Losing a koala never gets any easier for Sue Ashton, President of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital and Koala Conservation Australia.
Just prior to our phone conversation, the hospital lost one of the first koalas to be brought in after the devastating bushfires in the region. Peter was a young koala who had been lovingly hand-fed by volunteers when he first arrived, as his tiny paws were too burnt to hold leaves on his own.
He died suddenly, shocking Sue and those who had cared for him. They thought he was on the mend and was responding well to his treatment. His bandages were coming off, and he was beginning to brighten and eat on his own. It’s likely Peter had been chronically dehydrated because of the drought, prior to the fires, which may have had a major impact on his internal organs.
Sue remembers the tiny koala being delivered to the hospital in a basket, with burnt ears, nose and paws, and singed fur.
“The fires have just decimated the wild koala population up here,” says Sue, who has been working with the hospital for three years.
“Port Macquarie was ringed by fires, so the populations all around have been devastated. In one area we knew there were 600 wild koalas and two thirds of those koalas have been lost. That’s up to 350 koalas in just a few days, just in that one area. There were many more areas around Port Macquarie impacted. Conservatively we say we’ve lost hundreds, but in fact it could be thousands”.
She says the response to helping the injured koalas in the wake of the fires has been incredible.
“We’ve been overwhelmed with donations,” she says.
“We’ve had little children arriving with food they have baked themselves for the volunteers, people making mittens for the injured koalas, pharmaceutical companies providing medicines and we’ve had a lot of financial donations – not just from around Australia, but around the world.”
She says many of the funds have come through their Adopt a Wild Koala program.
“The Adopt a Wild Koala program brings inrevenue to the hospital … we’ve been inundated by people adopting a koala to give as a Christmas gift,” she says.
NRMA has also supported the hospital in this time of crisis, supplying them with water drinking stations, additional enclosures to house the injured koalas and additional volunteers.
The hospital was also blown away by the response to a recent GoFundMe campaign.
“A member of the public suggested we set up a GoFundMe campaign in the wake of the bushfires, as our website wasn’t coping with the influx of people wanting to help and donate. So we did that, and set a goal of $25,000 in the hopes that we could build and deploy eight wildlife water drinking stations to the burnt out areas,” she says.
Incredibly, the campaign raised over $2 million. Now they are in the process of manufacturing 30 water drinking stations before Christmas that can be used as required all over the State, not just in their local area. And there’ll be more in the new year.
They’ve also been able to fast-track their plans to establish a wild koala breeding program.
“We were already planning this program to try and replenish the wild koala population before these fires,” Sue explains.
“We thought it would take five to ten years. This massive donation has meant we are able to start the program immediately. We are looking at three different sites to establish the breeding programs. We’ll be rolling that out in the new year. We couldn’t have done that without the funds of the public … it is vital that we act now to replenish the population.”
Sue came to work at the hospital and conservation foundation after leaving Sydney (and her career in corporate communications) to move to Port Macquarie.
“A dear friend who I had known in Sydney had volunteered as treasurer and told me about the hospital,” she recalls.
“When I moved up three years ago I took over as media coordinator and became President in July this year.”
Despite the heartbreaking things she has witnessed in the wake of the fires, she says it’s an exciting time for the organisation.
“It’s evolving from a small charity to a small business,” she explains.
“We are introducing new methods of working. With my background in the corporate world (at companies like Commonwealth Bank, Vodafone and IBM) I can bring what I have learned to the table. We also have an excellent management committee who also brings a lot of expertise and knowledge.
“While we are growing, we acknowledge that it is a community-based volunteer organisation, and we’ll never lose sight of that.”
While she is helping to guide Koala Conservation Australia to its next stage, she is also still assisting on the ground at the hospital. And it’s not just during bushfires that the hospital springs into action – they treat any injured or ill koala in the area at any time of year. On Thursday evening she helped rescue a sick koala suffering from chlamydia (a huge threat to the population).
She is also still coming to terms with losing Peter so suddenly.
“Usually we know when a koala is not not doing well,” she explains.
“They are flat and just curl up in a little ball. That’s usually the warning sign that they are going downhill. But he didn’t show those signs.
“It’s important for the public to understand we do the best we can, but sometimes the koalas we get in have already had problems when they come in that we’re not aware of.
“They don’t talk, so you can’t have a conversation and ask ‘are you hurting here?’ So you just do the best assessment you can, and treat them based on that judgement. We’re always just doing the best we can.”