The summer bushfires and bombshell government inquiry findings that the koala population would become extinct in NSW by 2050 unless urgent action was taken to protect their habitat have reverberated around the world.
And for good reason: this iconic, uniquely Australian marsupial must be seen in its natural state to be appreciated and understood and to think that our children and grandchildren may never witness these lovable creatures in the wild would be numbingly mind-boggling.
The desperate need to save the koala (as part of the September 2020 campaign) is just one of the reasons why the Port Stephens community is strenuously fighting to stop the proposed Brandy Hill rock quarry extension, which if approved would be capable of decimating 52 hectares of core koala habitat.
It is also the motivation behind the 142 hard-working frontline volunteers who make up Port Stephens Koalas (PSK); each one putting in countless hours to rescue, care, feed and rehabilitate sick, injured and orphaned koalas in order to give them the best opportunity to be returned to their natural habitat.
They have literally kept countless koalas alive when without that care they would have perished.
For years the volunteers have worked tirelessly outdoors in rain, hail, or storm, all hours of the day and night, in cramped conditions, always battling for necessary funds for a centralised medical care facility.
Official opening date
On Friday, September 25 the NSW Government, Port Stephens Council and PSK will launch the spectacular new $10 million Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary. Situated within the One Mile sanctuary is the state-of-the-art Port Stephens Koala Hospital with adjoining rehabilitation and display enclosures.
Accounting for $4 million of the overall project costs, the koala facilities are the best of their type in Australia.
For PSK chief executive officer Ron Land, who also took on the job of project manager and designer of both the hospital fit out and outdoor koala display and enclosure, the 18-month construction phase has had its challenges.
"But it has been all worthwhile and we are extremely happy with the result. One of our biggest concerns was the noise impact from construction on the resident koalas and those coming in for care, but like us humans the koalas adapted, and all came through unscathed," he said.
The finished product is unique in more ways than one. PSK is one of only two organisations in NSW to be granted dual licencing by the government: one for care and one for the display of koalas.
"We have employed four staff to support the critical work we plan to undertake, including three science degree graduates who are passionate about their work. A key goal is the launch of a breeding program to release the progeny of the sanctuary's koalas back into the wild at selected locations," Mr Land said.
The first thing visitors will notice is how well the koalas are looked after by the dedicated staff - both volunteers and professional (including veterinary staff).
Another important lesson for visitors is that the majority of koalas in the enclosures have recovered from injury or illness and will be kept in permanent care forever.
For various reasons, they will not be returned to the wild.
Mr Land said that when designing the visitors' display section, he was keen to portray koalas as close as possible to their natural habitat.
"That meant being mindful of the topography of the site and ensuring elevated vantage points along the paths and walkways. We want to give visitors the best experience possible with exceptional viewing sights and have them learn about these unique animals with our storyboards," he said.
"The design of the enclosures also benefits the koalas, ensuring they remain relaxed and healthy while having the freedom to move about.
"There are eight enclosures with the capacity to home 30 koalas, but we will be limiting our numbers to around 15 for display purposes. All koalas either in care or on display are supplied with best quality eucalyptus leaves."
Mr Land acknowledged the support of a number of organisations as part of the building project, most notably the state government and the council.
It will be forever known as the Port Stephens Koala Hospital, but in fact it is licensed to take in a range of small animals including wombats, native birds and macropods, particularly during heightened disaster events such as bushfires and drought.
The $2 million hospital - with ancillary facilities for staff - has been fitted out with four ICU rooms, two operating theatres, an X-ray room, triage area, training room, kitchen and laundry.
Other clinical equipment - secured through generous corporate donations and support from John Hunter Hospital - includes sterilizers, humidicribs, prep areas, pharmacy room, ultrasound equipment, wet tables and theatre lights.
"We have the capability to live stream surgery for training purposes in order to further enhance the skills set of our senior staff," Mr Land said.
A feature of the entry foyer is the award-winning Kreative Koala sculpture known as 'mitjigan guula', meaning girl koala, which was designed, manufactured and painted by Raymond Terrace Public School students with help from staff.
"She is the guardian angel of all koalas who come in for treatment," Mr Land said.
"At any one time we could have up to 15 koalas in the hospital and once rehabilitated our goal is to return these koalas to the wild.
"We are extremely fortunate to have licence agreement with Noah's Ark Veterinary Services ensuring that the koalas receive the best in veterinary care and are given the best chance for survival and a return to their natural environment."
The Examiner spoke with three of the volunteer staff who devote many long hours to not only care for injured koalas but just as importantly to ensure feed is plentiful, koalas are comfortable, hospital grounds are clean and much needed funds are raised.
Anna Bay's Roz Scoles, a passionate environmentalist, is a four-year veteran with PSK, who has a strong affinity with animals.
"I love interacting with the koalas. Some of my work includes cleaning out the enclosures and tending to sick koalas," she said.
Kate Kiely, from Nelson Bay, said she was compelled to join the team after helping a friend collecting feed leaf for sick and injured koalas.
"I spend between 3-4 hours a week helping out and I have grown to enjoy the work along with working with other volunteers."
Pam Churchman, a resident of Latitude One, is another conservationist who has also been active with the Save Mambo Wetlands group.
"I have a passion for animal welfare and environmental issues. We need to be more vigilant and do whatever is possible to ensure the future of our beloved koalas," she said.