Rare koala sighting in Upper Mountains

A koala has been sighted in the Upper Mountains, near Wentworth Falls, for the first time in 70 years.

Andrew Beitsch, a geography teacher at Blue Mountains Grammar School in Wentworth Falls, was driving along the Great Western Highway late one night in early November when he spotted the koala trying to navigate its way through the roadworks.

“The koala was right in the middle of the roadworks on Bodington Hill,” he said. “I thought I was hallucinating. It was like a rabbit in headlights ... I stopped and got it off to the breakdown lane.”

Concerned about the lack of wildlife crossings, Mr Beitsch reported the koala the next day to Roads and Maritime Services and the Blue Mountains Conservation Society and was taken aback to learn just how rare his sighting was.

Mr Beitsch said the koala sighting fitted in well with the subject matter at school —his Year 7 class was looking into threatened habitats at the time of the incident.

“I am glad I can practise what I preach when I’m teaching kids about being active citizens and acting on things they see,’’ he said. 

There have been other sightings since the October bushfires as koalas are forced out of their normal habitats, into developed areas, where they are more visible.

Kellie Leigh, from the faculty of veterinary science at the University of Sydney, is mapping koalas in and around the Mountains. 

“If you asked a local this time last year they might have told you there were no longer any koalas in the Blue Mountains. However, during the recent bushfires koalas have appeared on the edges of urban areas, including three koalas coming out of the bush to sit in buckets of water near the Springwood fire,” said Dr Leigh.

Although koalas are not normally seen on the high altitude ridgelines in the Mountains, they used to be abundant in the valleys either side. There are historical records advertising koala hunting opportunities in the Megalong Valley, back in the days of the koala fur trade. Since then koala numbers have dropped dramatically, she said.

Dr Leigh said public reporting of wildlife sightings played a crucial role with koalas in NSW now federally listed as vulnerable to extinction.

“Koalas are picky eaters and adapt to their local habitats, so if we’re going to hang on to this iconic species we need to find and conserve all the surviving koala populations,’’ Dr Leigh said.

Gary Humble, from the Blue Mountains Conservation Society, said there had always been a clash between koalas and humans “as they prefer the leaves on trees that grow in the more fertile soils that we have cleared and use for agriculture and settlement”.

He said the greater Blue Mountains will be “a vital refuge” as the “increasing impacts of climate change and the ever spreading development of Sydney and other urban areas threaten them”.

Dr Leigh’s study is part of a larger national scale koala study led by the University of Sydney together with researchers from James Cook University and San Diego Zoo Global. Koala sightings can be reported to kellie@scienceforwildlife.org.

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