The rapidly declining koala population of Port Stephens has endured another horrendous start to the summer period with fires, excessive heat and continued loss of habitat.
In fact, the situation in Port Stephens – once known as the state’s koala capital – has become so dire that the Port’s leading statistician has warned of complete urban extinction.
Port Stephens Koalas data analyst Murray Black, whose work and opinions are backed unequivocally by the not-for-profit organisation, believes that “the koalas on the Tomaree and Tilligerry urban areas will die out”.
“We have already seen it at Raymond Terrace, which had 36 rescues in 1996, followed by single yearly figures from 1999 to 2013, and none since then. Likewise in Medowie, there were six rescues in 2006, two to five rescues per year since 2008 and none in 2018,” he said.
Mr Black’s 25-year statistics tell a grim story.
Since the first year of data in 1993, a total of 3149 koalas have gone into care. Of those, 1395 are deceased.
Last year there were 29 deaths. The highest single year number of deaths was 87 in 1996.
“From the figures you can see the number of koalas that have died each year and the reason – disease, dog attack, motor vehicle and fire. They also show the drop in the number coming into care,” Mr Black said.
“Unfortunately we have no correlation between the number rescued and the number in total in the wild (urban and bush). I’ve discussed this with koala academics and they believe there is a relationship but there are many variables like weather (droughts), loss of habitat, fires and loss of corridors.
“The koala population is difficult as there has never been a scientific count. Estimates for Port Stephens range from 500 in 1996 to 100 in recent times.”
A 2017 paper prepared by the NSW Scientific Committee on the ‘endangered’ listing application said that the estimated total number of mature koalas in the Port Stephens area (north of the Hunter River, east of the Pacific Highway and south of Nelson Bay/Karuah River) is considered to be low.
“Prior to recent declines, Lunney (2007) estimated a population of 800. Recent estimates based on road surveys, hospitalisation rates and surveys by the Hunter Koala Protection Society (HKPS) suggest the population may contain 100–200 animals, with approximately 125–200 within the Tomaree peninsula,” the paper stated.
“The HKPS state that in areas such as Raymond Terrace, Medowie and Tomago where they were common 20 years ago, koalas are now scarce or absent.”
Mr Black said there were things Port residents could do to help, like providing access to food trees in their yards and being more vigilant on the roads in koala habitat areas marked by signage.
PSK secretary Ron Land said that in 2017 the NSW Scientific Committee made a preliminary determination to upgrade the listing of Port Stephens koalas from ‘vulnerable’ to ‘endangered’.
“However, the NSW Government scuttled this proposition by introducing the NSW Biodiversity legislation which prohibits the listing of any new localised populations [such as for Port Stephens koalas] to be listed as endangered. Instead all koalas in NSW would have to be listed endangered,” he said.
“An endangered status would certainly help protect the habitat of the Port Stephens koala population but that would now require amendment to the NSW Biodiversity Act.”
Meanwhile, PSK volunteers have been kept busy in recent weeks, responding to pre-Christmas fires in Salt Ash and the Mambo wetlands, and more recently dealing with the stresses of heatwave conditions.
Mr Land said that an undisclosed number of koalas were lost in the fires, while two remain in care recovering from burns after being after being rescued by volunteers.
“This is also their mating season which means that they are very active and constantly on the move,” Mr Land said.
“The excessive heat, coupled with the koalas biggest threat [loss of habitat], can irritate the alpha males as they fight off their younger rivals during the mating season. This activity places them under further threat of wandering on to a roadway and into the path of a vehicle.”