Koalas in NSW after the bushfires: New sanctuary set to open in Port Stephens

For a species battling for survival, the koala is desperately in need of some good news, and some is about to be delivered in a pocket of bushland where many of the precious creatures perished in fires earlier this year.

The care of the endangered creatures in Port Stephens on the Mid North Coast of New South Wales in the critical koala corridor will be focused on a new $9 million facility, close to completion, at One Mile near Nelson Bay.

Jointly-funded by Port Stephens Council and the NSW Government, the opening of the sanctuary in September will mean that koalas critically injured by incidents such as road accidents, dog attacks and bushfires will no longer need to be cared for in tireless volunteers' own homes or be transferred to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, two hours away, for treatment.

"We didn't have a proper home for the koalas until the council gave us one here," says Ron Land, secretary of Port Stephens Koalas, a local volunteer group. "As an organisation we've been in a desperate state, not unlike the koalas themselves."

The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is Australia's first multi-purpose koala facility featuring a sophisticated, fully-equipped veterinary hospital (complete with four ICU "beds" and two operating theatres), modern enclosures for the rehabilitation and care of the animals and on-site glamping-style accommodation for tourists.

The proceeds from day and overnight visitors will help return the council's investment with the physical centrepiece of the sanctuary an elaborate 250-metre elevated walkway, complete with a special footstep-muffling surface, where multiple koalas can be closely and safely observed by visitors.

Port Stephens mayor, Ryan Palmer says the region's council considered the concept of a koala sanctuary with a dedicated hospital and rehabilitation space as well as accommodation for visitors a viable eco-tourism investment.

"Tourism is worth $621 million to the Port Stephens economy," he says. "In light of the recent challenges we've faced, it's more important than ever to give people another reason to visit our beautiful region.

"We see the new koala sanctuary as a massive opportunity that ticks so many boxes for tourism, koalas, Port Stephens Koalas and our whole community."

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Happily, the good news for koalas - with tourism generated by the interest in the animals estimated to be $3 billion before the pandemic - doesn't stop at Port Stephens.

A few hours or so along the Pacific Highway, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is directing some of about $8 million in publicly-donated funds from the bushfires into its own projects (its original target was a modest $25,000).

These include wildlife water drinking stations and the building of the world's first wild koala breeding program. The project is designed to rebuild the koala population in NSW which was devastated by the bushfires, according to Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Koala Conservation Australia.

A recent State Parliament inquiry found that koalas would be extinct by 2050 if nothing was done to rapidly arrest their decline and that an estimate of NSW's koala population at 36,000 was now outdated.

"We know from our research and figures, extinction could be sooner [than 2050] with 8000 koala having died during the bush fires, 600 of them in the Port Macquarie region," says Mrs Ashton. "It will take years to try to rebuild the wild koala population."

The existing Port Macquarie Koala Hospital site is about to undergo a major redevelopment thanks to a $5 million State Government grant. Both the redeveloped koala hospital, located near the town's CBD, and the wild koala breeding site will be open to the public.

"The bushfires, the recent NSW Parliamentary inquiry and the increase in domestic tourism has encouraged more people to think about and appreciate the unique wildlife we have in Australia," she says.

"The feedback from visitors since the hospital reopened earlier this month is some fear, if we don't do something urgently to take better care of koalas, we risk losing them."

Anthony Dennis is the national Traveller editor

KOALAS IN NUMBERS

80,000 Estimated number of koalas left in the wild before the bushfires

4000 Estimated number of koalas killed by cars and dogs alone each year

18 Maximum lifespan in the wild

700 Number of eucalypt species of which koalas eat only some

20 Number of hours koalas tend to sleep a day

Source: Australia Koala Foundation

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