One morning in February, after the worst of Australia's devastating bushfires had smoldered out, Kailas Wild headed out into the charred blue gum plantations of Kangaroo Island, off the country's southern coast.
A tree surgeon who had come to the island to help rescue koalas in the aftermath of the blaze, Wild was worried to see how much of the foliage that they depend on for food was burned. Then, something else caught his eye: a gaunt baby koala curled up in the blackened leaves, her coat visibly scorched.
"She was the first injured, orphaned joey I found — the most overwhelming and upsetting sight, I just felt so bad for her," Wild recalls.
Wild scaled the tree, caught the little joey, and drove her an hour to Kangaroo Island's animal hospital.
"The whole time I thought, I'm just doing this to save you from worse suffering," he says. Wild wept as he handed the tiny creature to the vets, convinced she would have to be euthanized.
Instead, they announced she stood a good chance of survival. Wild named her after himself — Joey Kai — and began to feed her each day.
"I just couldn't help it, there was something special about her. I have never felt attached to anything as I did to her," Wild explains.
Already listed as vulnerable to extinction, thousands of koalas were killed in last summer's bushfires, whose severity has been linked to climate change. For Wild, the plight of one marsupial baby has become emblematic of her entire species.
It all comes down to habitat loss
Wild first fell in love with koalas as a volunteer at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, Queensland. They were brought in suffering from chlamydia, hit by cars or attacked by dogs.
"It all stems from the loss of habitat," Wild says.
Koalas would have little need to leave the treetops if their habitat were left intact. But as forests are destroyed by fire, or felled to make way for farming, mining and urban development, they are forced to the ground where they are vulnerable to dogs and traffic.
Habitat loss also makes them more vulnerable to chlamydia, a highly infectious disease that healthy koala populations can weather, but which can be catastrophic for those already under stress.
Seeing the suffering of these animals firsthand at the wildlife hospital "was an eye-opening moment," Wild says. "I saw the impacts of climate change on koala populations and realized that there's no point in trying to rehabilitate koalas if we don't preserve their natural habitat."
Rescue mission to Kangaroo Island
Wild was in Sydney when the fires hit and was volunteering with emergency services to fight them. Then one day in late January, he got a message from a wildlife carer on Kangaroo Island.
"They were looking at a koala that needed help, but they couldn't reach it," Wild says.
After a 20-hour drive and a ferry ride across the Backstairs Passage strait, Wild arrived at the forested island, two-thirds of which had gone up in flames.
Over the next seven weeks, he rescued 107 koalas from charred, swaying trees. But knowing the numbers of those he rescued was tiny compared to those killed in the fires, or starving in the denuded forest, was overwhelming. "I cried every day for weeks," he says.
Protecting koalas' last forests
Now, back in New South Wales, Wild is campaigning to protect what last summers' blazes spared. The fires covered over 5 million hectares (12 million acres) of land in the state and wiped out 71% of its koala populations. Yet the publicly owned New South Wales Forestry Corporation continues to cut down the animals' remaining habitat.
On a recent visit to the Lower Bucca State Forest with the state's Nature Conservation Council to document the loss of Koala habitat, Wild says he could hear trees crashing to the ground and saw signs of koala claws on felled branches.
"This is some of the last unburned, intact, quality habitat that remains on the north coast of the state. I don't understand how they can justify this," he says.
In June, a parliamentary inquiry found that without "urgent government intervention," koalas will be extinct in New South Wales by 2050. State Environment Minister Matt Kean responded by telling Australian media that he wanted instead to double koala numbers by that date. Yet, Wild said, Kean is "part of the same government that is still logging these unburned forests."
This contradiction points to a fierce tension in Australian politics.
One the one hand, the future of one of the country's most iconic species demands urgent conservation measures. On the other, the financial fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has prompted authorities in New South Wales to fast-track commercial projects in a bid to boost the economy.
One such project is the expansion of a German-owned rock quarry at Brandy Hill, which the state environment minister approved in late October. It is set to destroy 52 hectares of pristine native forest that experts say are home to a breeding population of koalas.
"If we continue to clear 50 hectares here and 50 hectares there, we fragment the habitat of koalas," says Ryan Witt, a conservation scientist at the University of Newcastle in New South Wales, explaining that the animals need space to roam.
In recent months, the state's governing coalition has come close to splitting over environmental regulations to increase the range of protected koala habitat, as well as an amendment to allow property owners to clear 25 meters of forest on either side of boundary fences as a firebreak.
According to analysis by conservation organization WWF Australia, the latter could — if all landowners were to act on the amendment — put 12,000 hectares of koala habitat at risk.
A symbol of hope
Wild is working to get the public firmly on the koalas' side in this fraught political debate.
"The only hope is to make people care," he says. His social media campaigns and his book, "The 99th Koala," which chronicles his experiences on Kangaroo Island, are an attempt to do just that. And Joey Kai plays a starring role.
Because for this one orphan, whose fate looked so bleak when Wild found her cowering in the scorched forest, there is a happy ending: Joey Kai was released on Kangaroo Island in early September. "I felt this real exhilaration, my heart was racing, I was very happy," he says. "She represents hope."