Australia’s koala clinic a big tourist draw

March 19th, 2009 - 8:59 am ICT by IANS  

By Christian Roewekamp
Port Macquarie (Australia), March 19 (DPA) Among the many images from the bush fires that recently swept through the Australian state of Victoria was one of a koala bear being rescued by a fireman. Sam, as the bear became known, had pink-coloured bandages on its paws and was handed over to a carer.

Sam was a lucky little fellow as koalas are not only victims of bush fires, but are killed or injured in collisions with cars on an almost daily basis.

Australia has its own clinic dedicated to caring for sick and injured koala bears in Port Macquarie in New South Wales. Since it opened, it has become a major tourist attraction in the area.

Port Macquarie is about 425 km north of Sydney on the coast, making it more than a day’s journey from the bush fires that ravaged Victoria. But biologist Cheyne Flanagan and her colleagues still have plenty to keep them occupied as between 200 and 300 patients are admitted every year.

Along with accident victims, they also treat koala bears with eye problems, urinary tract infections as well as young bears who have fallen from their mothers’ backs.

The clinic in Port Macquarie gets the bears back to health and then prepares them for their return to the wild. Some animals recover quickly, while others stay for months or even years at a time.

“If possible we try to return them to the very tree or the spot where they were found,” says Flanagan.

Holidaymakers can visit the clinic and watch the staff care and treat the bears. A guiding principle for every visitor is, “Watching okay, touching no”.

The bears are fed twice daily at 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. Tours of the clinic take place in the afternoon making 3 p.m. feeding time very full.

“In the high season we get between 300 and 400 visitors a day,” says Flanagan. “The majority of visitors are from abroad. A lot of them are backpack tourists.”

The bear’s cuddly image explains why so many people visit the clinic. Koala bears look like a prototype for a teddy bear. But they are wild animals and the staff at the clinic try to keep them that way while they are being treated.

Although many of them receive a special diet of milk and nutrients by syringe or pipette, they still get the eucalyptus leaves they eat in the wild.

One koala bear eats about 500 grams of eucalyptus a day. The clinic has four employees who collect leaves for the bears every day from the eucalyptus forests that surround Port Macquarie.

The clinic opened in 1973 as a private initiative and it remains a private institution that relies on donations from the public to carry out its activities as well as unpaid work by volunteers.

“We have 120 active volunteers at the moment,” says Cheyne Flanagan. Most of them come from the surrounding area, but there are also people from abroad. Anyone interested in helping out can apply over the clinic’s website and is expected to spend four weeks working.

“Almost every day we hear from people who want to volunteer but only give a week of their time,” says the head of the clinic. “But we don’t allow that.”

It is no accident that the clinic is located in Port Macquarie. The surrounding area has the largest population of koala bears in Australia. But bears regularly arrive from other parts of the country.

They include bears from Victoria weighing up to 12 kilograms and the lighter 5.5-kilogram animals from North Queensland.

A maximum of 100 bears can be treated at the clinic at any one time. Some of the very young bears are taken home at night by the staff where they sleep in cloth-lined washing baskets with a few eucalyptus leaves to snack on.

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