(TMU) — Hundreds of koala bears are believed to be dead following raging bushfires that have raged for days in the Australian state of New South Wales, “decimating” the prime habitat of an already-threatened species.
The fire, which is believed to have begun following a lightning strike near the coastal township of Port Macquarie on Monday, has laid waste to the region considered a key breeding ground for the small creatures, reports AP.
Animal experts fear that over 350 koalas may have died in the inferno, which continues to burn.
Port Macquarie Koala Hospital president Sue Ashton described the potential loss as a “tragedy.” She said:
“The beauty of this particular population is that it’s so genetically diverse that it’s of national significance.
A lot of the koalas are being mixed and crossbred now … so to lose a large part of that population is very devastating.”
Ashton noted that her hospital’s trained rescuers are unable to begin their search for surviving koalas until Thursday or Friday, but that the threat is incredibly acute given the “terrible” skills of the animals in terms of surviving such a blaze. She added:
“What generally happens in a fire is the koala climbs right up to the top of the tree and curls into a little ball.
So often the flames will just go over the top and singe the outside, but with really intense fires it can burn them alive.”
Even if koalas manage to survive amid the fires, chances are high that as they climb down trees smoldering from the fires, they will scorch their paws and claws—rendering them effectively disabled and unable to climb properly again.
🔥URGENT: Right now, fires are raging through critical koala habitat on Australia's east coast, threatening one of the largest remaining populations.
We've already lost 95% of koalas across Australia, we can't lose the rest. You can help #SaveKoalas here: https://t.co/bmbP7GT5Hc
— WWF_Australia (@WWF_Australia) October 30, 2019
However, she added:
“If the fire goes through quickly and just singes their fur, they are fine and the fur will grow back.”
Over 150 volunteers have enlisted to help the hospital, which is equipped to house up to 40 koalas but is likely to see a major surge of the injured creatures. Ashton explained:
“In a disaster people just switch on and you do what you have to do.
No one can control nature, but there’s sadness because we care so much about the koalas.”
Conservationists and monitoring groups say that the koala population has fallen precipitously due to habitat loss through urbanization, disease, dog attacks, and the devastating effects of global heating. The current number of koalas living in the wild is expected to be as small as only 43,000.
The New South Wales blaze, in particular, has engulfed a major sanctuary that hundreds of genetically diverse koalas called home, according to koala rescuer Cheyne Flanagan.
Noting that rescuers are afraid that “carnage” is the likely outcome, Flanagan added:
“Because it was of such high intensity, I think that the amount of deaths will be very high, unfortunately.”
Earlier this year, environmental groups and conservationists urged officials to declare the koala population in Australia’s east coast “endangered” in the face of creeping habitat loss in the region.
According to WWF Australia, only 5 percent of the original koala population is still surviving and the creatures may be extinct as soon as 2050.
— Al Jazeera English (@AJEnglish) November 3, 2018
From 1990 to 2016, roughly 9.6 million hectares of koala habitat was bulldozed in Queensland and New South Wales, reported the Guardian. Conservationists have blamed weak laws at the local, state, and federal levels which favor developers rather than the threatened and transient creatures who face an existential threat from the increasingly denuded and fractured habitat.
Local activist Michael Petter blasted government policies that hand over land to developers while showing zero regard for the iconic Australian marsupial. He said:
“There is little point to having designated … koala habitat if [the government] can just nibble away at it wherever they want by using ‘essential infrastructure’ designations. That’s what you’d expect from a real estate development company, this is state owned land.”