Devastating bushfires are believed to have incinerated as many as 8,000 koalas on Australia’s east coast.
Australia’s federal environment minister Sussan Ley said the bushfire-ravaged mid-north coast in New South Wales, home to as many as 28,000 koalas, may have lost 30 per cent of the species’ local population in recent months.
The estimate comes after wildlife experts warned the unprecedented blazes have threatened the koala with extinction.
‘We’ll know more when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made,’ Ms Ley told ABC’s AM radio show.
This charred corpse of a koala lost to this year’s bushfire crisis was found by a volunteer firefighter last week; Australia’s federal environment minister estimate one in three koalas may have been lost in one of their significant population centres
A rescued koala (pictured) is handled by staff at Sydney’s Taronga Park Zoo as experts warn the species is now a threatened species
Earlier this year before the bushfire crisis took hold, the Australian Koala Foundation (AKF) estimated there were only 80,000 koalas left nationally.
The minister said the one-in-three estimate was made on the basis that a third of the local koala population’s habitat had been destroyed.
She added a $6million budget was in place to release the surviving koalas from the region’s hospitals.
The Australian Koala Foundation has said koalas are ‘functionally extinct’ – which refers to when a species is too small to sustain its population into future generations.
Environmental organisation Aussie Ark has said NSW is in a ‘wildlife state of emergency’, and has joined the AKF to better protect wildlife habitats including those of the native koala population.
Last month, AKF chairman Deborah Tabart urged the government to take action to protect koalas and called on the Prime Minister to enact the Koala Protection act, which was written in 2016.
Scientists have disputed ‘exaggerated’ reports koalas are ‘functionally extinct’, but have acknowledged the species faces a huge battle to repopulate in the aftermath of the bushfires.
Nine people have been killed by this year’s unprecedented bushfire crisis, with five million hectares burned nationwide and 3.4million in New South Wales alone.
The latest impact assessment by the Rural Fire Service this week said almost 1,000 homes had also been destroyed by the flames.
The Gospers Mountain bushfire – which has contributed significantly towards the loss of 3.4million hectares of lands in New South Wales alone – is pictured threatening to cross the Bells Line of Road in the Blue Mountains on December 17
University of Sydney professor of ecology Chris Dickman estimated 480million mammals, birds and reptiles had been killed, directly or indirectly, by the flames.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley (pictured) said said the one-in-three estimate was based on the fact a third of the local koala population’s habitat had been destroyed
He added the koalas rescued from the fires would struggle – regardless of whether they were kept in captivity or released back into the wild.
‘Some things probably won’t come back,’ he told Daily Mail Australia.
‘It’s nearly half a billion native animals.’
The destruction of koala habitats meant the marsupials would, most likely, struggle to reproduce in coming generations, especially in areas of NSW that had been singed.
‘You could say functionally extinct in some areas,’ Professor Dickman said.
Making matters worse, the bushfires since November had burnt through the best koala habitat in northern NSW, where the soil was more fertile.
‘Almost certainly, a lot of koalas would have been killed directly by the flames and probably indirectly by a combination of starvation, being picked off by dogs, even for the ones that survived.’
University of Sydney professor of ecology Chris Dickman said rescued koalas would struggle in captivity or out in the wild (pictured is an injured koala being rehabilitated at the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie)
Koalas would also struggle being kept in captivity.
‘It’s not easy to keep them in captivity for long periods and maintain their health,’ Professor Dickman said.
Koalas are also fussy eaters, at least when it comes to eucalyptus leaves.
Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said that meant the marsupials rescued from the bushfires could not be relocated to another area of bushland.
‘The next, most difficult thing is how to reintroduce them into their habitat,’ she told Sydney radio 2GB broadcaster John Stanley on Friday.
‘You can’t pick up a koala that’s lived for several generations in one area and move it even 50km away.
‘It needs the same area, the same type of trees, and it really is quite a complicated exercise – they’re not the easiest creatures to adapt to different circumstances.’
As a result, koalas are likely to be kept in capacity until their burnt-out habitat had regenerated.
A koala is pictured with actress Emmy Rossum as experts fear koalas rescued from the bushfires are likely to struggle
Earlier this month, Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham said that fires burning around New South Wales have razed koala habitats so extensively ‘we will probably never find the bodies’.
‘We’ve lost such a massive swathe of known koala habitat that I think we can say without any doubt there will be ongoing declines in koala populations from this point forward,’ he said.
Koalas are far from the only creatures facing extinction as a result of bushfires.
Professor Dickman pointed out the population of greater gliders had never recovered in the Royal National Park, south of Sydney, following bushfires in 1994.
‘There had been a well-known population of greater gliders; there’s been one sighting of greater gliders since,’ he said.