Catastrophic fires in Australia raise concerns about the future of koalas

November 18, 2019, 9:47 a.m.
koala recovering after being injured in bushfire
Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images

Corduroy Paul is one of the lucky ones. The young male koala, pictured above, was found dehydrated and injured this month after a bushfire engulfed his habitat in eastern Australia. Hoping he could still be saved, rescuers took him to a nearby hospital for koalas.

"He was picked up off the ground and curled up in a little ball, basically not moving," Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, told Agence France-Presse. After some rest and treatment, however, he began doing "really well," Ashton said. He was soon joined by another dehydrated koala, Anwin, who also had been plucked from the aftermath of a fire.

The hospital has reportedly taken in about two dozen koalas in recent weeks, all bushfire survivors. And it isn't alone. About 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the south, for example, a couple in the town of Taree is caring for 24 rescued koalas in their home, according to Australia's ABC News, where they've turned their living room into a makeshift burn unit.

A barrage of bushfires have erupted across eastern and western Australia in recent weeks, scorching some 1 million hectares and killing at least six people in the eastern state of New South Wales alone. This is an early and intense start for Australia's fire season, which typically hits its peak in the summer months of December, January and February. These spring blazes are raising concerns not only about this year's fire season, but also about the future of some iconic wildlife — especially koalas — as Australian fire seasons grow longer and stronger due to human-induced climate change.

While that trend is bad news for many species in Australia, including humans, koalas can be particularly vulnerable to fire. A few days before Corduroy Paul was rescued, for example, flames engulfed a coastal forest in New South Wales that hosted a robust koala colony, sparking fear that hundreds of koalas may have been lost from this large, genetically diverse population.

firefighter battling a bushfire in New South Wales, Australia, in November 2019 A firefighter works as flames burn a forest in Port Macquarie, where hundreds of koalas may have died in a recent bushfire. (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

"If we look at a 50% survival rate, that's around about 350 koalas and that's absolutely devastating," Ashton told the Associated Press. "We're hoping it's not as bad as that, but because of the intensity of the fire and the way koalas behave during fire, we're not holding out too much hope."

Bushfires are a natural occurrence in Australia, and koalas have evolved to endure them. Yet as Livia Albeck-Ripka reports in the New York Times, while kangaroos and many other animals flee bushfires on the ground, koalas have a different strategy. Koalas sleep in trees for up to 18 hours a day, and since their bodies are more adapted for climbing than running, leaving the trees to run away might be unwise. Instead, they often climb up to the canopy, where they curl up for protection and wait out the fire.

That may help koalas survive some fires, but it's less likely to work in high-intensity blazes like the ones now plaguing Australia. For one thing, the eucalyptus trees where koalas live are already highly flammable, thanks to their gummy resin and oily leaves, leading some to call them "gasoline trees." But even if flames don't reach all the way up to the canopy, koalas could still overheat or suffer smoke inhalation during an intense conflagration, Albeck-Ripka notes, causing them to fall into the fire.

Koalas can also burn their paws or claws when descending a hot tree after a fire, leaving them unable to climb. And if they do survive a fire, as Corduroy Paul did, they may still find themselves dehydrated in a landscape suddenly devoid of water.

Corduroy Paul the koala at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Australia Corduroy Paul receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital after his rescue from a bushfire. (Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP/Getty Images)

While koalas and fires can coexist, their current relationship may be unsustainable due to a third factor: people. That's partly because humans have already made life harder for koalas in general — first by overhunting them for fur in the 19th and 20th centuries, and more recently with habitat loss and fragmentation. This has reduced their numbers and left them less resilient overall, making it all the more tragic when a single bushfire wipes out a large colony. That would be terrible no matter what, but if koalas' ancestral habitats were still intact, the species might be in a better position to absorb such a blow.

On top of that, however, wildfires are also getting worse in many parts of the world due to climate change, especially in hot, dry places like Australia. The country experienced its third- and fourth-hottest years on record in 2018 and 2017, respectively, and last summer was its hottest on record. In its 2018 State of the Climate report, Australia's Bureau of Meteorology noted there has been "a long-term increase in extreme fire weather, and in the length of the fire season, across large parts of Australia."

Koalas are endemic to Australia, meaning it's the only place on Earth where they exist in the wild. The continent was once home to millions of the iconic marsupials, but their total population may now be as low as 80,000, according to the Australian Koala Foundation. Only about 20,000 are thought to be left in New South Wales, where the WWF has warned the species could be locally extinct by 2050. According to Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, the growing threat of bushfires may require koalas to be reclassified as endangered in New South Wales.

In the meantime, while the loss of so many koalas in these bushfires is heartbreaking, it's also an important reminder that we still have time to save koalas as a species, as Flanagan tells the Times. And similar to Sam the koala in 2009, survivors like Corduroy Paul can help their species by drawing attention and rallying public support for more protection. "We have these unique animals not found anywhere else on this planet, and we're killing them," Flanagan says. "This is a big wake-up call."