Hundreds of koalas are feared dead after a wildfire tore through bushland on Australia’s east coast, animal rescuers say.
The fire has burned almost 5,000 acres in an area south of Port Macquarie where “the most significant population of koalas in this region” lives, Cheyne Flanagan, a koala rescuer, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC).
"Because it was of such high intensity, I think that the amount of deaths will be very high, unfortunately," Flanagan told the ABC of the fire that was started by a lightening strike. "I think this is just a national tragedy that we potentially have lost an enormous population of animals in the past 24 hours."
The number of deaths is estimated to be around 350.
“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,” Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital told The Associated Press.
Koala fatalities are a common result of bushfires. The animals usually defend themselves against fire by climbing to the tops of trees and curling into a ball. When a fire passes through an area quickly, they are safe. But when the fire lingers, their defense mechanism is futile.
Staff from the Koala Hospital still cannot access the area to assess the damage but they believe that the population could take decades to recover. But as the population rebuilds, there will be increased inbreeding and lessened genetic diversity, which could take a toll on the species.
Australia’s Environment Ministry has listed the koala as a “vulnerable” species with the Australian Koala Foundation estimating there to be anywhere from 100,000 to as few as 43,000 left in the wild.
New South Wales, Australia’s most populous region which is about 200 miles north of Sydney, has experienced hundreds of wildfires in the past few months. Environmental advocates are hoping to increase legislation in the area to prevent fires.
“Not that I believe you can legislate against fires but, let me tell you, in the old days when we didn't dam all the river systems, when we didn't have dry landscapes, these fires didn't get as fierce," Australian Koala Foundation chairwoman Deborah Tabart told The ABC.
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