Site icon Conservation news

How are koalas doing in the aftermath of the Australian fires? Q&A with Cheyne Flanagan

rescued koala in australia after bush fire devastation

  • Mongabay spoke with Cheyne Flanagan from the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital to discuss the marsupial’s current status in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires.
  • Around 50 koalas have been hospitalized in New South Wales due to this season’s fires. It is estimated that thousands of koalas have been killed by bush fires.
  • Port Macquarie Koala Hospital’s wild koala breeding program is critical. But unless they have good quality habitat that is well managed and cannot be developed, then breeding koalas go out and struggle with logging operations, removal of trees for human development, housing, mining and agriculture.

As part of the World Wildlife Day celebrations, experts from around the world gathered in New York to participate in the Wild Ideas panel (powered by the UN and Jackson Wild Film Festival) to discuss the global biodiversity crisis and the impacts of climate change.

Mongabay.com spoke with Cheyne Flanagan from the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital to discuss the marsupial’s current status in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires.

This is the first part of a three-part series. Part II discusses the road to recovery for koalas, here.

Australian bush fire © dblumenberg / Adobe Stock

Mongabay: Before the fires of 2019-2020, what was the primary cause of koala hospitalization?

Cheyne Flanagan: We have standard admission causes – disease, hit by cars, dispossessed young dispersing koalas with no habitat to go to, attack by domestic dogs. 

How many koalas have been hospitalized due to this season’s fires?

We had 50 koalas plus a few from other regions in the state.

Do we have an estimate of how many koalas have been killed by bush fires?

It is really only conjecture at this point until good sound scientific monitoring can be done. A guess would be into the thousands.

Rescued koala in Australia after bush fire devastation © Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock

Regarding hospitalizations and the damage to koala populations, can you compare this fire season to past years’ events?

This has been a cataclysmic event on the back of the worst drought in recorded history which has also decimated koala populations. The fires were the proverbial straw.

Approximately how much time do koalas take to fully recuperate from burns?

Hard to answer as totally dependent on the severity of burns, where the burns are located and the condition of the koala prior to being burnt. All arboreal species such as koalas require claws and good leather padding on the soles and palms (like dogs) as these enable them to climb, grip and deal with rough surfaces. Anywhere from a few weeks to a year.

Koala’s front paw. Photo by Rhett A. Butler

What is the likelihood that burnt koalas will return to the wild?

Provided the eucalypts haven’t been pushed to the point of dying through the fires (bear in mind all the trees have been struggling to survive through the extreme drought) they will begin sprouting new growth in a matter of weeks. The trees need to have a good amount of foliage before wildlife is returned as we do not want to jeopardize the health of the tree. Koalas can be returned within 4-6 months if there has been rain.

In the context of climate change, how important is the hospital’s Wild Koala Breeding Program? 

Our wild koala breeding program is critical.  But unless we have good quality habitat that is well managed and cannot be developed, [then] breeding koalas go out [and] struggle with logging operations, removal of trees for human development, housing, mining and agriculture, [and] the future of the wild koala is very much under a cloud.

How can people get involved with koala conservation?

Lobby the State and Federal governments to tighten the legislation that currently does very little to protect wild koalas. They need to seriously look at our carbon emissions, as the predicted longer and hotter and drier summers for this country look grim, not just for koalas but for everyone who lives in Australia. The $20 million set aside to buy koala habitat by the government is ‘a drop in the ocean’ of what is really needed.

Photo by Rhett A. Butler

To prepare for future fire events, are there going to be any training programs on how to rescue and/or rehabilitate koalas, for the general public?

We teach capture and handling of koalas for wildlife careers in New South Wales every year, and interstate as well. We do not want members of the general public doing this work as it needs to be done by experienced and qualified people who can read koala behavior, although we do agree with teaching Rural Fire Service volunteers how to capture [injured koalas] from fire grounds as they are the first line of protection.

Experts have debunked the idea that koalas are “functionally extinct.” However, considering the damage the fires have done to koala populations, do you think it is necessary to re-evaluate their ‘Vulnerable’ listing?

Koalas must have their status lifted in New South Wales and Queensland to ‘Endangered.’

What can we learn from these past months?

That Rural Fire Service is still heavily under-resourced and underfunded.  They must be given more funds and more resources. National Parks and Wildlife Service must receive more funding for on-ground staff so they can manage national parks properly. We have also learned that so many [parks] were ill-prepared. I’m sure we have learned from this.

 

Banner image: Rescued koala in Australia after bush fire © Andrea Izzotti / Adobe Stock and Australian bush fire © dblumenberg / Adobe Stock

 

Romi Castagnino is Mongabay’s bilingual writer. Find her on Twitter and Instagram: @romi_Castagnino