'Very sad' reason locals don't want defunct signs removed from streets

Koalas were a familiar site across the suburb until the 1980s and several crossing signs remain like 'ghosts' of what they once had.

Left - one of the koala street signs in the Pittwater. Right - close up of the sign which reads Caution Koalas Cross In This Area.
Locals do not want koala crossing signs removed from the Pittwater despite the animals now being locally extinct. Source: Sonja Elwood

Driving through one Aussie suburb you’ll notice four street signs that are no longer relevant. But locals warn they shouldn't be ignored. And they don’t want them removed. The ageing signs around the northern Sydney Pittwater region warn motorists to drive with caution because “koalas cross in this area”.

But koalas are now regionally extinct and act as a warning to the rest of the state who take the marsupial’s presence for granted. Local koala advocate John Illingsworth describes the signs as being “like ghosts of what was once here”.

Born in idyllic Newport, south of Palm Beach where the television drama series Home and Away was filmed, Illingsworth has memories of koalas around his neighbourhood that go back to the 1950s.

“There were always koalas around when I was young. I do recall them occasionally walking up the street,” he said.

Related: Tourist town 'in shock' after koala habitat bulldozed by developer

John Illingsworth, a man in his 70s, sitting in his lounge room in Sydney.
John Illingsworth remembers seeing koalas around the Pittwater area up until the 1980s. Source: Supplied

Illingsworth remembers one being attacked by a dog in the mid-1960s, and he fought the animal off on that occasion. But the koala’s clumsy attempt to defend itself made him realise they didn’t have a hope against increased urbanisation. “Today there are dogs damn-well everywhere,” he said.

The last time he heard a koala bellow he was in Clareville and that was back in 1982. Although records suggest they weren’t wiped out from the area until seven years later.

The Pittwater signs are almost like a ruin of an extinct species.Saul Deane, Total Environment Centre

While dogs played a role in picking off the last of the Pittwater’s koalas, Illingsworth believes there were two key factors that predated their regional extinction. “I just think it’s human ignorance and wickedness really. We created habitat loss and brought in motor cars,” he said.

“We won’t slow down, we won’t drive our cars less. We will cut down gum trees because they drop limbs and replace them with something more benign. And if you throw in chlamydia, all those things were the perfect storm.”

He believes Aussies “understand” what the lessons are from the loss of the Pittwater’s koalas. But they haven’t had any effect.

“There’s just logging everywhere,” he said. “And with development, Australia is the land of the vested interest and the vested interest wins all the time.”

Trees removed along the edge of Appin Road in south-west Sydney.
Developer LendLease has removed large habitat trees that once lined Appin Road in Sydney's south-west. Source: Barry Durman

Saul Deane, a koala habitat protection specialist at non-profit Total Environment Centre is warning the Pittwater case could soon be repeated in south-west Sydney.

It's there that the Albanese and Minns Governments have backed the continued replacement of koala habitat with new multi-million dollar housing projects by massive development corporations including Walker Corporation and LendLease.

“In the Pittwater there were certainly a few big developments. Slowly what happened was that habitat corridors the koalas needed were all cut off,” Deane said.

“Then it just became a slow road to extinction. They put together a koala management plan but by then it was too late. And the last of the koalas were mopped up by dogs and car strikes.”

A sign nailed to a tree in Gunnedah warning koalas cross.
Gunnedah once called itself the Koala Capital of the World. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

The Pittwater is just one of many regions in NSW where koalas have become regionally extinct. Gunnedah once claimed to be the "koala capital" but now you'd be lucky to see one anywhere.

Deane describes it as “really sad” that the history of regional koala extinction may now playing out again in the south-west, despite a NSW Parliamentary Inquiry concluding that koalas will likely be wiped out across the entire state in just 26 years.

“Other priorities are put ahead of the survival of our iconic and endangered animals,” he said. “We will see the same outcome play out slowly all over again unless the state government steps in.”

Love Australia's weird and wonderful environment? Get our new newsletter showcasing the week’s best stories.