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'They just turn to ash.' The reality of saving Australia's koalas from our bushfires.

As Australia’s backyard has burned, our koalas have been helpless.

Bushfires engulfed their habitats with an intensity we haven’t seen before. Whole populations of the native animal have been incinerated.

“How many are lost? We’ll never know because they just turn to ash,” Sue Ashton, President of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, told Mamamia on Wednesday.

Ashton says that in the case of bushfires, koalas don’t run. They instinctively climb to the top of trees.

“So if fire goes through with intensity, as these ones have, they’re basically incinerated alight. And that’s what’s been happening.”

australian bushfires
"How many are lost? We'll never know because they just turn to ash." Image: Getty.

The lack of data surrounding the loss of koalas has led to debate over whether koalas are now considered a "functionally extinct" species.

"I don't think the government has said they are [functionally extinct], but we certainly would say they are. That's the result of the fires," Ashton explains, adding it takes 18 months to breed just one koala, so to replace the "hundreds that have died" will be no short task.

"We use as an example the Lake Innes Nature Reserve - we've been doing research there for about five years and when we counted the numbers we knew there were about 600 koalas just in that area.

"About two thirds of their habitat was lost there, so if you do the sum that's about 350 koalas have perished."

The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has been working overtime with their four full-time staffers and 150 volunteers to save the 33 koalas that have come in for treatment and search for new ones that need saving as a result of the recent bushfires.

The hospital has search and rescue teams that go into national parks and bushfire affected areas to try to rescue any koalas they can find.

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"The fact that our teams are going in and finding nothing means the majority of the koalas that were there have been incinerated.

"That's a national tragedy."

Port Macquarie Koala Hospital
"The fact that our teams are going in and finding nothing means the majority of the koalas that were there have been incinerated." Image: Port Macquarie Koala Hospital.

What is a beacon of hope, however, is the over $1.7 million raised for the Koala hospital via GoFundMe, in what has been an international effort with donors from over 60 countries. It's been the crowdfunding website's biggest campaign in Australia this year.

That money will be crucial for the future of Australia's koalas, Ashton says.

With it, the hospital has two goals. First, they will build wildlife water drinking stations to be put in various areas of bushland to ensure the remaining animals have access to fluids.

Their second goal is to establish a wild koala breeding program which they have been working towards with a 10 year plan.

"With the money we've raised, we've now been able to bring that forward and we're starting that in the new year.

"If we don't do something quickly, to start to breed and rebuild those populations, Australia's going to lose its wild koalas. It's that bad."

On Tuesday, Australia lost Lewis.

Lewis was rescued by Toni Doherty who was passing by Long Flat when she spotted the koala in crisis. A Channel Nine camera crew captured the moment Doherty used her own shirt to wrap Lewis up and give him water. He was then taken to Port Macquarie Koala Hospital where he was treated for his extensive burns, before he was put down by the team of experts.

"It got to the stage where the treatment was going to be so unpleasant that his quality of life would not have been very good," Ashton tells Mamamia. "So we decided it was time to let him go.

port macquarie koala hospital
"We try to rehabilitate and save koalas, so any we lose we take it quite personally." Image: Koala Hospital Port Macquarie.
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"That's a very difficult decision to make," Ashton says, adding "you get very attached to them.

"We try to rehabilitate and save koalas, so any we lose we take it quite personally."

The hospital has had to put down another two, too, named Mary and Roo.

"It's very traumatic for all of our staff," Ashton admits.

Indeed, the tragic circumstances have required extreme measures, with Ashton saying their team has been working "back to back shifts to keep the whole hospital going".

"Everybody is starting to get tired," Ashton shares. "It's been four weeks and we've been working very long hours and back-to-back shifts, seven days a week."

As for when habitats of the koalas will be regenerated, it will be another six to nine months before the hospital will begin to think about releasing them back into their natural habitats. They will look after the koalas until that time.

On top of the GoFundMe donations, the hospital has been humbled by the support for their 'Adopt a Koala' program.

The hospital averages 250 koala adoptions a month, but they are now receiving 500 adoptions internationally a day - money they rely on to fund their operation, which they receive no ongoing government support for.

Evidently, koalas are an integral part of our community and ensuring their survival should be, and is, an emergency of national importance.

You can donate to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital via the GoFundMe pageIf you would like to volunteer for the hospital, the details are at the website here. And, if you would like to adopt a koala, you can do so here


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