Kangaroo Island, AUSTRALIA – During the Southern Hemisphere’s 2019-20 summer, the world watched as eastern and southern Australia battled some of the country’s worst bushfires in generations.
Most of the fighting took place on land, but among the worst-affected areas was Kangaroo Island, home to a small community off the country’s southern coast, where hell burned more than half of its 440,000 hectares.
Kangaroo Island is famous for its native wildlife, including sea lions, koalas and, of course, kangaroos. But it is estimated that up to 90% of the island’s koala population, which previously numbered 50,000, died as fire swept through eucalyptus plantations.
The koalas at the Hanson Bay Wildlife Refuge have fared better. More than a year later, Jim Geddes displayed a gray-brown hairy ball pinned to a eucalyptus tree branch in the car park of the wildlife sanctuary, which sits on the western tip of the most badly damaged island.
“Did you meet my Parking Inspector?” Geddes, co-owner and founder of the wildlife sanctuary, said with a laugh.
With one talon burned, the massive male is among the handful of wild koalas who have survived the bushfires.
Geddes said about 99% of the more than 2,000 hectares of wildlife sanctuary was affected by the fires, which started as lightning strikes in Flinders Chase National Park, just four kilometers from the highway.
Firefighters said the weather conditions were very strong winds, a continuous day where temperatures rose above 40 degrees Celsius and low humidity kept the fire out of control.
“Driving back through the burning ground, right after the fire broke out, there were no buildings, or cars, or living things there,” said Andy Wood, the Fire Service brigade captain and one of the commanders during the fire. “I’ve never seen such devastation before.”
Regardless of the conditions, Geddes estimates that only 30% of the koalas on his property have been killed. However, the loss of bush habitat means survivors will struggle for food and shelter, while the orphaned joey will need additional human support.
As a result, Geddes and his team decided to move 28 younger animals, whose chances in the wild were uncertain, to a wildlife park on mainland Australia.
“It is a bitter moment for us because they will be taken prisoner. But it’s also very important and very historic because we don’t know what the long-term impact of fires will have on the local koala population, “he said.
The relocation of koalas to Cleland Wildlife Park on the outskirts of Adelaide, South Australia, is also historic for mainland koalas in Australia, whose populations are heavily affected by infectious and genetic diseases.
“Kangaroo Island is very important because it has animals that do not have two types of disease: chlamydia and retroviruses,” explained Chris Daniels, former director of Cleland Wildlife Park and CEO of Koala Life, a non-profit organization dedicated to koala conservation and research.
Daniels said the fires on Kangaroo Island meant “it looks like the most important koala population in the country – and therefore the world” – could have been wiped out, so they made the swift decision to relocate the group that would serve as “koala ark” for the mainland population.
Kangaroo Island’s koala disease-free status thanks to the animals being geographically isolated from their mainland counterparts for generations. However, this same isolation results in a lack of genetic diversity. It has caused a disease called oxalate nephrosis, which causes kidney collapse, to become widespread among the population.
As an intervention, Daniels and the Koala Life team plan to breed the chlamydia-free Kangaroo Island koalas with a more genetically diverse group of males from neighboring Victoria to create a generation of “super koalas”.
“We will end up with a koala that is not only free of infectious disease but also free of oxalate nephrosis … in that case, you have the healthiest, strongest and toughest koalas you can possibly have,” said Daniels.
Across mainland Australia, koala populations are under increasing pressure, not only from disease and natural disasters, but also from human intervention through building roads and housing in highly territorial areas of animal habitat.
In Australia’s most populous state of New South Wales, some experts predict wild koalas will become extinct by 2050 unless more is done to protect the iconic mammal.
Despite minor differences between the two Australian varieties – the Northern and Southern koalas – Daniels believes there is “absolutely no reason” why disease-free southern koalas from South Australia could not be reintroduced further north.
“They will do very well there. Even though there is a size difference between North and South, the genetic difference is very small, “he said.
The relocation and resettlement of koalas on Kangaroo Island was an “effective military operation,” with army personnel assisting park staff with routine koala feeding and health checks.
In addition to monitoring any injuries sustained in a fire, the handler must help the animal adapt to the new diet of the different varieties of eucalyptus leaves.
“Even if it’s the same species (eucalyptus)… koalas can get stomachaches. And if they have a stomachache, they lose their condition very quickly, and they can become dehydrated and die, ”said Daniels.
“Really, only soldiers can do it,” he said, “because in the same way the koalas quickly get used to it all the time.
“The stress of killing koalas,” Daniels explained, adding that by establishing routines early the relocation was successful.
Although five koalas died during the relocation, the other two were later found carrying a small joey the size of a jelly bean in their pouch.
“It hurts when you think of (the fact that) fires are burning around these mothers, and they are giving birth at the same time in these trees,” said Daniels, describing witnessing the survival of two joey, Breezy and Phoenix, as a “sensation. outstanding”.
Returning to Kangaroo Island, Geddes, the founder of the wildlife sanctuary, has also seen the remaining koalas bounce back from the fires – with at least five joey seen in recent months.
“They are all natural wonders as far as I know,” said Geddes.
“They say this is one fire in 200 years. So, given that everything – all the plants and animals in Australia – has evolved with regular wildfires, we are now seeing a recovery of one in 200 years. “
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