Science Saving Rainforests in the Northern Rivers

Science in the Pub

Koalas in the Big Scrub

The Koalas in the Big Scrub—a conservation dilemma event was about much more than koalas. It was the opening night event for the Big Scrub Rainforest Day.  This annual weekend event has been hosted by the Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy for the past 25 years (bar 2021) with the aim to connect communities with burning local topics in subtropical rainforest restoration.

The ‘Big Scrub’ was once the largest subtropical rainforest in Australia. Cleared for generations, only one percent of the rainforest remains today. The Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy was started 30 years ago by a group of dedicated locals determined to arrest the damage, preserve what remains and restore what they can. Through their Science Saving Rainforests program, the Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy are working with the Royal Botanic Garden Sydney to use DNA analyses to better understand the genetic diversity of the Big Scrub and ensure plantings that will increase this diversity in future.

One of the additional threats today is the eucalypt plantations that have been seeded within the traditional boundaries of the Big Scrub. Eucalypts aren’t a subtropical rainforest species— they aren’t supposed to be here. But these eucalypt stands are now home to populations of koalas. And koalas are endangered. So, what is the local conservation community to do?

Science in the Pub

The Science in the Pub event was hosted by the Eltham Hotel in Eltham, NSW, about 30 kilometres from either Ballina or Byron Bay.  Built in 1903, it has been under new management from 2019. Driving up to the Eltham Hotel in my rental car, I
was absolutely delighted to see that it was so busy I could barely find a park.  Organisers estimate that there were over 200 people of all ages in attendance, and it was obvious that most were there not just for the pub but for the science (or maybe the pub and the science.)

The music and ambiance were delightful and the menu diverse and delicious; while waiting for the program to start, I had an emu donut and a plate of crispy brussels sprouts, with a side schooner of the ‘karma keg’ beer—an initiative from sponsor Stone and Wood whereby patrons can pay what they want for the beer and the pub donates the
proceeds to an associated charity or cause. On this night, monies gathered went to the Big Scrub Rainforest Conservancy.

The program was expertly emceed by the journalist Mick O’Regan. It began with a presentation by Dr Kevin Glencross, of Southern Cross University’s Forest Research Centre. After a short break, the premiere of the short film Koalas in the Big Scrub—a conservation dilemma by which skilfully synthesised the community issues behind finding a middle ground between restoring subtropical rainforest without destroying habitats for resident koalas.

This was followed by a panel featuring Angie Brace (Friends of the Koala), Dr Rob Kooyman (leading rainforest evolutionary and field ecologist, Macquarie University), Mark Dunphy (Firewheel Rainforest Nursery), and Rhonda James (Friends of the Koala, Bushland Restoration Services).

Koalas vs. rainforest was obviously a very hot topic and there were many questions fielded from an engaged and informed community audience. I was incredibly impressed not just by the depth of knowledge across the panel, but by their intent to collaborate across various issues to achieve workable solutions. 

I walked away that night with a sincere appreciation of the power of the local community working together to enact positive change. One of the best ways to have science discussions with significance—like the regeneration of local ecosystems—is through collaboration at the regional-local level and providing opportunities for the public to participate, in a spot where everyone wants to go, and where different perspectives can be heard.

The Northern Rivers Science Hub’s Science in the Pub series is a wonderful example of effective science engagement by focusing on the issues that matter within their community. As panellist Mark Dunphy said, ‘it’s kinda site specific’.

Special thanks to Emily Headlam, Ivy Young, and Renee Borrow for welcoming me to the Northern Rivers and putting on such a fantastic event.

Post by Emily Jateff, Chair Inspiring Australia NSW, and Curator, Ocean Science & Technology at the Australian National Maritime Museum.


For further information or media inquiries, please contact

Emily Headlam
Richmond Landcare

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