Citizen scientist, Lilly Schwartz, has been named The Hills Shire’s Environmental Citizen of the Year 2024 for her work coordinating the Hills-Hornsby Rural Koala Project (HHRKP) and running the local flora and fauna Facebook group.
The Hills-Hornsby Rural Koala Project is an entirely volunteer run project which investigates the distribution and population density of local koalas by working with the community to map sightings. This mapping is used to advocate for the koala population as well as to identify areas for searching for koalas and other wildlife using field equipment.
“The project also aims to determine whether our koala population is a stable breeding population, which at this stage is looking likely,” Lilly said.
Lilly conducts workshops and presentations which include information about where koalas have been spotted, what a koala call sounds like, the type of trees they use and threats koalas face such as road accidents, dog attacks, disease, bush fire and land clearing.
As part of the project, Lilly runs The Hills-Hornsby Rural Koala Project Facebook page to assist with information gathering, online koala surveys and updates on the progress of the project.
“There are over 1000 followers, who are very supportive of the project,” she said.
Lilly also runs the Flora and Fauna of Hills/Hornsby/Hawkesbury Facebook group which aims to bring together locals who are interested in the natural environment. Today community organisations, local ecologists, community members, experts, wildlife carers, wildlife organisations and photographers are all contributing through this platform, sharing information and knowledge on local flora and fauna.
The background to this project starting goes back to the 2002 fires.
“Much of the natural koala habitat was devastated following the Glenorie bushfires of 2002 and sightings of koalas were not reported for many years,” Lilly said.
“The HHRKP was established in 2018, with the help and support of various local organisations and community members, to gather more information as there was no official research in the area.”
Lilly believes that gaining knowledge on the stability, distribution and population density of local koalas can contribute toward protecting koalas and their habitat, to encourage population increase. The project does not focus only on koalas. A big focus of the project is on monitoring biodiversity in the area to upload species data onto the NSW Government’s Bionet database.
‘While out searching for koalas, we collect data on all species we come across to upload onto Bionet. The use of song metres and trail cameras has been extremely helpful in recording a wide range of local species, including endangered and threatened species,’ she said.
Over the last five years the HHRKP has mapped koala sightings and calls heard in the Hills and Hornsby areas and so far, has mapped 25 verified and 41 non-verified reports from the public.
Koala crossing signs have been put up in areas where koalas have been seen near roads, koala scat (droppings) collected and sent for lab analysis, and the project continues to search for koalas and other wildlife using song metres and trail cameras in areas of good habitat where sightings have been mapped.
The project has a wide network of local organisations, ecologists and individuals from the community that contribute, and it is a sub-group of Cattai Hills Environment Network based in Annangrove. Glenorie Environment Centre and Glenorie Progress Association also work closely with HHRKP.
HHRKP keeps in touch with other koala groups and organisations such as Department of Primary Industries, NSW Koala Strategy, and CSIRO to help ensure the message is getting out that koalas do exist in our area and that their habitat is worth protecting.
“Getting nominated for the award was a lovely surprise, completely unexpected. So many people contribute to the work of the project, and their input has been crucial,” Lilly said.
“I’m grateful to everyone involved, without them the project would have been far less successful,” she said.
“I am hoping this award will help to spread the message of how ecologically important and amazingly biodiverse this region is, to encourage conservation of our bushland. Thank you to the Hills Shire Council for recognising our work.”