But Australia’s record in protecting its unique wildlife has also come under fire, with biodiversity laws called “a total joke” by those on the front line.
Cheyne Flanagan, the clinical director of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, said the bushfire crisis had exacerbated the perilous situation faced by koalas because of the drought.
“Koalas were already struggling with lack of water,” she said. “The majority of koalas were in a continual state of dehydration and poor body condition. Then along comes the fires. The majority died and those who survived are not coping well.”
Ms Flanagan said a number of koalas treated at the hospital for burns were already dehydrated and in poor condition.
“For some it’s just too much – their organs fail and they die,” she said. “We are not miracle workers – we can only do our best.”
The World Wildlife Fund said last year koala numbers have fallen 95 per cent since 1788, from an estimated 10 million to no more than 200,000 across Australia, and from 15,000 to 28,000 in NSW.
Stuart Blanch, the senior manager for land clearing and restoration at WWF Australia, said “rampant deforestation” of koala habitat was already pushing the iconic animal towards extinction by 2050: “The bushfires and drought have brought that extinction timeline forward by perhaps decades.”
Taronga Zoo has also been caring for an “unprecedented number” of injured and rescued wildlife impacted by the bushfires, heat stress and drought, said Nick Boyle, the director of conservation, welfare and science at Taronga Conservation Society.
Bushfires had not only directly impacted wildlife in the path of fires, but also forced animals that have lost their habitat into urban areas, Mr Boyle said. “This places them at risk of starvation, dehydration, predation by feral animals such as cats and foxes as well as injury from cars.”
Mr Boyle said many of the koalas admitted to hospitals were also affected by chlamydia, which is more common in populations under stress.
“With concerted effort focused on habitat protection, restoration and connectivity, while simultaneously addressing other threatening processes such as disease, this species can recover over time,” he said.
However, the chronic stress caused by the trauma of bushfires may have long-lasting effects on koala populations, said Edward Narayan, a senior lecturer in animal science at the University of Queensland.
“This means that the biology and physiology is greatly impacted and future koala generations are headed towards increased vulnerability to diseases, clinical problems and mortality,” he said.
Dr Narayan said loss of habitat could add to the build-up of chronic stress in koalas: “I am highly concerned that our future native koala populations will be biologically vulnerable and carry the genetic imprints of these traumatic events – ghosts of the mega bushfires.”
Ms Flanagan also said state biodiversity laws were “a total joke because the Act actually does not do a lot to protect biodiversity at all” and called for a moratorium on logging in public and privately-owned native forests that were koala habitats – a call echoed by conservation groups.
Rebecca Keeble, the director of the Australian branch of the International Fund for Animal Welfare, called for new federal and state laws to protect koalas and their habitat from excessive tree-clearing and urban development.
“Current protection laws are deeply inadequate and fail to protect koalas and other threatened species with development continuously given priority,” she said.
The NSW government may also reassess the “conservation status” of koalas and other species, and set aside up to $1 million for wildlife rescue, said a spokesman for the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
He said the government was committed to protecting koalas, with $45 million invested in the NSW Koala Strategy.
He also said new laws had been introduced in 2017 to ensure a “balanced approach” to land management and biodiversity conservation, while the DPIE was implementing all of the recommendations of a NSW Audit Office review of native vegetation management in the state.
“The NSW government is considering what additional actions are needed in response to the current bushfire crisis,” he said.
Dr Blanch said bushfires had probably rendered many local populations of koalas “extinct or unviable”.
“I am bracing for the prospect that more – and perhaps much more – than half of the wild koalas in NSW have perished, or will do in the weeks after the fires,” he said.
But Dr Blanch said the bulldozing of forests remained the greatest ongoing threat to koalas, “killing hundreds every year usually far from the eyes of the public”.
“Unless the bulldozing of forests and global heating is brought under control, the core wild koala populations in NSW and Queensland will disappear forever,” he said.
But a spokeswoman for the Forestry Corporation of NSW said multiple studies had demonstrated that sustainable timber harvesting was not a “significant threat” to koalas: “Ongoing research continues to demonstrate that koalas use forests that have been harvested for timber at the same rate as unharvested forests.”
Andrew Taylor is a Senior Reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald.