Illawarra koala encounters 1803-2023

Koalas in the Illawarra | History | Encounters 1803-2023 | Tolkien's Koala

Macquarie Pass, 1 August 2023.

The Illawarra region of New South Wales, Australia, is home to the koala, with the first live specimens brought into Sydney in 1803 coming from Mount Kembla. Despite extensive coastal development in the region since then, the escarpment area which borders it to the west remains the home of koala, despite more than two centuries of ravages due to fire, domestic and introduced feral animals, road kill, disease and habitat destruction. Though rarely seen or heard, the koala remains a little known, though important part of the local environment. This blog is a record of historical and recent sightings. It will hopefully raise awareness of this endangered animal and lead to its ongoing survival in nature.

Koala at Mount Keira, Wollongong, August 2016.

In August 2023 a koala was photographed in the bush at Macquarie Pass, and in June 2023 footage was published on Instagram of a koala scurrying along the side of the road at Mount Kembla, clearly visible in the lights of a car as one of the passenger's filmed it on their smartphone. Prior to that, in August 2016 a koala at nearby Mount Keira was caught on a camera set up by a government department to monitor the movement of native wildlife in the area. This was the first recent, concrete evidence that koala remained in the area. It is not generally known by the people of that region that the koala survives literally in their backyard. 


The Koala in the Illawarra

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.

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.


Chronology of known encounters

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.

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. The earliest known story of the arrival of animals and people in the Illawarra includes a koala. Fossil evidence indicates the koala has been in Australia for millions of years, and archaeology tells us that the Aborigines have been present for more than 130,000 years.


- 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.

Ferdinand Bauer, [Koala from Mount Kembla], watercolour on paper [1811]. Source: British Library. Based on the original pencil sketch of 15 August 1803.

- European settlement begins in earnest within the Illawarra region, and over the following century much of their habitat, both on the coastal plain and within the escarpment area is destroyed or affected by farming and grazing activities. The animals are also shot and hunted for their meat and fur. As a result, their numbers are severely affected.

- Koalas exist in the Royal National Park, north of the Illawarra. They are decimated by bush fires, feral animal attack and shooting for pelts. As a result, it is believed that the colony moved south towards the Illawarra Escarpment catchment area and south west towards Appin and Campbelltown.

- Miss Alma Jackson, of Hewitt's Avenue, Thirroul, keeps a koala as a pet. She sometimes gives it 'eucalyptus drop' to suck on. This is located in the area at the bottom of Bulli Pass, suggesting the animal's presence in the Bulli-Thirroul area, north of Wollongong. The Illawarra Escarpment bush comes down to the main road on the south side of the Pass at this point. Source: Joseph Davis, Thirroul History in Photos, Facebook, 6 August 2020.
Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 28 September 1932.

- A koala is reported at Robertson, in the Macquarie Pass area, with the escarpment south-west of Wollongong.

- A talk at the Thirroul Railway Institute is presented on "The Vanishing Koala".

- A koala is reported near Macquarie Pass, Robertson.

- A koala is sighted in the Keiraville area, in the paddock west of the University of Wollongong grounds, according to the following account by a local resident (provided in June 2020): 
I used to live in Binda Street and I saw a koala one night at the corner of Dallas and Binda Street. It was quite aggressive and had a loud hoarse sounding bark. It was not a possum, nor anything else.  It was probably in the early 2000s. It came from the paddock area behind the University and went back there. I heard the noise at about 2 in the morning and went down the road to see what it was. I had never heard anything like it. I also saw it up on its hind legs and [it] started chasing me like a waddle. Some things you don’t forget.
The mature koala has a distinct grunt and growling noise.
- 9 March: Michael Organ, The Discovery of the Koala: Hat Hill (Mount Kembla), New South Wales 1803, [webpage], 9 March 2006.

- The New South Wales Office of the Environment and Heritage identifies the Illawarra as koala habitat. 
- Ann Moyal and Michael Organ, Koala - A Historical Biography, CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Victoria, 2008, 246p. Includes reference to the discovery of the koala in the Illawarra, the bringing of the first specimens to Sydney, and the initial scientific descriptions and drawings by Robert Brown and Ferdinand Bauer.

- Bush fire brigade members from the Dapto branch report seeing a koala on a bush track west of the Escarpment. No precise location is given. This is referenced in the short film on the koala in the Illawarra by Georgina Element and Jodie McGill (2013).
- Georgina Element and Jodie McGill, In search of the Illawarra Koala (video), Briar Productions, 2013. Duration: 7 mins 22 secs. YouTube - available URL:
- Georgina Element and Jodie McGill, In Search of the Illawarra Koala, Facebook, 2014. Available URL:
- 7 August: Anthony Field, Film reveals koala first found in the Illawarra, Wollongong Advertiser, 7 August 2013. Available URL:


- Anthony Field, Illawarra residents urged to join Koala count, Illawarra Advertiser, 10 November 2014. Notice is given of a koala kill on the Hume Highway 300m south of the Picton Road turnoff. This is on the western edge of the catchment area.

- Koalas are known to be present in the Appin area, adjacent to the Illawarra Escarpment catchment and to the general north west of the City of Wollongong.  Many are killed on the Appin Road each year.


- A New South Wales Department of the Environment and Heritage camera recorded 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).

 Location of koala sighting, 22 August 2016.

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. 
Nick McLaren and Justin Huntsdale, Koala spotted in Illawarra coast for the first time in decades reverses trend towards extinction, ABC Illawarra (radio), 8 September 2016:

Koala spotted on Illawarra coast for first time in decades reverses trend towards extinction
Koalas appear to have returned to a coastal strip near Wollongong in the Illawarra, in a rare reversal of the usual trend towards extinction. An infrared camera placed about 5 kilometres from Mt Kembla, west of Wollongong, caught footage of the marsupial in late August. Koalas are thought to have become extinct to the area in the 1930s when land was cleared for agricultural purposes. James Dawson, from the Office of Environment and Heritage, said the habitat had now grown back and it appeared koalas were finding it again. "It's the first image we have got of a koala in the eastern edge of the catchment in the vicinity of the Illawarra escarpment for many, many decades," he said. "To see a koala and those bright, shining eyes is a fantastic sight to see." 

First ever koala specimen came from Illawarra
The koala sighting marks a complete circle for the region, because the first whole specimen of a koala to be collected in Australia came from the same area on Mt Kembla in the early 1800s. However, closer to the ocean, the habitat has become unsuitable for koalas, meaning they are unlikely to spread further east. "Below the escarpment on the coastal plane was also very good habitat once upon a time," Mr Dawson said. "Almost all of the habitat is now gone, so I don't think we expect to see populations of koalas in these areas on the coastal plane. "But in these areas above the escarpment, it does appear koalas are making their way back into this area." The surprising discovery was first made public via a post on a local documentary filmmaker's Facebook page. The In Search of the Illawarra Koala group wrote:"It is with absolute excitement and joyous tears that we have the honour of announcing that only a few weeks ago, a Kembla koala was sighted alive and well on a camera trap survey. Thank you to NSW Office of Environment and Heritage for sharing your photo with us, so we can share it with the world." A wide range of comments expressed disbelief and joy at the finding, tempered with concerns for the animal's safety.

The crisis facing koala
They are now rarely seen in the south-east corner of New South Wales. There have also been reports of a catastrophic population crash in koala numbers in south-east Queensland earlier this year. According to Michael Organ, the European and scientific discovery of the koala took place between June and September, 1803. The first animals were brought to Sydney during August, 1803 and were immediately documented for scientific purposes. The drawings, descriptions and portions of the deceased animals were then dispatched to England. Koalas remain in small groups west of the Illawarra escarpment, where the New South Wales Government has funded the Southern Highlands Koala Conservation Project in response to dwindling numbers. And on the state's far south coast, conservationists celebrated in August this year when a healthy adult koala was located and photographed by a wildlife contractor at Mumbulla Mountain north of Bega. The area was previously used for logging, but earlier this year became incorporated into a new flora reserve. It was also a rare sighting in a location where many thought koalas had gone forever.


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.”

A Facebook post by In Search of the Illawarra Koala, a group dedicated to the protection of the koala, has heralded the footage as “brilliant news.” “It is with absolute excitement and joyous tears that we have the honour of announcing that only a few weeks ago a Kembla koala was sighted alive and well on a camera trap survey,” the post proclaims. “Please like, comment and share this amazing news for #koalaprotectionact.”

- 8 September: Koala captured near Mt Kembla, 96.5 Wave FM (radio), 8 September 2016.
- During 2016 a group of interested locals subsequently went on a 'koala sighting' expedition in the Escarpment west of Wollongong at Mount Kembla, however no specimens were seen by the group on this occasion.
- May: New South Wales Koala Strategy, New South Wales Department of Environment and Heritage, Sydney, May 2018. Available URL:


- January: A resident of Cochrane Road, Thirroul, hears the distinctive growl of a koala one evening in January, around 9.45pm, coming from the lower Escarpment area west of the railway line and in the vicinity of the old Excelsior colliery. This resident is familiar with the distinct sound of the koala as she encountered it on numerous occasions whilst living next to the koala sanctuary at Pottsville on the New South Wales north coast.

- 24 May: A koala is sighted at Georgina Avenue, Keiraville, on Sunday, 24 May. The person who saw the animal reported the following: "I was returning home last night at around 8.30pm when a koala walked out of my driveway situated in Georgina Avenue Keiraville. The koala stared into the car lights then calmly walked across the road and disappeared into a neighbour's yard." This sighting is subsequently reported to Wollongong City Council and the relevant New South Wales government department. It is suggested that the bushfires of late 2019 may had been responsible for bringing koalas closer in to the lower Illawarra Escarpment area, though the c.2004 reference and 2016 sighting would indicate that they have been in the area for a lengthy period.

- July: Koala scratchings are found on a tree near the western entrance of the University of Wollongong. This points to the animal's excursions into the lower Escarpment area.
- 13 July: Recommendations for increased protection for koalas and resilient habitat in the Sutherland Shire to Helensburgh, Report, Sutherland Shire Environment Centre, National Parks Association Southern Sydney, Oatley Flora and Fauna Conservation Society, Georges River Environmental Alliance, Sandy Point Resident’s Association and Friends of the Royal National Park, 13 July 2020, 9p. The report includes a map from NSW BioNet of sightings around the Sutherland Shire and northern Illawarra area south to Helensburgh, up to 13 July 2020.

- 13 August: Ben Langford, Recent sightings show Wollongong is 'home of the koala', says local historian, Illawarra Mercury, 13 August 2020.


- March: David Robson, A Koala in the Royal, 2515 Coast News, March 2021, p.24. Article by the secretary of the Friends of the Royal group.


- November: Formation of the Sydney Basin Koala Network (SBKN).
- 17 November: New South Wales Koala Strategy Implementation Report 2021-22, Department of Planning and Environment, 23p. 


- June: A video is posted on Instagram of a koala walking by the side of the road at Mount Kembla late at night, by a worker at the local restaurant. 

- 1 August: A koala is encountered in the bush at Macquarie Pass (illustrated above).


Koalas in the Illawarra | History | Encounters 1803-2023 | Tolkien's Koala |

Last updated: 25 August 2023
Michael Organ, Australia