In a boost to the nation's dwindling koala population, a world-first breeding and research program, funded by almost $8 million in public bushfire donations from Australia and around the world, will be unveiled on the NSW Mid North Coast today.
The wild koala breeding program will be led by the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in partnership with the Taronga Conservation Society, the Australian Museum and the University of Sydney.
Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Koala Conservation Australia, says zoos and sanctuaries have been breeding koalas for years, but the animals are either sold to other institutions or exchanged for other animals.
"This program will be the first to breed wild koalas to repopulate and/or bolster targeted sites," she said. "We'll learn a lot and be able to share this knowledge with other organisations that can then go on and breed in their areas.
"Our goal is to breed and release healthy koalas so they in turn breed and start to rebuild koala populations in NSW and perhaps Australia. Wildlife breeding involves a lot of hurdles – licensing, ethics, translocation and assessment of these elements."
After koalas are released, they will need to be assessed to see how they are thriving, she said. "It's not easy and very expensive."
Up to 60 koalas from the wild will initially be sourced solely from the Mid North Coast with the aim to release their selected, disease-free offspring into specific areas where it is hoped they will boost dwindling populations.
Cheyne Flanagan, director of the new program, said all aspects of the project will be scientifically-based to ensure the successful release of the threatened marsupials into the wild.
Ms Flanagan said: "We are working closely with both government and agencies and institutions to ensure best practice guidelines are met." The first three years of the breeding program would be undertaken as a pilot study with data from it being made available to other groups to use in setting up their own breeding programs.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, a not-for-profit charity which cares for sick, rehabilitating and injured koalas, including the many affected by last summer's catastrophic bushfires, is a major Mid North Coast tourism attraction, receiving 100,000 visitors annually.
It will be upgraded with a second, separate breeding and ecotourism-based centre to be established at Cowarra State Forest on land owned by Forest Corporation NSW.
A masterplan for the new site, about 20 kilometres to the southwest of Port Macquarie, will be announced later this month with the second facility open to visitors as a means of supporting its ongoing costs.
The forest site will feature koala enclosures, an education display, a clinic and laboratory, and pre- release enclosures full of joeys. Visitors will be able to view koala mothers and their joeys from a tree-top and forest floor walks with construction timed to begin in August next year.
The existing Port Macquarie Hospital will receive a new museum, medical clinic, retail shop, theatrette and First Nations education facilities.
As well as almost $8 million in public funds donated for the care of koalas injured in the bushfires, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has received a $5 million grant from the NSW Government from its Restart NSW program for the existing site with a total of $6.125 million to be spent on the redevelopment.
Sue Ashton said that of the $7.9 million donated to a Go Fund Me bushfires account, all will go to the breeding program other than money used for a now completed wildlife water drinking station project which saw the building and distribution of 140 vital drinking stations across three states, primarily in NSW.