my backyard," she says.

"When my mum gave me the option to work in the house or in the garden for my chores, I chose the garden."

Before COVID hit, Linda was running Bangalow Koalas as well as her media consultancy, Two Dogs Media, "but, COVID impacted my business as most of my clients were affected," she says.

Fortunately, grant funding from WWF (World Wildlife Fund) came through just at the right time to support Linda in holding a formal project officer role.

"Without that, I wouldn't have been able to keep doing what I was doing and I might have had to move out of the area," says Linda.

"In the process of saving koalas, the koalas have saved me."

Linda focuses mainly on plantings, leaving Bangalow Koala's contribution to public debate and government-led consultations to the ecologists who are an important part of the organisation.

She has also trained in koala rescue.

"I used to do rescue with Friends of the Koala," she says, "but I hung up my boots in December last year."

Those boots are still firmly on during tree planting days. These days include ones like those on Pat's property; with Linda, Pat and socially distanced small numbers of volunteers and professional bush regenerators.

CARING FOR COUNTRY: The Minyumai Rangers have helped in Bangalow Koalas tree planting efforts. Photo: Contributed.

CARING FOR COUNTRY: The Minyumai Rangers have helped in Bangalow Koalas tree planting efforts. Photo: Contributed.

Also involved are a group of Minyumai Rangers who are based near Evans Head and already help protect an area of paperbark and scribbly gum known as the Minyuamai Indigenous Protected Area.

Planting days have also - in pre-COVID and between-lockdown times - included huge community events. One of Bangalow Koala's partners, IFAW (international Fund for Animal Welfare) filmed one of these days, showing dozens of adults and children revelling in contributing their labour to future koala habitat.

"You can't just sit there, hitting 'like' and reading about it all the time," says Tony Norton, one of the volunteers quoted in an IFAW video, "You've got to get out and do something."

Pat takes a similar approach when asked about his motivation.

"I am not going to get on my soapbox and tell everyone to do something good," he says.

"I am very fortunate to have the land to help bring back the big scrub and hopefully help a koala or two."

He's also fortunate to have Linda and Bangalow Koalas by his side.

"Pat's a pleasure to work with," says Linda.

"We hit it off when we first met. He's very passionate and wants to help us in any shape or form.

"He's a great bloke to work with. It's a great partnership."

PRODUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP: "He's a great bloke to work with," says Lind of Pat Rafter. Photo: Elise Derwin.

PRODUCTIVE PARTNERSHIP: "He's a great bloke to work with," says Lind of Pat Rafter. Photo: Elise Derwin.

What you can do to help

"There are so many ways you can help," says Linda Sparrow from Bangalow Koalas.

1. If you're a landholder and are interested in joining the koala corridor? "Please contact us via our website then we'll come out to see you as soon as we can," says Linda.

2. If you're interested in the rescue and carer side of helping koalas? "Consider volunteering with Friends of the Koala."

3. For everyone driving in known koala areas. "Slow down and be especially aware between dusk and dawn when they are more likely to be on the ground," says Linda. "This is especially important at this time of year, as it's the start of the mating season."

4. Encourage responsible dog ownership. "Don't let dogs off the lead in known koala areas, it can only take one bite," says Linda. "And, if you live on property, please have dogs contained overnight."

5. Report koala sightings. The website gives a guide: Take a photo or video if possible or simply note the date, time, location and whether the koala seemed to be healthy or sick. Have a look to see whether it is tagged (males are tagged in the left ear, females in the right) and whether there was a joey present. You can report via the link on the 'Koala Sightings' tab of bangalowkoalas.com.au

6. Only plant koala friendly trees if you live away from suburbia. "We don't want to encourage koalas to come to places where there are humans, dogs and cars," says Linda.

Linda is so focused on koalas that she doesn't mention one final option: Bangalow Koalas accepts donations to support all their work in providing trees for koalas across the Northern Rivers. Visit their website for details.