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Bushfire koalas recover with little penguin colony

Diana Jenkins, June 5, 2020 6:00AM News Corp Australia Network

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FRANKIE the koala casually ambled past while Phillip Island Ranger Jess McKelson talked to Kids News about life on the newly reopened island, where she looks after world-famous little penguins, Australian fur seals and currently koalas like Frankie.

A subadult male approaching his third birthday, Frankie is one of 13 koalas still recovering after being rescued* in January during the devastating* Mallacoota bushfires.

Celebrating World Environment Day, Ranger Jess said the COVID-related closure of the island was challenging but delivered many positives as well.

Fur seals at Phillip Island, Victoria media_cameraAustralian fur seals at Phillip Island, Victoria. Picture: The Australian Wildlife Collection

“For the conservation* world, it’s also a great opportunity for everyone to get involved and focus on our environment and our land management,” she said.

“We’ve been able to do a lot of work, including revegetating 6ha of penguin habitat*.

“It’s been really important for us to get in and do that. And also it’s so good for my team and myself because you get to connect with nature, not sit at home in the confines* of your house during this period.”

The island’s star attractions might be little penguins, but they represent a very big picture, assisting Phillip Island’s conservation management team of 36 to understand what is going on beneath the big blue.

“My favourite thing about working with penguins is that it represents more than just the penguin. It represents the ocean and marine life. They’re a key species for us to understand how healthy our ocean ecosystem is,” Ranger Jess said.

“It’s healthy. We know that. We understand how our penguins feed and we know how much fish they consume.

“Every night they go across a weighbridge, we call it the Penguin Highway, and we’re able to monitor their weight every night.

“And that shows us they’re healthy weights, we’ve got a healthy ecosystem, and we’ve got very healthy penguins.”

media_cameraPenguins at the Penguin Parade at Phillip Island Nature Parks.

As someone who always wanted to be a ranger and conservation manager, Ranger Jess was working with orang-utans in the swamps of West Borneo when her dream job came up two and a half years ago.

“I was rehabilitating* orphaned orang-utans … You see these animals that have been smuggled* and you see what they’ve gone through, how resilient they are, and when they’re released back in the wild, doing what orang-utans do, there’s nothing better,” she said.

“I came back to Australia knowing that I wanted to give more and do more for our own backyard so it can be in a better place.”

media_cameraRanger Jess McKelson. Picture: supplied.

But back to those long-term visitors, Frankie and friends, who are now enjoying the full VIP treatment during their Phillip Island post-intensive critical care. A huge new facility is being built for their final stages of rehabilitation before they’re released.

“Our job is making sure they’re getting the right diet,” Ranger Jess said.

“So they’re eating a lot more than what an average koala would eat, just to build up their nutrition*. We ensure that the facilities that they’re in at the moment are easily accessible and they don’t have to come down to the ground and climb up another tree.

“Some of them lost their nails. They melted and came out, so they’re regrowing and we check them to make sure there’s no infections.

“Each week we do a muscle check to see how much of their muscular capacity they’re building back, which is really important if they’re climbing or sitting up high.”

The final stage of rehabilitation takes place in the wild, up in the canopy. The Phillip Island team hopes their furry friends will be ready to go back to a safe home by spring.

Ranger Jess is stoic about saying goodbye.

“It’s a second chance at freedom … They’re the lucky ones, and I think that’s really important for the local community to have these animals back. It’s part of their identity,” she said.

“They’ve been through so much, the community and the wildlife, and it is really important to send them back home.”

Ranger Jess’s top tips for kids

Protecting penguins and the planet is something we can all help Ranger Jess and the Phillip Island team do – and there’s no better time to start than World Environment Day.

1. Think about what fish you eat.

2. Question where the fish come from and the resources taken from the marine world.

3. Plastic pollution is a big issue. Collect any rubbish you find and dispose of it responsibly so it doesn’t end up in our oceans and little penguins’ burrows.

4. Reflect on your personal responsibility. What you do every day has an impact on the environment in some way.

5. Try to minimise your footprint. Doing one thing a day, or one thing a week, is better than doing nothing at all.

6. Remember how lucky we are to have such incredible and unique wildlife all around us.

7. Choose a role model, stay connected and participate in something that interests you. Ranger Jess is inspired by primatologist Dr Jane Goodall and New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern.

A 50 year old turtle swims in the ocean past a plastic bag. Rubbish from humans can harm or kill marine life when polluting the water as some animals eat or become tangled in plastic. media_cameraA 50 year old turtle swims in the ocean past a plastic bag. Rubbish from humans can harm or kill marine life when polluting the water as some animals eat or become tangled in plastic.

Phillip Island fast facts

1. The island consists of 1800ha of Crown land.

2. There are 32,000 little penguins, the largest little penguin colony in the world.

3. It also boasts the largest colony of Australian fur seals.

4. The short-tailed shearwaters migrate en masse from Alaska every year – they have just started their long flight back.

5. Phillip Island is Victoria’s most-visited tourist attraction.

6. Fecal pellets tell caregivers if koalas are healthy – it takes 3 days for a koala to digest their food.


  • rescued: saved
  • devastating: destructive, catastrophic
  • conservation: protection
  • habitat: home, natural environment
  • confines: limits
  • rehabilitating: restoring, retraining
  • smuggled: illegally moved, used and/or traded
  • nutrition: nourishment, diet
  • en masse: all at once, as a big group
  • fecal pellets: stools, poo


Lonely penguins enjoy day out at art museum

Mystery of koala drinking habits solved at last

All the action of the great Aussie penguin race

Our islands polluted by plastic


  1. How old will Frankie the koala turn on his next birthday?
  2. What do staff call the weighbridge?
  3. Where was Ranger Jess working before Phillip Island?
  4. Who is Jacinda Ardern?
  5. What illegal trade harms orang-utans?



1. Rewrite the Story.

Rewrite today’s story from the point of view of one of the penguins who live on Phillip Island.

Time: allow 25 minutes to complete this activity

Curriculum Links: English.

2. Extension

One of Ranger Jess’ Top Tips is to choose a role model. Think about why she has suggested this. List the qualities that you think a person who is a good role model would have. Then, choose your own role model. Write down the ways that they show the qualities of a good role model.

Time: allow at least 20 minutes to complete this activity.

Curriculum Links: English, Personal and Social Capability.



Connective Collection

After reading the article, with a partner, highlight as many connectives as you can find in pink. Discuss if these are being used as conjunctions, or to join ideas and create flow.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Which animal would you choose to protect and why?

No one-word answers. Use full sentences to explain your thinking. No comments will be published until approved by editors.

Extra Reading in environment