A little more than a year after he was in town to break ground at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary site to signal the start of construction, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean was back on Friday, September 25 to declare the $10 million sanctuary officially open.
The long-awaited eco-friendly conservation facility at One Mile is purpose-built to care for sick, injured and orphaned koalas but it also provides visitors the opportunity to see the marsupials in their natural habitat and learn about the iconic Australian animals.
Mr Kean said the state-of-the-art sanctuary with its hospital and rehabilitation enclosures will play a crucial role in helping preserve the koala population through care, research and education.
"This new sanctuary will not only help protect and care for our iconic koala populations, but it will also provide a boost to the local economy driving eco-tourism dollars to the region," Mr Kean said.
"The research and eco-tourism facility based right here will see people from all over the world come and learn about the Australian koala population, providing much needed public awareness and education."
A partnership between Port Stephens Council, the NSW Government and volunteer care group Port Stephens Koalas, the sanctuary is focused on sustaining and protecting the threatened species for years to come.
Mr Kean opened the sanctuary at noon on Friday. It came after speeches were made by Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer and council general manager Wayne Wallis and Port Stephens Koalas president Glen Bunny which recognised the efforts of the different organisations and people who have worked to make the sanctuary dream become a reality.
The official part of the sanctuary opening was complete with a welcome to country by Worimi elder Uncle John Ridgeway and smoking ceremony by Justin Ridgeway, who was accompanied on didgeridoo by John Schultz.
Following the formal proceedings, Mr Kean and other dignitaries including Parliamentary Secretary for the Hunter Catherine Cusack, Paterson MP Meryl Swanson, Port Stephens MP Kate Washington, councillors and council staff toured the sanctuary's SKYwalk, outdoor enclosures and koala hospital.
Speaking on the SKYwalk with koalas surrounding him, Mr Kean told media that the sanctuary would be key to ensuring koalas are protected and "ensuring their survival into the future".
"We know there are huge threats to our koala populations - disease, vehicle hits, dog attacks; this facility will help care for injured koalas and enable them to return back to their natural environment," he said.
"We know there are a number of threats to koalas including the loss and fragmentation of their habitat and I've got great concerns about the continuing encroachment of development on koala habitat. As far as I'm concerned as the environment minister, we should be doing everything possible to protect koala habitat."
When asked why his government approved the expansion of the nearby Hanson rock quarry in Brandy Hill, which will see 52 hectares of core koala habitat bulldozed, Mr Kean said it was a matter for the planning minister but added "we should be doing everything we can to protect koala habitat and that includes Brandy Hill".
"Our government believes in science. We make our decisions based on science and evidence. We went through a rigorous assessment process. Things have changed since the bushfires. I think the federal environment minister [Sussan Ley] should be taking that into account when she makes her decision in October," he said.
Ms Washington, a strong voice in the fight to protect the Port's koala population and the Shadow Minister for Environment and Heritage, said Mr Kean's comments were "hypocritical ".
"The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is amazing but it's the last line of defence. What we need to be doing is protecting critical koala habitat and right now, 52 hectares of critical koala habitat at Brandy Hill is due to be bulldozed courtesy of the minister's own government's approval and fast tracking. So to stand [at sanctuary on Friday] and say all the lovely things that he said, which are all correct and important, is hypocritical when it is his own government's approval and fast tracking that's got us in this mess," Ms Washington said.
"The minister needs to back up his words with action. It's his government's weak environmental protections that have got us here, that have allowed the development to be approved. He needs to make the changes necessary to stop this from happening.
"The community at Brandy Hill is doing an incredible job, the campaign is incredible and the voices added to that campaign from outside, I'm just so grateful. But we shouldn't have to do this every time. We've done it for Fishermans Bay, we did it for Mambo Wetlands, we're now doing it for Brandy Hill and quite frankly we shouldn't have to.
"The state parliamentary inquiry into koalas found that koalas will become extinct by 2050 unless urgent action is taken to protect koala habitat and right now this minister's own government continues to approve the bulldozing of koala habitat."
The koala sanctuary opened to the general public on Saturday, September 26.
Tickets, which grants general admission from 9am-5pm (last entry at 3.30pm) and access to the SKYwalk (closes at 4pm), costs $25 per adult, $14 per child (children under 3 are free) and $17 for concessions.
Due to COVID-19, tickets are currently being sold in sessions.
For an additional cost, visitors can book to undertake educations talks and tours from guides on koala care, rehabilitation and eventual reintroduction back into their natural habitat.
Accounting for $4 million of the overall project costs, the koala enclosure 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 as 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. 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.
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.
"Given how hard our region has been hit by the effects of COVID-19, it's incredibly exciting that Port Stephens has a unique new attraction to encourage regional visitation," Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer said
"The koala sanctuary will help to attract safe and sustainable visitor numbers to our region. This will ensure continued support for our local business and tourism industries, securing jobs as we continue to grow even during these unprecedented times."
The sanctuary also offers people a change to 'wake up with koalas'. A number of four-star 'glamping' style tents are located on the grounds, which are open to visitors to book and stay in.
Port Stephens Council's holiday parks section manager Kim Latham said the sanctuary will offer unique experiences with koalas in a natural and idyllic bushland setting.
"The sanctuary will offer tailored and educational tours from local guides on how we care for sick, injured and orphaned koalas to give them the best opportunity to return to the wild," she said.
"At the same time, we're providing a unique experience for visitors to view koalas in their natural habitat via the Newcastle Airport SKYwalk and elevated viewing platform.
"The immersive educational Sanctuary Story Walk, Fat Possum cafe and deluxe 4-star guest glamping accommodation, also provides an incredibly exciting addition to the Port Stephens' tourism offering."
For more information about the koala sanctuary go to portstephens.nsw.gov.au/koalasanctuary.