November 26, 2019 17:34:40
The koala which captured the hearts of millions across the world and served as a symbol of Australia’s devastating bushfire crisis has died.
A video of the koala, named Lewis, being saved by a grandmother in just her underwear in bushland was shared by thousands across the world.
At one stage it appeared Lewis was going to make a full recovery, despite his visible burns across his chest and stomach; he was eating eucalyptus again and was under the close watch of Port Macquarie Koala Hospital staff.
But the hospital announced he was euthanased this morning after taking a turn for the worse.
“Today we made the decision to put Ellenborough Lewis to sleep. We placed him under general anaesthesia this morning to assess his burns injuries and change the bandages,” the hospital said on Facebook.
“We recently posted that ‘burns injuries can get worse before they get better.’ In Ellenborough Lewis’s case, the burns did get worse, and unfortunately would not have gotten better.”
As the nation suffered through an unprecedented number of bushfires this month, the plight of the koala has been front-page news abroad leading to an outpouring of public support.
Images of the furry creatures with charred skin, blackened paws and clear symptoms of dehydration have dominated much of the recent overseas coverage, becoming a cultural symbol of the crisis.
The shocking imagery has led to several foreign reports that koalas are “functionally extinct” as a result of the bushfires.
However, the marsupials have been under threat for much longer.
Research has shown koalas are on track to be extinct by 2050 in New South Wales if land clearing rates continue.
But with a changing climate and early start to an extreme bushfire season, will they even make it that long? One of Australia’s leading wildlife organisations says they won’t.
The bushfires’ toll on koalas
The bushfires wreaked havoc across the country, destroying hundreds of thousands of hectares and leaving behind an untold number of dead and injured wildlife.
Nicole Blums, of The Rescue Collective, a volunteer organisation which works directly with the wildlife hospitals and carers in NSW and Queensland, estimated 1,000 koalas had been killed.
“The breeding ground in Port Macquarie specifically was a really intense breeding ground and the whole entire thing is gone,” she said.
Ms Blums said the level of devastation varied but in areas with fast-moving fires, there was “nothing left”.
“It’s like Ground Zero. There is nothing at all,” she said.
“Then we’re getting into other areas where the fire moved a little bit slower through and that’s where the carers and the black walkers are finding more bodies.
“They are finding a lot of animals that have passed away but they have also found a lot more that are suffering.
“One of the people I work with at Queensland Wildlife found a kangaroo that [had] its entire feet burnt off. The kangaroo was still alive and obviously needed to be euthanised.”
Ms Blums said what that meant for the future of koala populations at this stage was unclear but the species was in dire straits.
“If we go back a year or so ago we were saying koalas were at the level of extinction that without humans capturing them and having breeding programs, they would become extinct,” she said.
“They couldn’t survive on their own and that was before these fires so I guess, we are expecting that the koalas after this event will be no longer endangered but at some level of extinction.”
The Wildlife Hospital Network, a statewide network of animal carers, said it has received a combined total of 50 koalas from the recent fires in Queensland.
The RSPCA reported 29 koalas, Currumbin Wildlife Hospital said it received 20 koalas and Australia Zoo said it had one in care.
The RSPCA said survivors were continuing to be found at Toowoomba, Jimna and Mt Barney, and more animals were expected in the coming days.
The RSPCA’s Eumundi centre will be affected and it’s likely Currumbin and Australia Zoo would take in more fire victims as well.
“Sadly not all of them make it through,” RSPCA Queensland spokesperson Michael Beatty said.
“Some are already suffering from other issues and the fire and smoke exacerbate those. It’s very sad as in some areas the scale of the casualties will never be known because of the intensity and speed of the fires.”
Most of the injuries to the koalas were caused by direct heat and smoke inhalation.
Across the border in New South Wales, it’s estimated a higher number of koalas are in care with more than 1 million hectares of land razed this year by bushfires.
Besides koalas, this network has treated approximately 40 other animals directly affected by fire, species in care include a range of possums, birds and reptiles.
The RSPCA has treated 14 animals, Currumbin’s treated approximately 20 and Australia Zoo has treated six animals.
The Currumbin Wildlife hospital last year treated 477 koalas in total.
This year — partly due to bushfires — there has been a 22 per cent increase, with koalas experiencing injuries such as singed foot pads or breathing problems due to smoke inhalation.
The hospital said the increase was also the result of drought, with animals being dehydrated and malnourished.
What’s being done to save them?
Donations have been flooding in to wildlife hospitals and carer organisations as images emerged of the injured and distressed creatures.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital hoped to raise $25,000, but at the time of publication the fundraising tally stands at $1.5 million.
The bushfire crisis, and its impact on koalas — listed as vulnerable in Australia — prompted Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley to call an “urgent” meeting of land management experts in Brisbane last week.
Healthy Land and Water spokesman Paul Donatiu said it was a landmark meeting.
“It was a chance to really look at koala conservation in the context of a changing climate, with the fires and what we can do in the immediate future, but also in the next three years to deliver some outcomes for the species,” Mr Donatiu said.
The Federal Government has allocated $6 million towards koala initiatives in northern New South Wales and South East Queensland.
Mr Donatiu said he would like to see additional resources to help landholders protect critical habitat.
“Whether it’s as simple as having the resources to put in fire breaks, to be able to deal with weeds, and to reduce the intensity of fire that sometimes weed can exacerbate,” he said.
“It’s just practical actions like that on the ground that we are interested in helping affect in our region and also in parts of northern New South Wales.”
Ms Blums said a collaborative and proactive approach from all stakeholders was required in emergency wildlife situations.
“When there is legislation in place there is definitely something to fall back on … but a lot of the little people are forgotten about in this situation,” she said.
“They’re the people with 47 joeys in their house caring for them that have come from the fires.”
She said wildlife hospitals were also struggling amid the influx of injured animals.
“The one at Australia Zoo, the one at Currumbin, they don’t even have the right equipment or enough equipment to be able to cope with this.
“Some hospitals are prioritising cases, they’re not able to treat how they normally would, they’re being very resourceful with how to save these animals,” she said.
She would also like to see more funding towards wildlife hospitals and conservation efforts from the Government.
“I don’t think it will be fixed overnight but the government, wildlife carers and organisations need to come together to work out a really good plan for the future because otherwise we’ll be left without our national emblems,” she said.
Conservation efforts part of future plan
Bear is one of only a handful of dogs in Australia trained to detect koalas as part of a conservation effort and has travelled thousands of kilometres throughout Queensland and New South Wales.
International Fund for Animal Welfare wildlife campaigner Josey Sharrad said “these catastrophic events are just going to increase with frequency and intensity unfortunately”.
“Dogs like Bear are an integral part of those search and rescue efforts — I think conservation dogs are the future,” Ms Sharrad said.
“Koala populations across South East Queensland and New South Wales are a tipping point and this catastrophic event could actually push them over the edge,” she said.
“Every individual that we can save and release back into the wild is critical.”
Once rehabilitated, treated koalas are returned to their natural habitat at, or close to, their point of rescue.
If there is a high probability that a koala will suffer a serious injury or death if released back into its original habitat, the koala will be released in another area that has been assessed as suitable.
Departmental approval is required for releases further than 5 kilometres from the rescue location.
Each koala is micro-chipped so that it can be identified in the future.
Sightings of all sick, injured, orphaned and deceased koalas in South East Queensland should be reported to RSPCA on 1300 ANIMAL (1300 264 625).
November 26, 2019 10:54:24