March 2020

The Nation Reviewed

Hopes and leaves

By Drew Rooke
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital working around the clock to treat victims of the bushfires

“We run it like a hospital; everything is done following hospital standards.”

Sue Ashton is standing in the staffroom of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in front of a large whiteboard – the “patient board”, she calls it – which contains the name and details of each koala in care or undergoing treatment. Another whiteboard nearby lists the weekly roster and the name of the supervisor on duty, and in the back corner of the room on a bench are the complete medical records of all the furry patients.

A kind, softly spoken woman with short koala-grey hair and a background working in Sydney’s finance world, Ashton moved to the town on the mid north coast of New South Wales nearly three years ago. She immediately started volunteering at the hospital, and not long after was appointed president.

Situated in a small nature reserve among towering blackbutt trees, the hospital was established in 1973 by local couple Jean and Max Starr, and was initially little more than a one-room timber shack with a thatched roof and small verandah. When Australian country musician John Williamson visited in 1986, he was so moved by what he saw that he wrote “Goodbye Blinky Bill” in honour of the iconic and increasingly threatened marsupials, and donated all of the song’s proceeds to the “one little hospital” trying to save them.

The hospital has since grown into an internationally recognised veterinary facility comprising a treatment clinic, eight indoor and six outdoor intensive care units, 33 rehabilitation yards and a mortuary. About 250 koalas are admitted annually, with most found abandoned or suffering from burns, chlamydia, starvation, or injuries sustained from dog attacks or motor vehicle accidents. A team of 150 volunteers and five paid staff work around the clock caring for the animals, so they can hopefully be returned to their original habitat.

“That’s why we do what we do here – to get them back to where they belong,” says Mick Feeney, a long-time and fast-talking volunteer at the hospital. “When you open the basket at the bottom of the tree, they’ll usually jump out and run up about five metres, then look back at you as if to say, ‘Was there something else?’ And then away they go.”

The recent catastrophic bushfires across Australia triggered a huge influx of patients at the hospital. The fires destroyed millions of hectares of habitat and, according to Professor Chris Dickman, an ecology expert from the University of Sydney, killed more than 1 billion animals nationwide – a figure RMIT ABC Fact Check labelled a “conservative estimate”. At least 8400 koalas in northern NSW – 30 per cent of the local population – and around 40,000 of Kangaroo Island’s 50,000 koalas perished in the flames.

At the height of the bushfire catastrophe, Ashton and her colleagues were “all working on autopilot – there was no let-up”. While some worked at the hospital – operating on koalas that had just been admitted, redressing the wounds of those that had already been treated, and handfeeding those whose paws had been so badly burned they could not grab leaves – others travelled into the firegrounds to search among the blackened, still-smoking trees for any survivors.

But even though the flames have eased, the recovery effort isn’t over: the hospital is now building and deploying watering stations in burnt bushland across the state for wildlife that survived the inferno and is in desperate need of water.

The ongoing tragedy was exacerbated last month when news broke that at least 40 dead koalas had been found after the logging and bulldozing of a bluegum plantation in Portland, south-west Victoria. Ashton was devastated. “I couldn’t believe that anybody, after all of the fires and the thousands of koalas we’ve lost, could go in and clear land and knowingly kill defenceless koalas,” she says.

The hospital flew a team of four people down to help with the recovery effort. The photos they sent Ashton of the situation on the ground were so distressing she had to stop looking at them.

This incident highlights an arguably bigger threat to Australia’s koalas than bushfires: land clearing. Australia is the only developed country on the World Wildlife Fund’s global list of deforestation hotspots, and of the 20 hotspots in NSW 17 contain substantial koala habitat.

Perhaps this wasn’t unexpected. In November 2016, the Coalition state government watered down existing regulations, allowing farmers to clear land without approval in many cases. Before the new regulatory regime came into force the following year, the Office of Environment and Heritage (as revealed in a document obtained via freedom of information by the Environmental Defenders Office NSW for the Nature Conservation Council) warned the then environment minister, Gabrielle Upton, that this easing of restrictions could see land clearing increase by 45 per cent annually, and risked “removing key habitat for threatened species, including koala habitat”.

This warning proved true. In 2017–18, more than 5000 hectares of koala habitat in north-central NSW were destroyed. 

If current land clearing rates continue, the WWF predicts koalas could be extinct in NSW by 2050.

Ashton knows this risk is heightened by climate change and worsening bushfire seasons. But, as she walks through the hospital’s enclosures, checking on the koalas in her care, she says she is hopeful about the future of the species. “You’ve got to be,” she adds.

Drew Rooke

Drew Rooke is a journalist and the author of One Last Spin: The Power and Peril of the Pokies.

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