Lewis The Koala Is Still A Symbol Of Hope
The image of Toni Doherty taking the shirt off her back to help the injured koala, now affectionately known as Lewis, will remain forever an iconic moment in Australia’s history.
As the smoke surrounded her and the fires raged, Doherty bravely pulled Lewis from imminent death, using her shirt to envelop him as she removed him from a gum tree that he was hopelessly using as a means of escape.
As Doherty poured water over Lewis, we could hear his wails. The immense pain and suffering coming from one of our beloved national animals tore at the hearts of millions, both nationally and world-wide.
Although utterly devastating, the rescue of Lewis the koala also offered hope that, as humans, we could do something to actually help. We could help those impacted by the bushfires that are still ripping apart areas of NSW and Queensland and we could even do something about the larger issue we are facing: climate change.
But then came the devastating news from the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital that Lewis's burns were too severe and he had to be put to sleep and much of that hope we felt, the belief in our ability to make a difference, appeared to die along with Lewis.
When I first saw the footage of Lewis scampering across the burning ground, visibly in pain and desperate for reprieve, I cried.
When Doherty rescued him, I cried even more.
But when I heard that he’d died, that this beautiful marsupial was gone, I had no tears left. Instead it was clear to me that although Lewis didn’t make it, there are other koalas out there that are in need of our help.
The bushfires that took Lewis’s life have undoubtedly taken a toll on the koala populations of the area. But Australia’s koala population had already been decreasing for generations. In 2016 experts estimated there were 329,000 koalas in Australia, an average of a 24% decline over three generations.
In fact, koalas have been listed as vulnerable under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC) in NSW, the ACT and Queensland since 2012.
Dr Christine Hosking, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Queensland in Australia, said that the decline in koala populations was partially due to the lack of government action.
“It’s not looking good for koalas at all, even before the fires,” she said. “While they have government protections -- it’s illegal to kill a koala, for instance -- their habitat is highly vulnerable. Very little of koala habitat is designated as protected area... Until that political will kicks in -- and in Australia, it hasn’t -- it’s not going to get any better for koalas."
As well as a decrease in their habitat, koalas are also threatened by a range of other factors like drought, dog attacks, chlamydia and cars. Also, an increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has made eucalyptus leaves less nutritious.
“We’ve got to get with the program and start adapting," insists David Bowman, a landscape fire expert in favour of rewilding and relocating. “If we want koalas, we’ve got to look after them. We need to step up.”
While Lewis, along with hundreds of other koalas, may no longer be with us, their deaths were most definitely not vain.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital (and others) launched a GoFundMe campaign to help the koalas affected by the fires. Hoping to receive $25,000, they have received $1.8 million at the time of publication. The campaign has now become the most successful in Australia since the organisation launched here in 2016.
Due to the unprecedented contribution, money can now go towards the purchase of drinking stations which will be installed in fire-ravaged regions and the construction of safe habitat. Some funds will now be directed to building a "Koala Ark" -- a healthy habitat facility for the surviving koalas, according to the campaign.
Watching Lewis attempt to flee from the fires was what drove me and so many others to donate to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital. We had the power to make a difference and we exercised it, overcoming that feeling of hopelessness that has affected so many.
Indeed, The Living Room host Amanda Keller found herself in tears as she announced Lewis’s passing on the radio, expressing the "hopelessness" and "powerlessness" we were all feeling. Her dedication even prompted Toni Doherty's daughter Phoebe to write to her about how terrified she felt about the future of the country.
"Could we find some way to make Lewis's legacy a galvanising moment?" she asked.
Despite the sense of loss and the severity of the current situation, there is still so much that Australians can do to help our koalas, including driving safely and keeping our dogs under control, according to Hosking.
"The average person needs to pressure our decision makers into saving habitat, and stop it being cleared," she said. "Until decision makers at all levels of government take that seriously, we're going to keep losing koalas."
We were too late to save Lewis. But there are thousands of other koalas that don’t have to share his fate.
Let’s do it for Lewis.
Featured Image: Now This News