The beginning of 2020 saw one of the most catastrophic Australian bushfire seasons in recent history, the devastation of which destroyed more than 10 million hectares of land.
As the fires subsided, rescue teams got to work locating surviving koalas. Some teams used specially trained dogs to help sniff out the marsupials, which are extremely good at camouflaging.
Prior to the fires, the region of Eastern Australia had a population of around 35,000 koalas at most and was under threat from habitat destruction, domestic dog attacks and road accidents.
‘The estimates that we have suggest that anywhere between 6,000-8,000 of those koalas are now dead because of the bushfires,’ Paul De Ornellas, chief wildlife advisor at WWF says.
‘For a population that is already under the threat of extinction, that is a really worrying development. The actions we need to take are absolutely critical if we are doing to stop this population going extinct’ he adds.
Aside from the immediate danger the fires posed to the koalas themselves, the destruction of land had catastrophic effects on the koala habitat; the eucalypt forest.
In the state of New South Wales, five million hectares of eucalyptus forests were destroyed, posing a great risk for the marsupials which are wholly dependent on the leaves of eucalyptus.
‘One of the things that we saw with the bushfires if that even in koalas that are left behind, their habitat is hugely damaged. The tree cover where they like to spend their time isn’t there, so they’re forced onto the ground where they become vulnerable to being run over as they cross roads, and also attacks by dogs,’ Paul explains.
Ornellas says a top priority is protecting and preserving what habitat is left.
‘We are looking at what we can do to restore trees and habitat that was lost and putting in place protection systems should similar events happen again.
‘We are making sure that there are many care facilities, that wildlife hospitals have the best equipment that they can and that professionals are trained and ready to be able to respond to a similar event. As we know, with the predicted impact of climate change, these sorts of events are going to be even more frequent,’ he says.
One koala who has since been released back into the wild after being nursed back to health is Maryanne, who was found alone at just 12 months old in December 2019. At the time of discovery, Maryanne was underweight, dehydrated and suffering from burnt paws.
‘It’s a miracle we found her at all. If she’d been out there much longer she wouldn’t have made it,’ Claire Phillips, a vet with the RSPCA, says.
Maryanne was given treatment at an RSPCA Wildlife Hospital before being fostered by koala carers, Peter Luker and Trudi Timbs.
Peter says she was standoffish at first but soon warmed up: ‘Then she became quite affectionate. You could pick her up and quite freely check her paws and put the salve on every day.’
After six months in care, Maryanne’s wounds healed, a missing claw grew back, and her weight more than doubled, going from 1.5 kg to a much healthier 3.5 kg.
In June 2020, she was released back to the wild at a spot near where she was first found.
‘Everyone thinks you get sad when you release a koala. Actually, you don’t. This is the reward for what we do. For a carer, this is the pinnacle,’ Peter says.
The bushfires triggered a global response from wildlife organisations, as they rallied to minimise the damage and save as many species and habitats as possible. A year on, WWF’s efforts in the country to restore koala habitats are ongoing, partnering with a number of organisations and brands, such as Cushelle. The toilet paper brand has donated £150,000 to support WWF’s mission and removed its trademark ‘Kenny the Koala’ imagery from its packaging in a bid to increase awareness among consumers.
In March 2020, the World Weather Attribution consortium published findings that global warming boosted the risk of bushfires by at least 30%.
‘Bushfires are a very common, natural feature of the Australian eco-system and environment, just not remotely on the scale that we saw last year,’ Paul says.
‘We attribute that to increased temperatures in prolonged periods of drought. This meant things were so much more tinderbox and much more ready to burn more intensely and for longer. Climate change is likely to be underpinning this. As we look forward unless we take radical action around our carbon emissions, we’re going to see that these sorts of events, unfortunately, are the norm,’ he adds.
At a summit attended by global leaders in Paris in January, UN Secretary-General António Guterres declared that the world was in a biodiversity crisis and that humans are destroying the planet.
As per New Scientist, data from the International Union for Conservation of Nature shows the previous, natural rate of extinction has been 0.1 to 2 extinctions per million species per year. The updated figures are shocking, to say the least, with a rate of 34 extinctions per million species per year now.
‘We’re in a climate crisis, and we’re in a biodiversity crisis and we need to take action urgently to address both of those,’ Paul says.
As the plight of the koala bears demonstrates, both the climate and biodiversity crisis are linked.
‘Koalas play a vital role in keeping the forests they live in healthy, so losing them would also be catastrophic for other animals and plants. Thanks to all the leaves they eat high in the trees, koalas help light to get through to the forest floor, allowing more plants to thrive,’ he explains.
‘They also play a vital role in the turnover of nutrients contained in those leaves, sort of fertilising the soil and so on. Even their droppings provide food for insects and small mammals.
‘More intact healthy ecosystems with species like koalas are more resilient and also act as a store for carbon in many senses and help to mitigate some of the impacts of climate,’ he says.
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