Australia’s devastating bush fires have taken a toll on numerous wild animals but few creatures have suffered more than the country’s iconic koalas.
Across Australia as many as 30,000 koalas died in the fires last summer. In New South Wales alone at least 5,000 koalas perished in fires that destroyed around a quarter of koala habitats on local public lands, according to a report published in June by conservationists and local legislators.
In all, nearly 45 million acres of bush burned down in the fires across Australia with more than 12 million acres of land in New South Wales, where a third of the local koala population perished in the fires.
The devastating impacts of the raging fires, which have left apocalyptic scenes in some previously biodiverse areas, have raised the prospect that koalas could face extinction. In New South Wales they could be gone from the wild in just two decades, experts warn.
On Kangaroo Island koalas fared even worse with as many as 80% of them dying in the inferno. But koalas suffered in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia as well.
“Koalas are particularly vulnerable to bushfires as they are slow moving and live in eucalyptus trees that burn quickly and intensely,” explains Josey Sharrad, a wildlife campaigner for International Fund for Animal Welfare. “When fires sweep through their homes, they often don’t have time to escape, particularly in intense crown fires that rage through the treetops where they live.”
Teams of scientists and scientists are working on measures to improve the animals’ chances of survival in future fires. One team led by researchers at the University of Adelaide is studying clinical data on the injuries that koalas suffered in the bushfires to ensure they can receive better treatment faster in future.
“Many of these bushfires occurred in koala habitat, and because koalas are eucalypt specialists and rely upon eucalypt trees for food, water and shelter, they are particularly vulnerable,” explains Natasha Speight, a koala health specialist at the University of Adelaide’s School of Animal and Veterinary Sciences who leads the project.
“They were burnt or left dehydrated and hungry in the days following the fires, and their rescue and care largely relied on the tireless dedication of experienced koala rescue volunteers, and willingness of wildlife parks, wildlife hospitals, zoos and private veterinary clinics to receive hundreds of patients for treatment and care,” Speight adds.
“They did an amazing job,” the expert notes. “Unfortunately we know it is very likely that there will be more fires in the future, and next time we want to help make sure these wonderful people have the best healthcare guidance at their fingertips.”
Although sadly bushfires are here to stay, animal experts like Speight think that more affected koalas could be saved if they receive efficient care faster in the case of future fires.
“[We will] identify risk factors and treatment outcomes for koalas related to burns, smoke inhalation, dehydration, and disease,” Speight says. “This new information will be essential for caring for koalas impacted by future bushfires.”
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