Koalified To Help: How Kangaroo Island Koalas Are Recovering Since The Bushfires
For Kangaroo Island's surviving koala population it's a case of 'rescue or let them suffer', and these kind-hearted volunteers are working hard to make sure as many as possible get on the road to recovery.
Huge fires tore through Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, during the New Year period.
A father and son were killed when their car was overrun by flames, while more than 210,000 hectares of land -- about half the total area of the island -- was scorched by the bushfires.
More than a month on, locals on the tourism-dependant island are still feeling the effects of the disaster, with visitor numbers way down and national park areas still closed for safety reasons.
But still yet to be counted is the nature cost of the fires, with untold numbers of animals killed or injured.
Experts say koalas on Kangaroo Island are important because they do not have chlamydia or the AIDS-like disease KORV, which are rampant in animals on the mainland.
Official estimates put the number of bushfire-killed koalas above 75 per cent of the island's population, but the number could be even higher, according to the South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management (SAVEM).
"There were about 45,000 koalas on the island before. If we've lost 75 per cent, that would mean there's still about 10,000 left. But we haven't found 10,000 koalas yet," Dr Rachel Westcott, SAVEM coordinator, told 10 daily.
"Either the losses are a lot more than estimated, or there are areas we haven't got to. The tree plantations are largely not accessible, they're too dangerous to enter without specialist equipment. That's the next area of focus."
Westcott described the landscape of bushfire-ravaged Kangaroo Island as like a "desert" that had been "nuked".
"We're finding a lot of dead bodies, deceased things, animals against fences where they couldn't get out. The landscape looks like it's been hit by a nuclear bomb," she said.
"It's sticks and sand and white ash."
One of those helping in the rescue efforts is volunteer Kailas Wild.
A climbing arborist, as well as a WIRES and State Emergency Service volunteer, the Sydney man had been helping with bushfire recovery efforts on the NSW south coast before hearing his climbing talents could be helpful on Kangaroo Island for koala rescues.
"The whole west coast of the island is wiped out. You drive down the road and it's just smashed trees piled up," Wild told 10 daily.
"It's completely desolate, just black sticks. The ground has been completely sterilised by fire."
Wild has been on the island for a few weeks, searching the scorched bushland on foot, scanning the trees for animals stuck or sheltering in high branches that may be too injured to move.
"Some places there's these brown trees with four koalas in the branches, when the tree wouldn't even support feeding one koala. We bring them in and the koala hospital is packed, overflowing. They're malnourished and so worn out," he said.
"I caught one that hadn't left its tree for five days. It was traumatic for both of us. She had been burnt, fire damaged her claws, she had organ failure. She was just going to sit there until so she died, so it's rescue them or let them suffer ... I’m pretty traumatised."
Wild said he has helped rescue more than 20 koalas since arriving in mid-January, including a number of orphaned babies, the majority of which he said he had to climb trees to reach.
He said he plans to scour the tree plantations -- areas which officials are yet to enter due to danger, for animals still needing rescue.
"We're worried about mass starvation of koalas, the second round of suffering. They have no food to eat, the trees are being compromised," Wild said.
He's now working to install 'feeding stations' full of water and gum leaves in some of the devastated areas, for animals which may still be in hiding.
Wild has been sharing photos and video of his time on Kangaroo Island, including cute images of rescued koalas recovering and other heart-breaking snaps of those nursing injuries.
One video, shared on Saturday, shows a koala cuddling up to a teddy bear in its enclosure.
"That came after I rescued the worst condition koala I've seen so far, and then walking past the cage, I saw this beautiful sweet reality. It's been this constant up and down, extreme sadness then extreme joy of being able to help," he said.
Wild praised the work of emergency responders and wildlife agencies but said more needed to be done to ensure the island and its inhabitants bounce back.
"This thing is long from over, for the wildlife and the people here," he said.
Brenton Grear from South Australia's Department for Environment said officials were still trying to count the number of dead or injured animals.
“There is no doubt that large numbers of koalas have been affected, as well as kangaroos and other native species, including some that are threatened and endangered," he said.
Westcott said despite the devastation and tragedy, the first signs of life were returning to Kangaroo Island.
Sporadic rain has seen the first green shoots reappear on the ground, she said, and wildlife experts are working around the clock to help injured animals.
"Unless some ecological restoration happens now, this could turn into desert. These things don't happen overnight. It will take years, decades before it's starting to look like it was before," Westcott said.