Koalas Who Manage to Survive Australian Wildfires 'Face Death by Starvation,' Says Conservation Group

Wildfires in Australia have scalded koalas' habitat to such an extent that even when the flames are finally doused, the animals that survived will suffer a drawn-out death, a spokesperson for the New South Wales Conservation Council has warned.

Prior to the fire season, populations of the indigenous marsupial had already declined in the state by nearly a third over the last three decades, due in part to climate change and pressure from dwindling habitats caused by agricultural and forestry development.

Already vulnerable because of their dietary reliance on the flammable oil-containing eucalyptus tree, the koala's inability to move quickly has made it fodder for the flames' ferocity, with some estimates suggesting that up to a third of the 25,000 animals in the New South Wales have perished during the fire season.

A koala named Peter is treated at The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on November 29, 2019. Since then, wildfires have devastated the iconic Australian animal's habitats. Nathan Edwards/Getty Images

Council spokesperson James Tremain said that even before the fires, the koala was in mortal danger of extinction in the next 50 years. Not adapted to handle long heatwaves, many had died in Pilliga Forest in the center of the state, once a stronghold for the animal.

"Before the fires, the biggest threat to koalas was the direct destruction of their habitat by land clearing for agriculture and forestry for timber.

"Now we have this hammer blow of the wildfires that have basically roasted them in the trees, destroyed their habitat and isolated their populations.

"They have been incinerated, and the ones lucky enough to escape then face death by starvation. It is a cruel situation that the species is facing."

"It is really out of control. We have never seen anything like it, so much habitat has been lost.

He said that the isolation of the animal's habitats poses a challenge, because even if a local population perishes, there will be a source population nearby that can repopulate.

"But these fires have been so devastating that even those source populations appear to have been destroyed."

At least 19 people have died and thousands of properties destroyed already. The punishment that the flames have meted out to the wildlife population is considerable, with the University of Sydney estimating that as many as half a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have perished.

"It is a wildlife holocaust—I don't use that word lightly—I don't know how else you can describe it," Tremain told Newsweek.

New South Wales firefighter
Firefighters tackle a bushfire near Batemans Bay in New South Wales on January 3, 2020. A state of emergency has been declared across much of Australia's heavily populated southeast in an unprecedented months-long bushfire crisis. PETER PARKS/Getty Images

The group Wildlife Rescue (WIRES) told Newsweek that its volunteers were continuing to enter bushfire zones to rescue injured and orphaned animals once the areas had been declared safe by the National Parks and Wildlife Services (NPWS).

WIRES spokesperson John Grant said: "We have never experienced fires of this ferocity and over such a wide area, so the impacts are unknown as it is uncharted territory.

"These bushfires have come on the back of an ongoing drought and so many native animal species were already under stress so it is difficult to know whether the native animals coming into our care are the result of exhaustion and dehydration from the drought or from escaping the fires."

The extent of the blazes and the smoke they have belching out have forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes.

They also gave, albeit briefly, the country's capital city, Canberra, with a population of less than half a million, the unwelcome distinction of being the world's most polluted city, according to air quality ranking website Air Visual.

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