MELBOURNE, Australia – The victims were carried in one by one, their paws burned and fur singed, suffering from dehydration and fear. Their caretakers bandaged their wounds, swaddled them and laid them in baskets with the only thing that was familiar — the leaves of a eucalyptus tree.
As catastrophic fires have burned more than 2 million acres in Australia, dozens of koalas have been rescued from smoldering trees and ashen ground. The animals, already threatened as a species before these latest blazes ravaged a crucial habitat, are being treated in rescue centers and at least one private home along the country’s East Coast.
“They are terrified,” said Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director of the Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie, the only facility of its kind.
Officials at the hospital began warning weeks ago, when the fires first ignited around Port Macquarie, 250 miles north of Sydney, that hundreds of koalas may have been “incinerated.” They estimated that 350 of the nearly 700 koalas that lived in the region had been killed. Rescuers have not been able to confirm the scope of the loss because some of the blazes are still raging.
The plight of the koala — a national symbol of Australia — has raised questions among conservationists and scientists about what it will take to preserve biodiversity in a country increasingly prone to intense fire, extreme heat and water scarcity, and which already has among the highest rates of species extinction in the world.
In some regions, scientists said, koalas’ numbers have declined by up to 80%.
The animal distress goes beyond koalas. Recently, tens of thousands of bats plummeted from the sky in temperatures exceeding 107 degrees in northern Australia. Kangaroos, parched by drought, decimated the grapes in a vineyard in Canberra. And waterfowl in the Macquarie Marshes, a wildlife haven in northwest New South Wales, have been affected by a fire in their habitat.
“It’s a swamp, for goodness’ sake; it’s burning,” said David Bowman, a professor of pyrogeography and fire science at the University of Tasmania.
Climate change and other human impacts have so altered the landscape that the government needs to rethink its approach to conservation, Bowman said, suggesting interventions like irrigating, feeding and moving animals.
“You want koalas?” he said. “That’s what we’ve got to do.”
As of Thursday, 22 adult koalas and one joey had been rescued. They are being treated at the Koala Hospital along with dozens of other animals, including kangaroos and possums that were injured in dog attacks or car accidents — often the collateral damage of creatures searching for a new home after a disaster.
About 50 miles south, in Taree, one family has transformed its home into a koala rehabilitation center. There, 24 animals, each given a name on a Post-it note attached to its basket, are slowly recovering in the couple’s living room.
“Somebody has to look after them because nobody else is doing too much, as far as the government, in protecting their habitat and protecting them,” Christeen McLeod, who is housing the koalas, told the Australian Broadcasting Corp. “So we do this and hope that we can save some of them.”
Koalas, unlike kangaroos, birds or snakes, do not flee from fires but instead scale trees to the canopy, where they can curl themselves into a ball for protection and wait for the danger to pass.
But during high-intensity fires, the animals are far less likely to survive, conservationists said. Even if the fire does not reach the tree canopy, the animals may overheat and fall to the ground, where they can be burned to death. They can also suffer smoke inhalation or burn their paws or claws when trying to climb down trees.
Claws, crucial for life in the wild, do not grow back. A “koala who can’t climb can’t survive,” said Sue Ashton, director of the Koala Hospital.