Scientists find burnt, starving koalas weeks after the bushfires



david Mariuz/AAP

Romane H. Cristescu, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, University of the Sunshine Coast

The plight of koalas during the recent bushfire crisis made headlines here and abroad. But the emergency for our wildlife is not over. Koalas that survived the flames are now dying from starvation, dehydration, smoke inhalation and other hazards.

Over the past three weeks in one wildlife conservation property alone, our rescue team found koalas recently crushed under fire-damaged trees, and koalas with burnt paws after descending to the smouldering ground after the inferno had passed, hoping to change trees and find food. One of our most recent rescues was an orphaned, emaciated koala with all four paws burnt.

Koalas are also at risk of dying from infections associated with these injuries, or from the ongoing effects of smoke inhalation. Even uninjured koalas are struggling to find food in their burnt habitat and may soon starve.

There is still time to act to avoid losing more koalas. But we need the public’s help.

Romane Cristescu with a koala that survived the bushfires, but died afterwards.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

A critically urgent task

The fires in Australia’s southeast destroyed huge swathes of koala habitat in areas where they were already vulnerable – dehydrated and malnourished due to prolonged drought, climate change and land-clearing.

Adding to the pressures, an estimated 5,000 koalas died as a result of the recent fires in New South Wales alone – potentially two out of every three.

Our team at Detection Dogs for Conservation rescues, trains and deploys dogs to find wildlife that needs help.

Since November last year, we’ve deployed our dogs to fire grounds in NSW and Queensland almost every week, urgently searching for surviving koalas. One of our detection dogs, Bear, is trained to find the koala itself – not just koala scats, as our other dogs are.




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Koalas are the face of Australian tourism. What now after the fires?


The International Fund for Animal Welfare (https://www.ifaw.org/uk/projects/koala-habitat-protection-with-detection-dogs-australia) helps coordinate our activities with local wildlife rescue groups and other koala conservationists.

After bushfires, a koala’s territory is often no longer able to sustain them due to lack of food – which for koalas also provides water – or lack of shelter. Without canopy cover, koalas simply overheat.

Finding koalas can be difficult. They camouflage well, they are quiet, and usually sit still. But dogs can smell what we can’t see, including koalas. These dogs, together with our drone equipped with a thermal camera, greatly increase koala detection rates.

Without canopy cover, koalas easily overheat in hot weather.
Ben Beaden/AAP

What we found

We believe most koalas that died in the fires were reduced to ashes, and so could not be counted among the dead. But since November, in 39 days of searches, we’ve found more than 40 injured, sick, dehydrated or starving koalas and, sadly, six dead ones.

We’ve also observed koalas returning to their favourite trees in their home ranges, only to find the canopies completely burnt. Others survived in a small unburnt patch but are now isolated and surrounded by vast tracts of inhospitable habitat.

Romane Cristescu with detection dog Bear. The program makes wildlife detection far more efficient.
Detection Dogs for Conservation

When we find live koalas in the fire grounds, we attempt to catch them and transport them to a local wildlife triage centre or koala “hospital” to be urgently assessed by veterinarians. Burns are obvious, but smoke inhalation is less so. Koalas in poor condition must stay in care until they’ve fully recovered.

In the past three weeks, we’ve made particularly tragic discoveries. In the Snowy Mountains, two koalas that survived the inferno had been crushed and killed under fire-damaged trees. We sighted one of these koalas three days in a row. The first two days, he was in trees he could not be safely rescued from. The third day, he was fatally crushed.

As recently as last week we found koalas suffering burns, predominantly on their paws. These animals would have continued to suffer severe pain trying to climb trees had we not rescued them. One of our last rescues was an 2kg orphaned koala with four burnt paws and the lowest possible body condition on the scale – emaciated.

We did expect to find koalas killed by the fires. But it was especially heartbreaking to find those that died afterwards. It’s hard then to not think, perhaps with more detection dogs and a bigger team, we might have saved them.




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We can do more

A full search-and-rescue team comprises Bear and his handler, a drone pilot and a koala-catching crew. These missions cost money. To date, our deployments have been entirely funded by the International Fund for Animal Welfare.

We’ve established an online fundraiser to help pay for further rescue work. We are also learning from this year’s deployment how to be more efficient next year – including having the equipment, team and budget secured prior to the fire season, which we hope this fundraiser helps us achieve.

After the devastating fire season, rescuing and rehabilitating surviving koalas is critical. Koalas reproduce slowly. The more rescued and able to breed this year, the quicker the population will increase. And every koala we rescue comes with a specific genetic make-up; the genetic diversity we can preserve now will help the species cope with future challenges.The Conversation

Romane H. Cristescu, Posdoc in Ecology, University of the Sunshine Coast and Celine Frere, Senior lecturer, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Koalas are the face of Australian tourism. What now after the fires?



Koalas have long featured in tourism ads, including this new one from Tourism Australia. Amid our bushfire crisis, this digital ad has been ‘paused’.
Tourism Australia

Kevin Markwell, Southern Cross University

In 1936, The Evening News in Rockhampton wrote:

The time has arrived when Australians must decide whether or not they will accept responsibility for the perpetuation of the koala […]

It seems extraordinary that this animal which is so greatly admired, not only by overseas visitors, but by Australians, is being allowed to suffer extinction.

The preservation of the koala was not talked about so much in environmentalist terms: instead, the koala was seen as a crucial icon of Australian identity and tourism.

The earliest picture postcard featuring a koala I have found was postmarked 1903, and it has been a mainstay of tourism advertising ever since.

A 1903 postcard featuring a ‘native bear’.
Author provided, Author provided

In the latest ad from Tourism Australia, the koala has been recruited, once again, to market Australia, starring alongside Kylie Minogue, chilling in a graceful eucalyptus on Sydney Harbour.

But amid Australia’s ongoing bush fire crisis, airing of the digital ad has been “paused”.

Up to 30% of the koala population from the NSW mid-north coast is expected to be lost in the fires, alongside 50% of the koalas on Kangaroo Island – the last remaining wild population not infected by deadly chlamydia.

Eighty four years on from the Evening News’ story, we are still talking about the possible extinction of koalas, our national tourism icon.

The creation of an icon

Koalas were exhibited at Melbourne Zoo from 1861 and at Taronga Zoo from 1914. But at the same time, koalas were hunted ruthlessly for fur throughout much of the 19th century. This practice only came to a halt at the end of the 1920s.

The original 1933 publication of Blinky Bill.
Trove

By the 1930s, three koala-themed wildlife parks – the Koala Park in Pennant Hills, Sydney, Lone Pine Koala Park on the Brisbane River and the Adelaide Snake Park and Koala Farm – had opened for business.

1933 saw the publication of Dorothy Wall’s Blinky Bill. Zoologist Ellis Troughton’s book Furred Animals of Australia (1931) and natural historian Charles Barrett, with Koala: The Story of the Native Bear (1937), also influenced public attitudes towards the native animal.

In 1934, the Sydney Morning Herald called the koala “Australia’s national pet”.

Perhaps most famously, it was the star of a Qantas advertising campaign from 1967 to 1992.

A 1981 Qantas advertisement, published in American magazines.
Qantas

The loss of a tourism icon

A 2014 study suggests koala tourism could now be worth as much as A$3.2 billion to the Australian economy and account for up to 30,000 jobs.

In 2020, Australia has 68 zoos and wildlife parks exhibiting just under 900 koalas. A photograph with a koala is a must-have souvenir for many international tourists.

But it is impossible to look at Kylie hanging out with her koala mates without bringing to mind the shocking images of badly burned koalas and other wildlife as the devastating wild fires destroy millions of hectares of bushland habitat.

The plump, relaxed, pampered koalas in the Tourism Australia ad are far removed from the horrific realities of fire. These catastrophic fires have compounded the threatening processes that already affect koala populations: habitat destruction and fragmentation, disease, car accidents and dog attack.

Recent research has shown koalas are also vulnerable to climate change through changes in the nutritional status of eucalyptus leaves, excessively hot temperatures and these canopy-destroying wildfires.




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A life beyond extinction?

Australians have clearly shown they are willing to take action to protect the animal, with the GoFundMe campaign to raise funds for the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital raising almost A$2 million.

The outpouring of emotion and financial support reflects the strong connection that Australians feel for the koala, formed out of the interplay of the animal’s baby-like features and its multitude of representations in popular culture, including, of course, tourism marketing.

Sadly, it is more than likely the koala will go on serving the national interest through its role in tourism even if it was to tragically go extinct in the wild.

The Tourism Tasmania logo features the extinct thylacine.

Most koala tourism is based on experiences with captive koalas. And extinction hasn’t been a problem elsewhere: Tasmanian Tourism uses a stylised image of the thylacine in its logo.

The long term survival of the koala ultimately rests with governments and their policies on forest clearing, fire management and climate change.

If future tourists to Australia are to experience the koala in the wild, it is imperative that governments act now to strengthen the protection of the species and most crucially, its habitat.The Conversation

Kevin Markwell, Professor in Tourism, Southern Cross University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

To save koalas from fire, we need to start putting their genetic material on ice



Over the coming months, koalas will depend on wildlife hospitals to recover from the effects of unprecedented bushfires.
Lachlan G. Howell , Author provided

Ryan R. Witt, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, University of Newcastle; Lachlan G. Howell, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, University of Newcastle

Thousands of koalas may have died in fires burning through New South Wales but expert evidence to a state parliamentary inquiry on Monday said we are unlikely to ever know the real numbers.

Unprecedented fires have burned through millions of hectares of forest, including koala habitat and rainforests untouched by fire for thousands of years.




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The devastation won’t stop once the fires are out. Koala populations that survive the fires could be cut off from each other, lowering their genetic diversity and threatening their long-term survival.

To protect Australia’s iconic koalas we need to start freezing their genetic material. With more investment in the fast-developing field of cryogenics, koala hospitals could start taking samples from their patients, creating a vital lifeline for the species as a whole.

Koala-threatening fires are getting worse

Fire seasons are starting earlier, lasting longer and becoming more intense, made worse by climate change.

This season, there is an above-average risk of serious fires across an extensive range of koala habitat on Australia’s east coast.

Left, Australian seasonal bushfire outlook for the upcoming bushfire season. Right, the comparative koala distribution from January 2017 to 2019.
Bushfire and Natural Hazard CRC/Atlas of Living Australia

Experts at the NSW inquiry estimated about 2,000 koalas may have died in fires already this year, and the destruction of habitat means further population declines are inevitable. With areas not usually threatened by fires now at risk, we need new plans for future conservation.

Koalas are highly vulnerable to fire. The heat burns their paws and fur, and the superheated air can cause internal damage to their lungs. The canopy of eucalypt forests is their only refuge, but offers no protection during high-intensity bushfires.

Beyond this direct threat, when large numbers of koalas are killed or badly injured, the genetic diversity of their local populations shrinks.

Over the coming months, koalas will depend heavily on wildlife hospitals for rehabilitation and recovery after fires.

Small, fragmented groups of koalas living in habitat on the edge of urban areas, such as the coastal areas of Port Macquarie and Port Stephens, are particularly at risk.

Port Stephens experienced several fires in 2018 that burned thousands of hectares of koala habitat. This followed a similarly catastrophic fire season five years earlier.

If these events continue at the same rate – or, as predicted by climate modelling, become more intense and more frequent – we may lose sources of koala genetic diversity that cannot be replaced.




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Sudden reductions in population size can cause genetic bottlenecks that lead to inbreeding. Eventually this reduces reproductive fitness and makes extinction more probable.

Take, for example, a koala population like that of Port Macquarie, between 1,000 and 2,000 individuals. We estimate that losing 350 koalas from this group would increase inbreeding by 20-50%. It would take five to ten years for the population to recover, assuming no further fires in that time.

While many volunteers and professionals do fantastic work to help koalas survive fire, we have no strategy for safeguarding genetic diversity and reducing the risk of inbreeding.

But we can take a lesson from botanical gardens, which routinely freeze genetic material for seed banks. Freezing koala sperm, eggs and embryos could offer a way to preserve genetic diversity ahead of further population crashes.




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It’s fish on ice, as frozen zoos make a last-ditch attempt to prevent extinction


Artificial reproduction is in its infancy

Artificial reproduction for koalas – and marsupials generally – is developing quickly. Scientists have used freshly collected sperm to artificially inseminate zoo koalas, which resulted in the birth of live young.

However, the technology does not yet exist to freeze, store and then use koala sex cells. Components of this process do exist, but there is no complete system for marsupials.

If that capacity existed, koala hospitals could easily and inexpensively begin collecting genetic samples from their patients.

Although NSW has invested significantly in koala conservation in recent years, we argue that future funding should also support applied research to make this technology a reality for not only koalas but other marsupials.

Koalas and many other native species are exceptionally unprotected in this new era of record-breaking fires. We need to start planning and investing in long-term conservation solutions and new research-based technologies that provide a last line of defence against the possibility of permanent extinction.The Conversation

Ryan R. Witt, Conjoint Lecturer | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle; Chad T. Beranek, PhD candidate, University of Newcastle; John Clulow, Associate Professor, University of Newcastle; John Rodger, Emeritus Professor, University of Newcastle & CEO FAUNA Research Alliance, University of Newcastle; Lachlan G. Howell, PhD Candidate | Conservation Biology Research Group, University of Newcastle, and Robert Scanlon, PhD Candidate in Restoration Ecology, University of Newcastle

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Blinky Bill effect: when gum trees are cut down, where do the koalas go?


Kita Ashman, Deakin University

In the past two decades there has been an unprecedented increase in the area of blue gum (Eucalyptus globulus) plantations in southern Australia. In southwest Victoria alone, some additional 80,000 hectares of commercial blue gum have been planted.

This expansion has significantly increased the habitat available for koalas. In fact, my research, published in the journal Landscape and Urban Planning, has found there are more koalas in plantations than in surrounding native habitat.




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More koalas may seem like a good thing, but perversely this could ultimately harm their welfare (and the welfare of other native animals and plants), and disrupt the plantation industry.

Blinky Bill had to leave his home after the trees were bulldozed.

Plantations

Koalas are protected in Victoria, so when plantation managers harvest the mature trees they must have a permit and a koala management plan. These plans focus on locating koalas, ensuring that the trees koalas are sitting in at harvest are not felled, and post-harvest surveys to find any injured koalas.

However, these plans don’t consider where the koalas go after the plantation has been cut down, and what effects their movement has on the landscape and surrounding native vegetation.

A recently harvested blue gum plantation showing remnant trees left due to koalas.
Author provided

To work out how factors such as plantation cover affect koala populations, my colleagues and I surveyed 72 sites across southwest Victoria. We found more koalas in plantations than in blocks of native vegetation or in native roadside vegetation.

We then spatially modelled koala numbers for the region, and found several high-priority areas for population management, as well as significant conservation habitat for koalas and other wildlife in the region that overlap with high koala population densities.




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Our mapping predicted high koala numbers in the southeast, where there are important remnant bushland areas such as Kurtonitj Indigenous Protected Area and Mount Napier State Park. This highlights the importance of considering the overall landscape when establishing and harvesting plantations, and the arrangement of plantations near remnant forest.

Harvest rates in much of southwest Victoria are set to increase. This may result in increased koala numbers in the native vegetation surrounding harvested sites, which could then put pressure on food trees in remnant forests.

Local landholders are already seeing the effect of more koalas on native vegetation. Many trees on private land or beside roads are being stripped of leaves.

Canopy defoliation of remnant trees due to increased numbers of koalas in south-west Victoria.
Author provided

More koalas are also likely to mean more injuries or other welfare issues. As plantations have a responsibility to avoid these, koala injuries could threaten the future of one of the main industries in this region. More than 4,000 people are directly employed in the regional forestry industry, with a further 4,500 in associated service industries.




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The bigger picture

To meet this challenge, we argue management plans need to consider the larger landscape. What native forest is near a plantation? Where are the koalas likely to go after the harvest? How might they affect other native species?

A female koala being released in Bessiebelle, south-west Victoria, after undergoing a health check.
Esther Wong, Author provided

Such plans could include some areas of plantations set aside for koala habitat, harvesting plans that consider adjacent habitat that koalas may move into, or increasing areas of native food trees. These would all benefit other wildlife in the area, as well as koalas.

Currently, there is something of a negative feedback loop in southwest Victoria. When plantations are established koalas move in and reproduce. When plantations are later harvested, the koalas move into surrounding areas. As a result, populations can rapidly increase in some areas, affecting native trees and creating welfare issues for the forest industry.




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We have seen the devastating effects high density koala populations can have on native forests in places like Cape Otway, which saw mass starvation and widespread forest death in 2013 and 2014. Current state regulations could disrupt the forestry industry, especially with koala numbers increasing in plantations but with no plan to really manage koala numbers in southwest Victoria in sight.The Conversation

Kita Ashman, PhD candidate in koala conservation, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.