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The Struggle to Keep our Iconic Koalas Alive

By E. R.

Australia’s favourite fluffy friends (the Koalas) have been put through a horrifying period in the last few months, with bushfires ravaging across huge amounts of land that large numbers of Koalas call their home. These devastating bushfires have razed more than 2. 7 m hectares, including koala habitats and rainforests that haven’t been touched by fire for many years.

Photo by Kevin Bosc

It’s such a terrible thing to see the Koalas struggle to try and escape from the fiery nightmare that their habitat has been turned into. Especially since during bushfires, koalas can be their own enemies. When they encounter danger, their first instinct is to climb to the top of trees which is where the heat is. And even if they escape the heat at the top, when they climb back down the trees they have to walk across hot coals and burning leaves. According to Dailan Pugh (North East Forest Alliance president and ecologist), a staggering figure of more than 2000 Koalas may have already died in the recent bushfires across Australia. However, it’s hard to accurately count how many Koala deaths there have been in the bushfires as most of the time their bodies burn up completely (due to the heat of the fire).

We’ve all seen the videos of Koalas in the bushfires lately and honestly, they’re so heartbreaking to watch. A shocking video that’s been shared all around the world is of Lewis the Koala, and his struggle as he’s pulled out from the burning flames around him. Lewis gained worldwide support, as numerous news outlets updated the public of his progress. Sadly in the end, Lewis’ burns were so extreme that he was euthanised.

Paul the Koala being treated by Koala Hospital Port Macquarie

This tragedy, for one of Australia’s favourite native animals, has touched the hearts of countless people that over $2 million was raised for the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital so that they could continue their efforts in saving the Koalas. This dramatically shows the extent of how tragic the public found the stories of Lewis, and all the other Koalas, as the hospital initially hoped to raise $25,000 but instead raised a staggering $2 million. The money raised for the hospital was so much greater than the expected amount that they announced that the hospital would be distributing more drinking stations and establishing a wild breeding program to help boost population levels.

People all around Australia are mobilising to help koalas. There are hundreds of carers rescuing koalas and taking them into their own homes. In Taree, NSW, Christeene and Paul Mcleod are a couple that have 24 koalas in their home, which they are treating and looking after.

Koalas in Care - Christeen and Paul McLeod holding a rescued koala

"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," Ms McLeod told ABC News.

It’s places and people such as these that really help our native Australian animals survive, and they’re what really makes the difference in times of crisis such as all the bushfires.

However, even with these centres, once these bushfires are over it’s unlikely that Koala populations will be able to recover to how they used to be. This is due to how the Koala populations will be geographically cut off from each other, due to the barriers created from the burnt down bush, meaning that it can threaten their long term survival. This is because it disrupts family chains, possibly causing Koala’s to inbreed, which overall disrupts their genetic diversity.

As a solution to this problem, some (such as Misha Ketchell’s article in The Conversation) are calling that we need to start freezing Koala’s genetic material. These genes could then be used in times of emergency as a vital lifeline for the Koalas, using methods such as artificial reproduction (which would use collected sperm to artificially inseminate zoo koalas, resulting in the birth of live young).

However, not all people are calling for methods this extreme. A lot of people (such as Greens MP - Cate Faehrmann) are hoping that this catastrophe for our Koalas will be a tremendous wake up call for the government to do more in regards to protecting all Australian native wildlife.

Whilst Koala’s aren’t officially declared as ‘functionally extinct’, our Koala populations are in major trouble. According to the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature), Koala’s are currently heading towards extinction by 2050, an estimate that will only be moved closer with events such as these raging bushfires.

Confused koala discovers his home has been cut down. Photo by Louise O'Brien/NSW Wires

And furthermore, when you take a step away from the bushfires, Koala populations have been steadily declining for a long time now. At the beginning of the last century, over eight million koalas were thriving in the Australian bush, yet today scientists estimate that there are only between 43,000 to 100,000 Koalas left. The major cause of this devastating decline in Koalas is due to the widespread destruction of Eucalyptus trees. There are over 800 eucalyptus species in Australia and almost a quarter of these are facing extinction. In fact, Dr Stuart Blanch (of WWF-Australia) has stated “Entire forest ecosystems dominated by eucalypts are endangered. Some have been cleared down to less than 10% - or even 5% - of their original extent.”

It’s extremely vital that our Koalas are properly looked after, whether it’s through help from organisations such as the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, artificial reproduction methods, government action or even a mix. Whichever approach will be used moving forward, it’s extremely important that our Koalas are properly cared for to assure their survival in the future. It would be immensely devastating if such a prominent Australian animal was permanently wiped out. Thorough considerations and action need to be taken by everyone to ensure the future survival of Australia’s favourite fluffy friends.

Photo by David Clode

Here's some links to get involved;

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official position of the Woke magazine.


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