HOW MUCH CAN KOALAS BEAR?
AUSTRALIA IS STILL COUNTING THE COST OF AN EXTREME BUSHFIRE SEASON, BUT THE FIGHT FOR THE FUTURE OF THIS NATIONAL TREASURE IS JUST GETTING STARTED
Our nation is picking up the pieces after one of its worst natural disasters in modern history. The bushfire crisis began in spring and burned more than 10 million hectares of land across six states, an area larger than South Korea or Portugal.
28 people died, including a number of volunteer firefighters, and ecologists from the University of Sydney estimate more than 1 billion animals have perished.
The national population of koalas suffered enormously. It’s likely one-third of New South Wales koalas, or more than 8000, died as a result of the fires.
For wildlife rescuers and veterinarians, it was the heartbreaking wake-up call needed to spotlight the plight of the Aussie icon.
Singed fur and scorched paws have become symbolic of a species pushed to the brink. Already facing rampant chlamydia infection rates, dog attacks, habitat destruction and road trauma, drought and bushfires are the result of an ever-changing environment that is becoming less and less forgiving to unique groups of animals like koalas.
While bushfires are a typical event in Australian summers, our country experienced its hottest and driest year on record last year, resulting in an extremely long bushfire season.
Koalas have been disproportionately impacted by bushfires because, unlike kangaroos, birds or snakes, they do not flee from fires. They scale the canopies of trees and wait for the danger to pass. Sometimes they will overheat and fall to the blazes below, or will survive the fire front but scold their paws and bellies on the crawl down.
Koalas are also territorial and will always try to return to their home patch where they believe their food source remains. This makes it particularly difficult to release koalas back into the wild as fires have ravaged the especially flammable eucalyptus trees, their only food source.
Lismore koala rescue centre Friends of the Koala has euthanised three-quarters of the koalas that presented to the centre since the bushfire season began.
“We took in about 20 (koalas) as a result of fires, some going back to September,” Dr Roslyn Irwin says.
“What’s happened with them is we have released five. All the rest were euthanised. They were too compromised because they were too injured to rehabilitate.
“Normally in a year we would take in 400 (koalas), about half the koalas in New South Wales that need help, in a year.
“That’s the way it’s been for quite a while. The fires plus the drought, they’ve really pushed (Friends of the Koalas) to where we’ve never been before.”
Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary is home to one of the world’s busiest wildlife hospitals. Currumbin Wildlife Hospital director Whitney Luzzo-Kelly says the facility treated more than 12,000 native animals last year, including hundreds of koalas.
“In 2008 we saw 27 koalas. In 2019 we saw nearly 600,” she says.
“Drought’s been affecting wildlife for about 12 months and animals are really starting to fall victim.
“We’re seeing more dehydrated, malnourished challenges than we’ve never seen before. This is the combination of the unperfect storm, the combination of wildfire and drought.”
A catastrophe of this scale has seen generosity and compassion come from all corners of the globe. Since the bushfire crisis unfolded, celebrities have been eager to visit Currumbin Wildlife Hospital and direct their fans to fundraising initiatives for the sanctuary.
Rap queen Iggy Azalea, Aussie actor Lincoln Lewis and Gold Coast singer and model Alli Simpson are among the stars to see up close how animals have suffered during and after the catastrophe.
“Before I went in and visited the hospital, I didn’t realise the severity of what these animals go through and how many animals are brought in a day and are being treated,”
says Alli, who has been regularly sharing shocking photos of the bushfires to her 2 million Instagram followers.
“I definitely had some tears in my eyes. There was a mumma koala and baby koala both being treated and sick, laying on the bed with breathing tubes. It was almost like a human hospital.
“It was eye opening and very emotional. It makes me want to help as much as I possibly can.
“The most memorable thing about my visit was seeing all the volunteers — it was filled with people running around with animals in their hands, patching up their burns.
“Funding is what’s going to keep it alive so they can keep getting the equipment. Right now, it’s not big enough for all the animals they’re getting through.
“It was passion for me to push it out to the world because I have so many followers from all around the world.”
TV presenter and Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary media officer Candice Dixon says the impact of visits from high-profile personalities has been extraordinary.
“We started a fundraiser for (animal) bushfire victims and our goal was to reach $50,000,” Candice says.
“We even thought that was ambitious. It’s now up to more than $300,000.”
The bushfire crisis has also made celebrities out of deserving heroes, with one volunteer in particular garnering global attention for his work in locating live koalas.
Not that the good Samaritan will ever