• Michelle Meehan

On Top of the World at Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary


Habitat loss through the clearing and development of natural bushland is the greatest threat to Australia’s dwindling wild koala population. But one particular “development” in the tourist region of Port Stephens is being hailed as a significant win by conservationists, with the future of the much-loved native species right at its heart.

The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary opened late last month after five years of planning, fundraising and construction.

It is a partnership between Port Stephens Council, which operates the tourism complex, and Port Stephens Koalas, a volunteer group that aims to provide world best practice standards of care to sick, injured and orphaned koalas, and holds the license to run the on-site koala hospital.

Located on eight hectares of stunning bushland and nestled on the edge of the magnificent One Mile Beach and Worimi Conservation Lands sand dunes, the $9 million project will offer visitors a unique opportunity to see koalas in their natural habitat, while also helping to support their long-term rehabilitation and preservation.

It incorporates both tourism and conservation elements, with a variety of accommodation options including four-star glamping facilities that allows visitors to truly immerse themselves in the experience.

A ground-level interpretive walk, elevated pathway and viewing platform allow you to learn more about the species and see them in their natural habitat, while a state-of-the-art koala hospital will provide first-class treatment for injured animals, giving them the best opportunity to be returned to the wild.

The facility was funded by Port Stephens Council, a NSW Government grant and fundraising efforts by Port Stephens Koalas, with last month’s opening representing the culmination of years of work for many people including Port Stephens Koalas secretary and CEO of the Koala Hospital Ron Land.

“It's a mixture of relief and accomplishment because it’s been five tough years from the initial planning to the acceptance of the plans and then the gathering of the funding to build the big koala facilities within the sanctuary, which accounted for nearly $4 million (from the $9 million project costs),” Mr Land said.

“Port Stephens Council are to be congratulated for accepting the premise and the seriousness of the situation. The facility is much more than just coming to have a look at koalas on display because, at the same time, it’s saving ill and injured koalas.

“We’re only one of two organisations in New South Wales that have dual licensing from the New South Wales Government to treat, rehabilitate and release koalas whilst simultaneously displaying other koalas in a different cohort.

“Visitors will be able to view koalas in their natural habitat in specifically designed and very large enclosures that don’t limit the movement of the koalas, all of whom have direct access to mature trees where they can climb and rest and not feel threatened by human presence.

“It’s another part of the educational process because everyone who comes here will see that this is how koalas live, and this is what we’ve got to do to maintain their survival.”

Education is key to the future of Australia’s wild koala population, which researchers have predicted will be totally wiped out by 2050 if we don’t do more to protect it. Ron believes the situation in Port Stephens is even more dire, which is why groups like Port Stephens Koalas, and facilities such as the new sanctuary, are just so important.

“The group was formed as Hunter Koala Preservation Society in 1987, and we changed our name in 2016 to Port Stephens Koalas. Our main aim, of course, is to save the lives of ill and injured koalas and where possible return them to the wild,” he said.

“We’ve got 144 frontline volunteers, represented by the spearhead groups of rescuers and carers, as well as a group of promotional volunteers that now work very hard to raise the funds we need to continue our day-to-day operation.

“We run three rescue vehicles, and we function 24 hours a day, every day of the week, every day of the year.

“The number of volunteers we have is not proportionate to the number of koalas we estimate are in the wild; it's proportionate to the dire straits that the remaining koala population is in.

“In the last ten years it’s fallen from the thousands, and we estimate there are no more than 400 koalas left in the wild in the Port Stephens region.

“Unless these types of concentrated and continuing efforts are made, they will become extinct, and we feel they will become extinct in the wild within ten years.

“The single biggest risk is the loss of habitat, and that’s driven by development, and it manifests itself with koalas being killed and injured, being hit by cars, attacked by dogs… but it’s all driven by loss of habitat.

“We are very, very serious about education in regards to koalas, koala habitat and koala treatment, we put an enormous amount of time into training our own volunteers, and we’ve got some of the most highly skilled volunteers in Australia that have received training from our vets and from the more senior carers within our organization.

“But the broader education level is exposing people to the facilities that we have down here and letting their education flow on from our activities.”

Port Stephens Koalas treat around 80 sick or injured koalas each year, which range from moderately to critically ill. Ron said the construction of the Koala Hospital and its state-of-the-art facilities within the Sanctuary site will provide a much-needed boost to the group’s capabilities to treat, save and ultimately release koalas back into the wild.

“We don't get koalas unless they’re badly injured, or they’re ill, and unfortunately there’s a constant stream of koalas who come to us,” he said.

“Just this week within four days we had two killed, two more come in as rescues and we’ve got six in the morgue waiting for burial. That’s an indicator of just how dire the situation is.

“This hospital provides a centralised facility where we can apply first-class treatment to ill and injured koalas with a variety of methods.

“We’ve got two operating theatres, we’ve got four ICUs, we’ve got full digital X-ray facilities, a pharmacy, and so we’re able to now, for the first time, concentrate all of our labour resources and deploy our vets at the one point in what’s called the golden hour (the first hour after injury/rescue), which is no less important for injured wildlife than it is for humans.

“The quicker we can apply the best medical treatment to an injured or ill koala, the better chance they have of survival.

“With this facility, we will also become the receiving point for quite a large catchment area for koalas, which will come from right throughout the Hunter Valley, down south to Newcastle and north up to Taree.”

On the tourism side of things, the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is also expected to welcome a wide catchment of its own visitors, initially from within NSW and then the other states of Australia as COVID-19 travel restrictions ease.

Further down the track international tourists are also likely to form a large segment of the Sanctuary’s visitor mix, and initial interest leading up to last month’s opening had been strong according to Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary Marketing and Promotions Manager James Cook.

“The initial reaction to the opening of the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary has been extremely positive, with multiple accommodation bookings confirmed on the opening weekend,” he said.

“Additionally, for the school holiday period, accommodation reservations remained very encouraging with many running at near 100% occupancy.

“By year three of operations, we expect day visitations will build to approximately 40,000 per annum.

“By providing premium tent accommodation located along the periphery of the koala enclosures and offering a unique overnight experience, this concept not only ensures that the operation of the facility is sustainable, but that it is projected to be profitable, which is significant for the facility itself, as well as the wider economic and tourism profile of the Port Stephens area.”

Aside from the option of staying on-site, visitors can also enjoy the Sanctuary Story Walk. This 250m-long meandering pathway offers an immersive educational experience telling the story of the koala and its habitat through artistic sculptural representations.

The 225m-long Newcastle Airport SKYwalk and elevated viewing platform provide a unique treetop perspective into the koala’s natural habitat from about nine metres above ground level, while the Fat Possum Café has a range of ‘grab and go’ eats and treats, excellent barista coffee and quality souvenirs in a tranquil bushland setting.

Tailored education sessions from local guides on koala care, rehabilitation and eventual return back to the wild will also be available once COVID-19 restrictions ease, but in the meantime, visitors can take a self-guided tour using the Sanctuary’s printed guide materials, which are handed out from the Koala Centre reception area.

Mr Cook said the Koala Sanctuary provided a new opportunity for visitors to directly contribute to the preservation of local koalas in Port Stephens and would be a must-see addition to the overall mix of attractions in the tourist destination.

“For day visitation, the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary will complement other attractions within the local area, with the Newcastle Airport SKYwalk and viewing platform providing the signature experience of a visit to the Sanctuary,” he said.

“For overnight visitors, we also offer brand new four-star glamping accommodation where guests can wake up with the koalas in their spectacular natural bushland setting and enjoy everything that our Koala Sanctuary has to offer.

“Additionally the conservation work and education opportunities available here at the Sanctuary will also provide potential visitors with greater knowledge and understanding of the plight of the koala, with a visit to the Sanctuary directly contributing to the long term survival of the species in the Port Stephens region.”

Port Stephens Mayor Ryan Palmer said the Sanctuary would provide a greater incentive to regional tourism at a time when it is needed the most, while also helping to support the long-term future of one of Australia’s most loved native animals.

“Port Stephens is home to koalas. We’re incredibly proud of that, and we all have the responsibility to protect koalas and ensure their future for generations to come,” Cr Palmer said.

“Port Stephens Council is working to sustain and grow a healthy and viable koala population in our region — the Koala Sanctuary is one way we can do that.

“Given how hard our region has been hit by the effects of COVID-19, it’s also incredibly exciting that Port Stephens has a unique new attraction to encourage regional visitation.

“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.”

Glamping Among the Gum Trees For those who want to truly immerse themselves in the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary experience, there’s no better way to linger a little longer than by booking a night to stay on-site.

The undoubted star of the accommodation mix is their new four-star glamping options, which allow you to choose from either a Deluxe two-person tent or a Superior four-person tent.

Set amongst the natural bushland and offering an experience like no other from dawn to dusk, the deluxe glamping tents feature private ensuites, king or queen size beds and spacious outdoor decks with picturesque outlooks, some of which face the koalas’ enclosures.

You certainly won’t feel like you’re roughing it with this upmarket alternative to camping, with all the creature comforts of home including air conditioning, a television, and a well-equipped kitchenette complete with a microwave, toaster, fridge and kettle.

Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary Marketing and Promotions Manager James Cook said visitors would also discover “a few little additional luxurious surprises”, which are sure to make their stay just that little bit more memorable.

Those looking for a more conventional stay can make the most of the Sanctuary’s recently refurbished motel-style accommodation rooms, ranging from Deluxe Studio Rooms to their One Bedroom Deluxe Suites.

Features vary depending on the room type, but most include a kitchenette with a fridge, microwave, kettle and toaster. Each motel room is also equipped with a television and air-conditioning, and some bathrooms include a corner spa bath.

Accommodation in a Superior Glamping tent starts from $460 per night for two people, with a Deluxe Glamping Tent experience starting from $480 per night (two people).

The contemporary-style motel accommodation starts from $325 per night for a Deluxe Studio room. Room. Inclusions such as welcome hampers on arrival, continental gourmet breakfast ingredients that you can whip up yourself in the tent kitchen, unlimited access to the Koala Sanctuary, a guided Sanctuary tour and an exclusive koala viewing are also provided depending on the accommodation style that is booked.

For more information or to make a booking visit www.portstephenskoalasanctuary.com.au

The Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary is open every day from 9am to 5pm, with the last admission at 3.30pm. The Newcastle Airport SKYwalk and viewing platform close at 4pm. Admission costs $25 for adults, $14 for children and $17 for concession. Children three years and under are free when accompanied and supervised by a paying adult.

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