It’s feared that hundreds of koalas have been killed, possibly burned alive, in a raging bushfire on Australia’s east coast. The out-of-control blaze has been burning in northern New South Wales for days, razing more than 2,000 hectares of bushland to the ground and sweeping through the heartland of a prime koala breeding habitat.
Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala hospital, described the potential toll animals’ population as a “tragedy”— noting that koalas are usually “terrible” at coping in a bushfire scenario.
“What generally happens in a fire is the koala climbs right up to the top of the tree and curls into a little ball,” she said, according to The Guardian. “So often the flames will just go over the top and singe the outside, but with really intense fires it can burn them alive.”
Even in the event that they survive, Ashton pointed out that they can easily burn their paws while climbing down from burnt trees, leaving them unable to climb properly.
With the hospital’s trained rescuers unable to go in and search for surviving specimens until today or tomorrow at the earliest, it’s hard to know how much of an impact the fires have had on the local koala population. More than 150 volunteers have been recruited to deal with the anticipated influx of animals into the hospital, which can house up to 40 koalas.
“In a disaster people just switch on and you do what you have to do,” said Ashton. “No one can control nature, but there’s sadness because we care so much about the koalas.”
“The beauty of this particular population is that it’s so genetically diverse that it’s of national significance,” she added. “A lot of the koalas are being mixed and crossbred now ... so to lose a large part of that population is very devastating.”
The fire is still active and expected to continue burning for some time.