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Australia Faces ‘National Tragedy’ After Koala Population Takes Hit in Recent Brushfires

Massive wildfires are exacerbating the marsupial’s already vulnerable status

A singed Koala receives treatment for dehydration at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital earlier this month. (Photo by SAEED KHAN/AFP via Getty Images)
smithsonian.com

Australian wildfires raging through Queensland and New South Wales this month are threatening koalas, one of the country’s most beloved and iconic species.

When koalas face danger, their response is to climb higher into the canopy and “curl themselves into a ball for protection,” reports Livia Albeck-Ripka of the New York Times. This defense mechanism, however, does not work when fire is involved. Officials estimate that as many as 350 of nearly 700 marsupials living in Port Macquarie perished in the blaze, which wiped out an estimated two-thirds of a local population’s habitat, or about 4,900 acres of land. Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, calls the loss a “national tragedy.”

The hospital was so overwhelmed by the sudden influx of injured koalas that it started a GoFundMe page. So far, the fundraising campaign has raised more than $650,000. Donations spiked after staff released a heartbreaking video of a singed koala accepting a drink of water from a human.

“We’re hoping it’s not as bad as that, but because of the intensity of the fire and the way koalas behave during fire, we’re not holding out too much hope,” Koala Hospital president Sue Ashton tells the Associated Press’ Rod McGuirk. She calls the loss “absolutely devastating.”

A lightning strike in New South Wales sparked the fire last month and sent blazes burning across the koalas’ already diminished habitat.

“We don't have the big, large tracts of bushland areas anymore, and they're all chopped up by freeways, industrial areas and, basically, people,” Al Mucci, the general manager of Dreamworld Wildlife Foundation, tells Dominic Cansdale of the Australian Broadcast Corporation (ABC).

Per the ABC, the Queensland city of Gold Coast has lost half of its koalas’ range since the area was settled; splitting up this already fragmented habitat will isolate small populations even more and increase the occurrence of incest.

Incest reduces genetic variation in a species and makes animals weaker and more susceptible to diseases. One of the major infections threatening koalas is chlamydia. Some surveys of koala populations in Queensland have suggested at least half of wild koalas are infected with the disease, reports Isabella Kwai of the New York Times.

“Fire authorities are deeming [conditions] catastrophic,” says Mucci. “The weaker the animal is the less likely it's going to survive on days like this.”

Habitat loss, traffic collisions, dog attacks, disease and global warming have placed compounded pressure on the species for decades, and experts suggest matters will only get worse. Last year, writes the ABC’s Elise Kinsella, a Gold Coast city council report found that one of southeast Queensland’s largest koala populations could lose around half of its members over the next 20 years.

Koalas are currently considered “vulnerable” throughout their homeland of Australia, according to the IUCN Red List’s 2014 assessment. In lieu of the Australian Koala Foundation’s recent announcement that there are no more than 80,000 koalas left in the country—likely not enough to sustain reproduction in the long run—some experts say the species is “functionally extinct,” writes Christine Adams-Hosking for the Conversation.

The Australian Koala Foundation has monitored all 128 federal electorates of Australia since 2010 and found that 41 now have no koalas. In dozens of other districts, only small numbers of koalas remain. In some parts of Queensland, the koala population declined 80 percent between 1994 and 2016.

“We have these unique animals not found anywhere else on this planet, and we’re killing them,” Flanagan tells the Times. “This is a big wake-up call.”

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