A chronological history of the Illawarra koala
During August 1803 the first live specimens of the koala were scientifically examined in Sydney and the discovery of a new Australian mammal was announced to the public. The koalas came from the Mount Kembla region of New South Wales, located on the coast approximately 50 miles (80 kilometres) south of Sydney. A number of living and deceased specimens were initially studied by the renowned visiting English botanist Robert Brown and his Austrian artist colleague Ferdinand Bauer. The type description of the koala was made by Brown at the time of this inspection, though it was never published. The earliest known drawing of the animal was also taken around the same time by Bauer, in Sydney on 15 August 1803.
Ferdinand Bauer, Koala from Mount Kembla, pencil sketch, 15 August 1803. Source: Natural History Museum, Vienna.
At present there is no definitive scientific record of the type specimen of the koala in the published literature. This is unusual, especially in light of the work of both Brown and Bauer. The earliest published scientific description of the koala instead comes from the initial application of a scientific name by the French during 1816, some 13 years after the Mount Kembla discoveries. The history of the koala's rather convoluted scientific discovery and description is outlined in detail within the author's article The Scientific Discovery of the Koala 1803. Brown's Didelpis coola of 1803 was to eventually become Phascolarctos cinerus in 1821 and it remains known by this scientific name to this day.
The Koala in the Illawarra
Just as the scientific description of the koala is somewhat lost and confused in the mists of time, so also there had been, prior to 22 August 2016, no official recognition of the koala's existence - historic or contemporary - in the Illawarra, by local, state or federal authorities such as Wollongong City Council or the National Parks and Wildlife Service. Yet it seemed obvious that the animal survived, as the Illawarra region is bordered by coastline on the east and to the west by a steep, forested escarpment, at the back of which is a largely uninhabited water catchment area, which in many instances is prime koala habitat. It was always likely that koalas continued to breed within this catchment area, despite its being decimated over time as a result of shooting, bushfires, introduced feral animals such as dogs, cats and foxes, and the impact of humans such as road kill. Unfortunately no surveys were carried out to confirm or deny this. Monitoring of the well-known Appin - Campbelltown koala populations on the north and north-west border of the catchment, along with those in state forest areas to the far south and south west of the Illawarra continued to take place. It was therefore something of a mystery as to why the central Illawarra catchment area was not identified as a koala habitat, and why comprehensive surveys never occurred. Those studies and discoveries in the state forests were usually generated as sections of habitat were cut down, whilst the Appin - Campbelltown studies were generally related to residential development applications and further incursions on habitat. By July of 2016 there were regular stories in national newspapers expressing concern over the possible extinction of this iconic Australian animal. It was therefore the hope of many in the Illawarra community that the koala would one day "return" to the Illawarra - be rediscovered there - and that the catchment area would then be promoted as a viable, sustainable, koala habitat and reserve. Some of this history and discussion regarding rediscovery and its implications are highlighted in the short film In Search of the Illawarra Koala (2013).
Georgina Element and Jodie McGill, In Search of the Illawarra Koala, video, Briar Productions, 2 September 2013. Duration: 7m 32s.
The following is a timeline of events plus record of historic sightings of the koala in the Illawarra region. It begins with the important role the animal played in the life and culture of the local Indigenous population over the millennia, and moves on to the 1803 Mount Kembla discoveries, though briefly noting :
pre 1770 / 1788 (European settlement)
- koalas are intimately known amongst the local Aboriginal population, forming part of their complex culture and attachment to Country, through stories, totemic relationships and as food and clothing.
- April: koala specimens are obtained from the Mount Kembla area west of Wollongong, and for the first time living and deceased specimens are brought into Sydney for study. The deceased animals are dissected and described by scientist Robert Brown. They are also drawn by his colleague, the Austrian artist Ferdinand Bauer. The living specimens are also studied.
- A New South Wales Department of the Environment and Heritage camera recorded the image of a koala, foraging on the ground near Mount Kembla on 22 August 2016:
This is the first official record of a koala in the Illawarra in recent times. This image was made public on Facebook by the Search for the Illawarra Koala group on 6 September. The animal was recorded early in the morning approximately 5.5 kilometres north west of Mount Kembla (refer map below).
It has been suggested that the animal came from the Campbelltown - Appin colony to the north. However, as no previous surveys had been carried out within the Illawarra Catchment area or adjacent Escarpment, it is likely that the animal and its associates had been present in the area for an extended period.
Lisa Johnson, Koala captured on film near Mount Kembla, Illawarra Mercury, 8 September 2016. The Illawarra Mercury report included comments from the Department of Environment and Heritage, and read as follows:
A koala caught on film north-west of Mt Kembla has given hope the native marsupial is moving back towards the Illawarra escarpment after an 80 year absence. It is the first time in decades a koala has been spotted in bushland close to the Illawarra escarpment and was only captured by accident when an infrared camera placed 5.5 kms north-west of Mt Kembla in the hope of spotting the endangered Southern Brown Bandicoot, instead captured footage of the koala at 3.37am on August 22. A NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) spokesperson said koalas were thought to have become extinct to the area in the 1930s when land was cleared for agriculture. OEH has previously identified the area above the escarpment in the Metropolitan Special Area drinking water catchment, as potential habitat for koalas in a habitat modelling study from 2007, as the trees and soils are highly suitable for the animals. The spokesperson said the habitat had now grown back and it appeared koalas were finding it again.
"It's the first koala photographed along the eastern edge of the Woronora Plateau in the vicinity of the Illawarra escarpment for many many decades, so to see a koala and those bright shining eyes is a fantastic sight to see," he said. “They had not been seen in the Wollongong LGA since early last century. However, this project and another OEH project focusing on koalas in Wingecarribee Shire have found koalas at low densities through other parts of the water catchments. Populations in the catchments appear to be expanding from population centres at Campbelltown and Avon. This koala has likely walked the 20-30km from these populations and rediscovered a patch of very good koala habitat above the escarpment at Mt Kembla. The recording of a koala above the escarpment is a positive sign of a potential future population.”
Last updated: 30 November 2022