IN DEPTH

Koala sanctuary takes shape at Port Stephens to help save local marsupial population

CARER: Ron Land, a volunteer and prime mover behind the new Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, tends to a marsupial named Tolley. Pictures: Simone De Peak
CARER: Ron Land, a volunteer and prime mover behind the new Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, tends to a marsupial named Tolley. Pictures: Simone De Peak

"You're being watched."

Ron Land points to a tree, where, nuzzling into the trunk and staring out at the world, is a little koala.

This is Patu, a joey, born from trauma and long odds.

His mother, Eila, was pregnant when she was severely burnt in the Mambo Wetlands bushfire in 2018.

Patu, a Wonnarua word meaning 'water', came out of his mother's pouch and into care.

Eila spent 108 days in intensive care but is now resting on a branch about 20 metres away from her son. She has trouble climbing, but at least she is here.

"It's been a marvellous effort by the carers to save her," Mr Land says.

Eila and Patu are among 16 animals at Port Stephens Koalas' rehabilitation centre at One Mile. Some of those here are fighting diseases, others are victims of our daily lives encroaching on theirs; they have been attacked by dogs and hit by vehicles.

SAVED: Eila, a koala rescued from the Mambo Wetlands bushfires, eats leaves.

SAVED: Eila, a koala rescued from the Mambo Wetlands bushfires, eats leaves.

Ron Land, a volunteer with the koala rescue and care group, says the facility is also treating up to eight marsupials suffering due to the drought. They have been brought in from around the Hunter.

"What we're really concerned about is how many more of the poor little buggers are up there, just dying of starvation, dying of thirst?," Mr Land says.

The furry patients have come from even further afield. Seven koalas rescued from the Taree bushfires in late 2019 were transferred to Port Stephens.

"We weren't ready logistically, facility-wise we didn't have the capacity, but we didn't turn away one koala," Ron Land says. "We just made people available, we made time and facilities available."

The rehabilitation centre is on an eight-hectare parcel of Crown land, which was a Port Stephens Council-owned vacation park, Treescape.

What was a holiday resort for humans is now a place of last resort for the marsupials, whose numbers have been depleted. Ron Land says koala numbers in the Port Stephens area are estimated to be no more than 250.

"This is a last ditch attempt to save koalas in Port Stephens," he says. "If this goes under, they go down with it, and you'll never get them up."

SOLE SURVIVOR: Smoulder, the last of seven koalas transferred to Port Stephens from the Taree bushfire. Picture: Simone De Peak

SOLE SURVIVOR: Smoulder, the last of seven koalas transferred to Port Stephens from the Taree bushfire. Picture: Simone De Peak

What brought Ron Land to Port Stephens Koalas was a chance encounter over his back fence. After a long career in the mining industry, including 18 years as a union secretary, Ron, and wife Marion, had moved to Nelson Bay. The Lands were seeking a quieter life. Instead, they found themselves helping save lives.

"Really we got into this because at the back of our place there's a little park, and there was an old koala there and I said, 'I think it needs help'," Marion Land recalls.

A volunteer came to rescue the koala. The marsupial died, but from this experience the Lands learnt how much koalas needed help. Marion says her husband of 50 years has always needed a project. Now he had a new one - to build a koala hospital.

Ron and Marion Land joined the koala rescue group, which has been around for more than 30 years, and he got to work on a hospital.

"And he's measuring up out the front there - 'What's this bloke doing?'," says Marion Land. "He'd decided this would be a good spot!"

Marion Land with Galloping Jax, who received his first name after being rescued on Melbourne Cup day. Picture: Simone De Peak

Marion Land with Galloping Jax, who received his first name after being rescued on Melbourne Cup day. Picture: Simone De Peak

As it stands, Port Stephens Koalas' rehabilitation centre, which opened in September 2017, is modest. It is a small, demountable building that plays multiple roles; staff room, clinic, medicine store, and, for those koalas who don't make it, morgue.

Near the door is an upright freezer with a simple sign on the lid explaining its purpose. Inside are the bodies of three koalas. One had died from the effects of drought, the other two had succumbed to injuries suffered in the Taree bushfires.

They will be buried under a grove of grevilleas nearby, honouring the lives lost and, for the centre's 70 active volunteers, reminding them of the importance of their efforts.

Heidi Saxarra and her partner drive from Lake Macquarie once a week to help out at the centre.

"I've done the tourist thing and held them, but this is so different," says Ms Saxarra.

"There are some successes, some not. Some devastating losses. You can't think about it too deeply, because you get upset, but you just think, 'Well, I'm doing something'."

Volunteer Di Lucas, known as The Pumpkin Lady, with a batch of pumpkin puree that she had just made. Picture: Simone De Peak

Volunteer Di Lucas, known as The Pumpkin Lady, with a batch of pumpkin puree that she had just made. Picture: Simone De Peak

Fellow volunteer Di Lucas has just delivered a batch of pumpkin puree that she has cooked.

"Before it was once every month or two, now it's every week," Di Lucas, known as The Pumpkin Lady, explains of how often she makes the puree.

Along with the 200 or so kilograms of gum leaves the koalas graze and chew through each week, the product of The Pumpkin Lady is very popular with the patients. The volunteers attach small bibs to the koalas to feed them, otherwise, explains Marion Land, "it gets all stuck in their fur".

Tiny bibs, used while feeding the koalas, hang on a washing line. Picture: Simone De Peak

Tiny bibs, used while feeding the koalas, hang on a washing line. Picture: Simone De Peak

As well as volunteering at the centre, Marion and Ron Land care for sick and injured koalas at their home.

"We have made so many creatures in Australia extinct, and these will be next, because we've paid no attention to their habitat," Marion Land says. "They can't relocate like we can."

The vision of Port Stephens Koalas is growing, with the construction of a new sanctuary, in the hope of providing the marsupial with a more assured future.

"The ultimate driver for us here, why we're all here, is to repopulate the wild koala colonies," says Ron Land.

"What we've got to do is first up save these koalas. Then what we've got to do is pick the best koalas genetically, the right age, and gender, and breed from those to get the progeny that is best able to survive in the wild."

The new walkway and enclosures built as part of the koala sanctuary. Picture: Simone De Peak

The new walkway and enclosures built as part of the koala sanctuary. Picture: Simone De Peak

The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is taking shape around the existing rehabilitation centre at the One Mile site.

The $10-million project includes a hospital, with an operating theatre and intensive care units. Presently, most intensive care takes place in volunteers' homes.

Amber Lilly, a Canadian who moved to Nelson Bay with her Australian husband and children about 18 months ago, has been appointed acting hospital manager. With a professional background in zoology, Mrs Lilly initially volunteered at the centre. Her preconceptions of the koala as a cute and cuddly "teddy bear" have been literally scratched out, but she loves being part of the centre.

"It's great there is a facility like this, as they are an Australian icon and they do need to be taken care of and protected at this time," Mrs Lilly says.

"Without this, they would have nowhere else to go."

Koala carer and hospital manager Amber Lilly with Tolley. Picture: Simone De Peak

Koala carer and hospital manager Amber Lilly with Tolley. Picture: Simone De Peak

The construction is being largely funded by the local and state governments. But the organisation has to find the money to run the sanctuary. To help generate income, 20 tourist cabins are being built on the site. As part of the ecotourism experience, a walkway winds amid the new enclosures, which will allow for more koalas to be accommodated. Members of the Worimi people, the area's traditional owners, will talk at the centre about the koala's local significance.

Ron Land says Destination NSW has estimated the facility will bring in about 100,000 visitors in its first year, but he believes it could attract double that number.

The complex will also be a research centre, with scientists from University of Newcastle, Taronga Zoo, University of Sydney and University of NSW to study the treatment and rehabilitation of koalas, and what can be done to improve their survival, including artificial insemination techniques.

Port Stephens Koalas' Ron Land. Picture: Simone De Peak

Port Stephens Koalas' Ron Land. Picture: Simone De Peak

"This will be the only facility of its type anywhere in Australia for koalas, which makes it the only facility of its type anywhere in the world," says Mr Land.

"Unless we have this facility to do the critical treatment and research work that's needed to first arrest the slide in numbers and then expand them by breeding programs and repopulating the numbers in the wild, they're finished.

"We're playing for huge stakes here."

To see what is at stake, Ron Land only has to look into one of the new enclosures, where a koala is snoozing. His name is Smoulder. He is the first inhabitant of the new sanctuary, but he's the sole survivor of the seven koalas from the Taree bushfires.

"He's going okay, but he's got a way to go," says Mr Land, explaining Smoulder suffered bad burns along his right flank.

The existing rehabilitation centre at One Mile. Picture: Simone De Peak

The existing rehabilitation centre at One Mile. Picture: Simone De Peak

While the complex is not expected to be completed until mid-year, the centre couldn't turn away koalas in need, particularly those injured in the bushfires.

"It's given us a glimpse of what this is going to become, and it also has stretched everybody," Amber Lilly says.

For Ron Land, this building project has been "the toughest by a long way" that he has ever tackled, but also one of the most rewarding.

"I've always been an animal lover, and I don't think you can be given a greater reward than playing a small role in the saving of an iconic Australian species," he says.

"And they are on their knees. It doesn't say much about us as a country, or as a people, if you can't rise to a challenge like that, does it?"

Eila, left, and Maree, two of the patients at Port Stephens Koalas' rehabilitation centre. Picture: Simone De Peak

Eila, left, and Maree, two of the patients at Port Stephens Koalas' rehabilitation centre. Picture: Simone De Peak

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This story Port building a future for an icon first appeared on Newcastle Herald.

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