Thursday, July 21, 2011


There’s a special intangible quality that goes hand in hand with living in a small community, especially when that community is an island of no more than two thousand permanent inhabitants... a floating population that swells in holiday times to well over 40,000.

As one of the lucky permanents you treasure the quiet times, the friendships both nodding and close.  These are the men and women you sit next to on the water taxi’s we reluctantly take to the mainland, the fellow fishermen you cast your lines beside on the ocean beaches, the neighbours you pass the time of day with,  and the passing island motorists who raise a hand in laconic salute:  An acceptance that you and he, or she, are fellow residents in paradise, your vehicle and status duly recognized. 

You’re never quite sure just what hidden gem is lurking behind a genial smile, a workplace uniform or a fitness freak out and about,  power walking along the bush trails.

None though are more special nor surprising than a young woman from France whose present life revolves around the koalas of North Stradbroke Island.


Romane Cristescu is a Veterinary Scientist, a graduate of the University of Tours with a Master in genetics, the Veterinary School of Alfort,  and worked with the University of Rennes on a gorilla project for her Veterinary thesis.  She has dedicated her life to animals in the wild, and arrived in Australia by way of Africa and the western lowland gorillas of the Republic of Congo (Brazzaville.)

While by comparison with koalas her interaction with the gorillas was kept safely hands off, this modest young lady fell in love with the primates and their family life and was devastated when it came time for her to move on.

I don’t think Romane had the least inkling what was ahead of her when she accepted the assignment to study the koalas of Straddie:  Not the slightest idea that perhaps when the kids at the local school created a poster about their koala project, that central drawing of the two koalas, Suzy and Sam, might just have been the portent of personal events yet to come.

Romane and school teacher Nicole.

To speak to Romane is to be captivated by her French chic and captivating accent; if it weren’t for her obvious reluctance to be photographed you could imagine her on the fashion catwalks of Paris.  And that’s not so far fetched, sister Moira is a fashion designer with Karl Lagerfeld’s personal label. In fact all the Cristescu girls are high achievers, one in French politics, another a Geographer.   Not surprisingly she springs from a well travelled family.

Moira Cristescu, Fashion Designer (centre)



Koalas are unique to Australia, together with the kangaroo and the kookaburra they are the more readily identified icons of the Aussie outback.  But like all wild animals in developing countries they are endangered, their numbers affected by urban sprawl, by climate change and by disease.

Where in Africa Romane encountered the Ebola threatened gorillas, in Australia she observes the Chlamydia diseases threatening our koala population. Mainland koala numbers are dwindling and scientists and conservationists like Romane are leading the battle to stem the downward slide.  

Romane spends a great deal of time out in the field, she says that while the koalas on Straddie actually have one of the lowest genetic footsteps in South East Queensland their body condition is healthy and they don’t show signs of the diseases so prevalent on the mainland. Which is a great plus for us and for the koalas.

 Much of this could be due to the past 50 years of mining on the Island, an activity that has put a stop to the  crowded over-development apparent on adjoining islands in Moreton Bay.

With rehabilitation of mined areas ensuring the replanting of native Eucalypt trees this acre upon acre of native flora is the koala equivalent of their own personal delicatessen.  As Romane said, the koalas are obviously moving in and out of the rehabilitated areas with some spending much of their time there finding new little companions and reproducing..

Romane’s title and professional credentials are seriously long; officially for her work on Straddie she is Romane Cristescu, a PhD student from the School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales and the Centre for Mined Land Rehabilitation, University of Queensland currently ending three years on the Island tracking koalas and studying their interaction with mining rehabilitation.

In all that time she has worn the uniform of the mines, the bright yellow work shirt, the everyday trousers, hard hat and the sturdy, no nonsense boots.  Her days have been spent assessing the wild life population, tracking koala families with radio collars, a practice she  tells me she wishes she could avoid. As she put it, those collars cannot be comfortable, can they?.

 I’m amazed when she tells me  a specially trained koala sniffer dog will soon help make the finding of koalas a whole lot easier. The same man who trains the sniffer dogs for Airports and Police Drug Squads is behind a new addition to Romane’s household, one that is going to have to coexist with her pet cat and four chickens.

Straddie is a large island and though only a small percentage has actually been mined, the three townships take up only another minuscule  proportion of the total leaving plenty of room for the pursuit of nature. And the kids of Dunwich love anything at all to do with wild life or the great outdoors and what’s more they don’t have far to go to find it...

So when Romane offered to show the youngsters how she locates koalas in the high branches of Eucalypt trees she had only to step out into the playground to find some likely subjects.

If you go back to the Straddie Series 5, A Surprising Slice of History you will see the beautifully green historical cemetery just across from the local school grounds pictured above. The koala’s from time to time cross the road, back and forth, managing to avoid passing cars or buses and giving onlookers minor heart attacks in the process.

Koalas in the wild aren’t cuddly little bundles of fur to be played with, they aren’t even easy to sight munching away as they do in the uppermost branches of the trees.  Even the tell tale signs of claws scratching their way up the bark aren‘t always easy to identify, so for the excited youngsters wafting their antennas aloft this was show and tell with a difference.

Romane has fitted easily into Straddie’s community, joining in the ever present social life, donning the party clothes her sister would be more attune with, becoming another familiar face to wave to and wish well.  Her work here has added to our knowledge of koalas, given youngsters like the school kids of Dunwich a better idea of what’s going on in the trees around them, all the little Sam’s and Suzies they drew on their poster.

Her studies have assured the mines that their rehabilitation methods are working, the koala and the other arboreal marsupials native to the island, the feathered, sugar and squirrel gliders are re-colonising and moving between undisturbed areas and the new growth, and what’s more they are breeding. 

I think the future for North Stradbroke Island is looking very good indeed.

And what of Romane’s future?  Her work is ongoing.  Yesterday it was Africa, today it is still Australia.  But what of tomorrow?

Straddie doesn’t want to see her go.  We can only hope the koala’s keep as firm a tug on her heart strings as does a certain other who for now will remain nameless.


All these photos are from Romane’s personal collection.


Robyn Mortimer ©2011