Kai Wild really knows how to save koalas, even the ones who refuse to be saved. Clinging to a blackened tree after bushfires scorched the surrounding eucalypt plantation on Kangaroo Island in February, one feisty and frightened male koala needed some convincing to leave.
“He was between me and three other koalas further up the tree, including a joey, all of whom faced starvation unless they were shifted to a viable habitat,” recalls the 35-year-old self-employed Sydney arborist, who volunteers with the SES. “I was two metres up the trunk and finally had to grab him by the scruff of the neck to move him down, but then he had me by the arm and wouldn’t let go.”
Eventually, the bolshie koala and his crew were safely moved to a leafy area, with Wild sustaining just a few scratches. “On Kangaroo Island a male can weigh 15 kilograms; they’re furry balls of muscle with claws and strong forearms. They look cuddly but can be formidable when they need to be.”
Wild’s skills as a climber were turned to good use on Kangaroo Island, where it’s believed up to 25,000 koalas perished, out of a total of 48,000 counted in 2015 (although there was once talk of sterilising large numbers of koalas on the island because of overpopulation, last year they were heralded as a species saviour as they are free of chlamydia, a disease that has decimated mainland koalas). Over two months, Wild saved 107 koalas – many in plantation forests denuded of the leaves the marsupials feed on. The experience was traumatic. “I was frequently in tears, seeing animals in such excruciating pain.”