Port Macquarie Koala Hospital

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With the NSW State Government announcing a $45 million intervention package to help protect koala numbers across the state in May, one of Australia’s favourite furry icons has been in the media spotlight recently. Cheyne Flanagan, Clinical Director at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, possibly knows more about koalas at a local level than anyone. Here’s what she had to say about the issues our local koalas are facing … and some ways you can help.

Hi Cheyne. For those readers who may not know you, please tell us a bit about your role at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie and what it involves …

The role of Clinical Director is one of many hats. The number one priority is to admit, examine and treat all the koala patients who come into the hospital. We do the majority of the work here, such as treating dog attack injuries, hit by car injuries, chlamydia etc. We also use ultrasonography, take blood, urine and other pathology samples, take swabs for disease, collect aspirates and small samples for analysis. 

Major surgical procedures and radiography are done at the amazing Port Macquarie Veterinary Hospital, who have worked with us for almost 40 years. 

Another not so pleasant but necessary job is to conduct post mortems on any patients who have died – every koala has an important research story to tell.  

Other hats the CD wears is training other licensed wildlife groups/undergraduate veterinarians, nurses, zookeepers etc. The hospital teaches koala rehabilitation courses in NSW, Victoria and SA. We also have a comprehensive Koala Rehab manual that is updated every two years and is sold throughout Australia and internationally (to zoos). 

Another hat is the collaborative research work we do with a number of universities and agencies. This can include anything from collecting various samples, to catching and anaethetising koalas in the bush for radio collaring projects, to collecting faeces and sending them off for DNA projects.  

The CD also sits on a number of “expert” advisory panels for both local government, local and state government agencies. The CD, along with a wonderful team at the Koala Hospital, put together and host the highly successful National Koala Conference, with the next one planned for early 2020.

Roughly how many koalas do you see come through the doors of the hospital each year, and what are their most common injuries/complaints?

Up until about five years ago, we were seeing on average 200 – 250 koalas per year. This has declined alarmingly since then – which is indicative of the predicted decline of this important coastal population of koalas. At the time of writing this article, we have only seen 50 patients so far in 2018.

The number one reason for admission is the sexually transmitted bacterial disease Chlamydia, which causes infertility, blindness, renal disease and is commonly found in disturbed habitats such as urban areas. There is a very low level of chlamydial disease is forested areas not disturbed by human development. 

Other causes are being hit by cars, which also account for high mortality. Dog attack frequency is relatively low in this LGA in comparison to other areas, but still of major concern. 

Koalas also suffer from many other problems, such as various cancers, glaucoma, cataracts, scoliosis/kyphosis, fungal infections, burns from bushfires, and occasionally we have patients with conditions that have not been described in the literature before.

Nonetheless, the number one cause of all of these issues, or the decline of koalas here and across Australia, is the removal of habitat, repeated removal of single trees in town, removal of forested land – all for human development. Koalas are forced to move further to seek food to eat and seeking mates, crossing busy roads, climbing over obstacles such as fences and into backyards, carparks, industrial factories, high rise buildings and across open country. All of this places them at high risk of being hit by cars and dog attacks. The immense pressure on each individual koala creates immune suppression and increases their susceptibility to disease.  

Another way to describe this is that koalas being hit by cars, suffering from chlamydia and being attacked by dogs are the symptoms. The disease itself is habitat loss. Habitat loss is the key threatening process to the survival of this species.

The NSW State Government announced a $45 million intervention package to help protect koala numbers across the state in May. One of the key areas in this package includes creating over 24,000 hectares of new koala reserves and parks across the state. How do you feel the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and the local koala population will fare overall under the government’s new koala strategy? 

Whilst the initiative from the State Government to instigate this intervention package is admirable, there are many areas within this document that can only be described as very disappointing. 

The proposed 24,000 hectares of new koala reserves include a number of sites that have no records of koalas ever existing in that vicinity, to some being so severely degraded through prior usage that their value is questionable, to others that many koala people across NSW can only be described as “scratching their heads” to understand the decision to include them.  

The koalas of this region were not included in this 24,000 hectare reserve proposal, but are being considered in another strategy within the Biodiversity Conservation Trust – so all is not lost.

The package also aims to fix koala “road-kill” hot spots across the state. How much of an issue is this locally?

Koala road kill hot spots are a major issue in our LGA, particularly in urban areas. The Port Macquarie-Hastings Council is proposing to address this issue, particularly in areas such as Ocean Drive, Oxley Highway and Hastings River Drive.  

Breeding season is just starting on the coast here, so there will be males actively moving within their home ranges seeking females. Usually it is the young, healthy sexually active males who get hit, which is devastating for an already declining population. Every breeding koala is vital. 

It is a very big aim to “fix the road kill issue”!

In recent months, the Forestry Corporation of NSW and Port Macquarie-Hastings Council donated 10,000 plus Tallowood saplings to locals, with these trees being planted to provide a new food source for our koala population. How successful was this activity – and where did the majority of the trees end up?

Forestry Corporation NSW donated the 10,000 Tallowood tube stock, with PMHC donating a further 600. The response from the public was so overwhelming, that the whole lot were gone in 10 days.  

The vast majority were planted out of the urban areas, and most were in the hinterland of the PM LGA. A good percentage also went to Kempsey and Crescent Head. The Koala Hospital’s licensed area also covers the Kempsey LGA.  

We have recorded where all of the trees have been planted (as we did with 2,000 donated Forestry trees in 2016) so we can plan for connectivity of these areas for future quality koala habitat.  In February 2019, Forestry Corporation NSW will be donating 25,000 trees, with these being a mix of Tallowood, Forest Red Gum and Swamp Mahogony.  Watch this space!

Our goal long term is to ensure the survival of the hinterland populations of wild koalas, as the developmental pressures on the coastal koalas is too great. As more and more land is being turned into housing estates, shopping centres and other infrastructure, the coastal koalas are being “placed in front of the firing squad” on a daily basis. 

What’s planned for the Koala Hospital over the next year or so?

The hospital is in such demand these days, we are looking to expand our premises to include much more office space for the amount of work we are involved in. As the Koala Hospital hosts around 100,000 visitors per year, who come to see the hospital and “koalas in the wild”, we are looking to also expand our “visitor experience” facilities. This will include increasing the size of the shop, the koala museum, walkways and interpretative signage, all for the visitors’ enjoyment. 

We also wish to finish the second stage of the exhibited koala enclosures, where our non-releasable patients can live, some of whom are waiting “off site”, as we have nowhere to put them. All of these koalas have a story to tell about the plight of the koala in this country.  All of this takes a lot of planning, a lot of work, and a lot of money! 

Incidentally, Port Macquarie-Hastings Council estimates that the Koala Hospital and the koalas of this region bring around $60 million dollars annually to the local economy.

The Koala Hospital is the training provider for WIRES NSW koala carers. As a result of this, we are now extending this to teaching many other licensed wildlife rehabilitation groups in all aspects of wild koala husbandry and care. We are holding our third two day koala rehabilitation course in early August, which will attract a large number of people from across NSW. All of this is good for the local economy, with accommodation, food and fuel etc.

The Koala Hospital has been working in an advisory capacity with overseas zoos for many years, but this is now expanding to the point that two of our staff will be attending a couple of zoos in Europe to discuss future strong collaboration. Our goal is to assist them in better management of their koalas, particularly from a handling and housing point of view.

How do you think our community – government, landholders, residents can all best work together to ensure a viable future for our koalas?

The number one cause of decline of koalas in this country is habitat loss. The saying “no tree no me” is so true. There must be a concerted effort to conserve the existing forested areas that have koala populations. Replanting of degraded habitat and replanting areas to link up existing habitat or new sites is also critical. Every single tree has a role to play for each and every koala who lives there.  Every single tree is as important to many other different species, who live in the same location as the koala.  

So many trees have been removed and continue to be removed on a daily basis in urban and rural areas. It’s easy to think, “Oh, this is only one tree that will be cut down, so it doesn’t matter ” … Well yes, it does! Every tree forms part of a koala’s home range and may be a very important tree from a food point of view, or simply as a refuge for the koala that lives there. Also, it becomes a case of death by a thousand cuts … every tree cut down becomes a forest cut down in a short space of time.

We are all Australians, and the beautiful Eucalypts are part of who we are as a nation. Does it really matter if they shed bark and drop a few limbs? We must conserve and protect every tree. If we keep going at the rate we are going – the coastal koalas of this region will only be a memory.

Thanks Cheyne.
Interview: Jo Robinson.

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