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Australia's koala care in the age of bushfires

Georgina Kenyon
November 4, 2019

The koala is on the verge of "functional" extinction. To make matters worse, logging, wildfires and drought are becoming more frequent across Australia. A koala hospital is working to find ways to help them survive.

Sleeping koala
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. de Groot

Watching animals suffer after a wildfire is one of the hardest parts of Cheyne Flanagan's job at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on Australia's southeast coast.

"It's such a sad sound, hearing the cry of a burned koala," Flanagan, the clinical director at the hospital, told DW, adding that "the radiant heat after a blaze can actually be the most damaging to the unique species."

"The poor animal gets virtually cooked, like being in a microwave, melting its fur," Flanagan says.

And those that do come out of the flames alive, still have to endure suffering throughout the recovery process.

"Burns are really very painful," Flanagan said. 

According to a report from the Climate Council, a Melbourne-based NGO focused on climate research, recent years have seen bushfire season start much earlier, and "burn in areas that would not be expected to burn."

In September this year, the eastern states of New South Wales (NSW) and Queensland experienced the worst fires in recorded history. Last week as many as 350 rare koalas are feared to have died in a blaze that raged in an area not far from the hospital, some 400 kilometers (248 miles) north of Sydney.

A firefighter stands in front of a raging blaze
Parts of Australia have been plagued with bushfires this summerImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AAP/J. O'brien
The skyline of Sydney cloaked in smoke from a bushfire
Last week's bushfire 400 kilometers from Sydney was evident in the city itselfImage: AFP/P.Parks

'Deforestation hotspot'

Experts point to deforestation in the name of large-scale farming as one reason for Australia's recent bushfires. As the trees are felled, they release carbon into the atmosphere, fueling the warming that in turn heightens the risk of a blaze.

"Severe heat from climate change causes more and worse fires," said Stuart Blanch, Australian Forest & Woodland Conservation Policy Manager at WWF in Sydney.

Read more: Amazon versus Africa forest fires: Is the world really ablaze?

He believes the koala will be "functionally extinct" in the next 50 years. That means there would no longer be enough healthy and genetically diverse populations of the species living in the wild. Not only due to fire but habitat loss more generally.

WWF says some 395,000 hectares (980,000 acres) of native vegetation were cleared in the northeastern state of Queensland in 2015 and 2016, killing an estimated 45 million animals including koalas, birds and reptiles.

"Australia is the only nation in the developed world to make the WWF's global list of deforestation hotspots," Blanch told DW.

Dense green forest
Australia is also home to rainforestsImage: imago/UIG

He said while Queensland continued to clear forests "at an alarming rate," the government of NSW relaxed its laws around felling in August this year.

Read more: After the drought is before the drought

"Over the past two years, 3,000 hectares have been bulldozed in the last remaining habitat for koalas in NSW," the conservationist continued.

A quiet cure for koalas caught in fire

Although they cannot single-handedly save the species suffering from injury or burns, in 2013, Flanagan and her team stumbled upon a method that seems to successfully treat koala burns if the animals are rescued in time. 

"It was a chance discovery after a fire that taught me that nutrition and quiet are critical in the healing process after a fire," says Flanagan.

She and a group of volunteers had taken eight koalas with relatively minor burns to the Port Macquarie hospital.

"They were freaking out because they were so scared," Flanagan told DW.

Read more: Foresters fighting to save Germany's threatened woodlands

Three koalas on a branch
While experts can rehabilitate koalas, they say the preservation of habitat is crucial to the koalas survival as a speciesImage: Imago Images/Anka Agency International
A sign for the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie
Injured marsupials are often brought to Port Macquarie hospitalImage: Georgina Kenyon

She put the koalas in enclosures with plenty of leaves to eat, water, shade and quiet. Although koala means "no drink" in some Aboriginal languages, they do drink when they are sick, or after a fire.

"What was so astounding is that without medication, and just really good quality food and calm surroundings, they started to heal themselves."

Read more: Opinion: Action, not outcry will save the Amazon

Within weeks, the koalas' burned nail beds and paws, which are vitally important for climbing and living in trees, began to heal. They also seemed to have few secondary infections from their wounds.

Flanagan now trains volunteers from around the world about koala care. Interest and support from countries such as Germany, the US and Switzerland is vital as it can lead to donations that are critical to helping the wild animals.

But the biggest help of all, Flanagan says, would be to protect the habitat of this iconic Australian species.

"Forests are so crucial. We need to stop cutting down trees."

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