Big Plans For The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital After COVID Closure
After closing its doors for three months, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital is open to the public once more. While tours were on hold, hospital staff continued working tirelessly, rescuing and caring for koalas 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The temporary closure gave the team time to consider the distribution of millions of dollars raised during and after Australia’s horrific Black Summer. Coastbeat caught up with the President of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Koala Conservation Australia, Sue Ashton to hear more about what’s been going on behind the scenes.
“The support we received after the bushfires was overwhelming,” Sue Ashton says in disbelief as she gazes up into a tree where two young koalas are enjoying a mid-morning snooze. “It really put koalas on the world stage.”
In October last year, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital set up a Go Fund Me page with the aim of raising $25,000 to purchase and set up automatic drinking stations which were to be installed in burnt out areas across the state. To date, almost $7.9 million has been donated and that figure continues to rise. Sue says the wildlife watering stations have been a great success.
“We built 140 and distributed them all around the state as far west as Moree, down to the South Coast and up to the Northern Rivers,” she explains. “We have reports of all sorts of creatures coming to use them!”
When it became clear that there was a groundswell of support for this local organisation, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital decided to use the remaining funds to bring forward its planned Wild Koala Breeding Program. The program aims to boost numbers in areas where koala populations have been decimated. Three breeding areas will be controlled and genetically managed to ensure the ongoing survival of healthy wild koalas.
“We’re not quite ready to announce the first location but I can tell you it will include a centre that the public can visit,” Sue says.
Education and awareness are a large part of the Koala Hospital’s work and Sue believes anything that increases the profile of these precious animals is helpful. A bronze statue of koala Ellenborough Lewis has been donated to Port Central and will take pride of place in the coming months. Lewis captured international attention after he was rescued from a fireground south of Wauchope by Toni Doherty in November last year. He was cared for by Clinical Director Cheyne Flanagan as well as Hospital volunteers, but tragically died. The statue has been designed and made by Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schnatter and will include a plaque detailing Lewis’s rescue.
“Sculptures such as this one attracts a different audience and I’m sure people will see the statue of Lewis and be really moved by it,” Sue says. “It will raise the profile of koalas and that’s a good thing.”
Guided tours of the Koala Hospital won’t be running again until COVID-19 restrictions have eased further. However, since opening on July 1st, Sue has noticed a new energy and excitement amongst the 140 volunteers. An online system is being used for visitors to register their attendance and she says each day is booking out quickly.
“We currently have nine koalas on exhibit and each one has a story,” Sue says. “We use those stories to educate the public and we want anyone who visits us to leave with a lot more knowledge about the threats koalas face and what they can do to help prevent further decline.”
Prior to the COVID-19 shutdown, 26 koalas that had been injured in summer blazes were released back into the wild.
“We’d anticipated having them here until June or July but with all of the wet weather, the bush regenerated much sooner!” Sue says happily. “We always try to release them back to where they came from, even the same tree if possible.”
Since then, Cheyne, Sue and the team have had about 20 koalas in rehabilitation. While their important work continues, the Hospital site will undergo a major redevelopment. A $5 million state government grant will go towards the construction of a raised walkway through the trees, new rehabilitation and permanent resident koala yards, training, research and education spaces, a retail shop, koala museum and theatrette.
It’s clear the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has the support of people locally, nationally and internationally. With the team’s passion and dedication showing no signs of waning, the future of these beloved marsupials is in good hands.
If you’re planning to visit the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, register here. Can’t get to Port Macquarie? Meet the koalas and read their stories on Instagram.
If you’re in Port Macquarie and keen to meet more furry friends, why not visit the nearby Billabong Zoo too!