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Hundreds of koalas feared dead in Aussie bushfire

October 30, 2019

An out-of-control bushfire is threatening a prime koala breeding ground. Already rare in numbers, the Australian marsupial has long battled the threats of urbanization and land clearance.

Australien Koalas
Image: Imago Images/Anka Agency International

More than 350 koalas are believed to have been burned alive in an out-of-control bushfire that has ravaged Australia's southeast coast, which has been plagued by drought.

The fire is thought to have been sparked by a lightning strike on Saturday near Port Macquarie, some 400 kilometers (248 miles) north of Sydney, igniting a fire that has scorched over 2,000 hectares (4,942 acres) of prime koala habitat the last three days.

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on Wednesday said rescuers in northern New South Wales state are concerned that hundreds of the "very rare" native Australian marsupial lost their lives in the fire zone, which was a prime koala habitat. 

The koala organization said up to 60% koalas in the area may have been killed in the last three days as a result of the fire.

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Unique koala habitat 

"The special importance of those koalas is that they are very genetically diverse," Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, told AFP. 

"It's a national tragedy because this koala population is so unique," Ashton said, adding that the area of Lake Innes, south of Port Macquarie, was a very healthy breeding ground idyllic for the koala.

Ashton explained how human interference in the koala territories has resulted in decreased connectivity between populations, and increased inbreeding that has reduced genetic diversity in the eucalyptus leaf-eating herbivore. 

Rescuers have deployed air tankers in an attempt to control the blaze, and firefighters and wildlife volunteers are working together to see how they can begin a rescue operation for surviving koalas. 

"What happens to a koala in a fire is that they climb up to the top of the tree and they curl up into a little ball. If the fire goes through quickly and just singes their fur, they are fine; the fur will grow back," Ashton explained. If the fire continues to burn up the tree "they'll perish."

The New South Wales Rural Fire Service (RFS) said that while conditions were easing, the blaze continued to spread because of a number of spot fires started by embers. 

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Webvideo: Bowie, the koala

Endangered species 

The World Wide for Nature Australia said in a 2018 report there were less than 20,000 koalas left in New South Wales and that the animal could face extinction in the state by 2050 largely because of excessive land clearance for the agricultural industry.

The Australia Koala Foundation estimates there are some 43,000 to 100,000 koalas remaining in the wild across Australia and warned that their classification should be raised to"critically endangered."

mvb/stb (AFP, dpa)

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