Ecological disaster may see koalas listed as endangered

Wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk with a koala rescued from a burning forest on Kangaroo Island, Adelaide, on Jan 7. Some estimates suggest as many as a billion animals have either died in the fires or are at risk in their aftermath. PHOTO: REUTERS
Wildlife rescuer Simon Adamczyk with a koala rescued from a burning forest on Kangaroo Island, Adelaide, on Jan 7. Some estimates suggest as many as a billion animals have either died in the fires or are at risk in their aftermath.PHOTO: REUTERS

MELBOURNE • The Australian government committed A$50 million (S$46 million) to an emergency wildlife recovery programme yesterday, calling the bush fire crisis engulfing the country "an ecological disaster" that threatens several species, including koalas and rock wallabies.

Huge wildfires have razed more than 11.2 million hectares, nearly half the area of the United Kingdom, destroying or severely damaging the habitats of several native animals.

Some estimates suggest as many as a billion animals, including livestock and domestic pets, have either died in the blazes or are at risk in their aftermath due to a lack of food and shelter.

"This has been an ecological disaster, a disaster that is still unfolding," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters yesterday as he visited the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, where 45 koalas were being treated for burns.

Images of burned kangaroos, koalas and possums, along with footage of people risking their lives to save Australia's native animals, have gone viral around the world.

Knitters around the world have responded to a call to create thousands of protective pouches and blankets for injured wildlife.

The Australian division of the Worldwide Fund for Nature has advised the government of 13 animals whose habitats have been either destroyed or severely damaged. In a mission dubbed Operation Rock Wallaby, national park staff used helicopters to airdrop thousands of kilos of carrots and sweet potatoes to brush-tailed rock wallabies in remote areas of New South Wales (NSW) state.

"The wallabies typically survive the fire itself, but are then left stranded with limited natural food as the fire takes out the vegetation around their rocky habitat," NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said.

Mr Frydenberg said the "iconic" koala would be a focus of national government funding, adding that the full extent of the damage would not be known until the fires are out - something experts say could be months away.

 
 
 

Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box said an estimated 30 per cent of koala habitat may have been lost in the bush fires.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said reviews would be brought forward on whether certain koala populations should be listed as "endangered" rather than "vulnerable".

"Everything that can be done to rescue and recover koala habitat will be done, including innovative approaches that look at whether you can actually put a koala in an area that it hasn't come from," Ms Ley said.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 14, 2020, with the headline 'Ecological disaster may see koalas listed as endangered'. Print Edition | Subscribe