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Australian Wildfires May Have Killed Hundreds Of Koalas: 'It's A National Tragedy'

caitlyn.clancey 31 Oct 2019

More than 350 koalas are feared to be dead after a series of massive wildfires broke out along Australia's east coast this week, burning through 4,900 acres of koala habitats, CNN reported.

The blazes reportedly began after a lightning strike hit a New South Wales forest and have continued to rage unchecked for days, killing hundreds of koalas in the destruction.

A total of 72 bush and grass fires were set ablaze throughout the state, and 44 of those have yet to be contained.

According to the NSW Rural Fire Service, firefighters and aircraft are working all across the coastline to strengthen containment lines in the effort to slow the rapid spread of the fires.

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The affected area called Crestwood, just south of Port Macquarie, is known for being a koala "hot spot."

Facebook | Koala Hospital Port Macquarie

In a Facebook post, Port Macquarie Koala Hospital wrote, "If the wind continues...it has the potential to be devastating for this important genetically diverse source population of koalas."

"Two-thirds of the current footprint of the fire is prime koala habitat (or was)," they wrote.

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The devastating fires have left trees charred and koalas badly burnt or killed.

Unsplash | David Clode

Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) that the event is "a national tragedy."

"We potentially have lost an enormous population of animals in the past 24 hours," she said. "Twenty years worth of work at the place. I just feel like walking away, I really do, I'm not going to, but it's just awful."

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Hospital president Sue Ashton estimates around 350 koalas have been lost in the deadly fires.

Unsplash | Jordan Whitt

"We're hoping it's not as bad as that, but because of the intensity of the fire and the way koalas behave during fire, we're not holding out too much hope," she told the Independent.

In the event of a wildfire, koalas climb higher up into trees, which means they could survive, so long as the fire front passes quickly below them.

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Experts say even once the fires have been controlled, recovery could take years.

North coast ecologist Dr. Stephen Philips estimates thousands of hecatres of key koala habitat have been destroyed in the fires and likely 60-70% of breeding populations.

"They've got to re-establish themselves, the food trees have got to grow and recover, and then those animals have got to start breeding to repopulate those areas of empty habitat from which animals have been lost," he told ABC News.

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Dr. Philips added that koalas are not known for being particularly fast breeders.

Unsplash | Laura Barry

"It has certainly set the general recovery objectives of conservation back a long time, probably 10 to 20 years in some instances depending on the scale of the contact," he explained.

According to the Australian Koala Foundation, there are only as few as 43,000 of the marsupials left in the wild in Australia. The government as listed these animals as "vulnerable" as populations continue to dwindle due to habitat destruction, bushfires, road accidents, and dog attacks.

h/t: CNN, ABC News, Australian Koala Foundation

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