60,000 koalas killed or affected by 'black summer' bushfires

More than 60,000 koalas were killed or affected by the ‘black summer’ bushfires, according to new analysis which has examined last summer’s heartbreaking toll on wildlife.

Kangaroo Island’s koala population took the hardest hit with 41,000 animals impacted, followed by 11,000 in Victoria, nearly 8000 in NSW, and almost 900 across Queensland, new research commissioned by environment group WWF-Australia found.

Describing the figures as ‘deeply disturbing’, WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said koalas were already in “rapid decline” in NSW and Queensland before the fires hit.

Left - Koala in a basket inside at Kangaroo Island. Right - injured koala looks to camera from inside a basket while travelling in a car on KI
Koalas in care after bushfires swept across Kangaroo Island. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Australian bushfires impacted three billion native animals

The charity’s ongoing research into the bushfires concluded almost three billion native animals were impacted, with Mr O’Gorman describing it as one of the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history”.

“Nearly three billion animals impacted is a number that’s off the charts and shows why a plan of this scale is needed,” Mr O’Gorman said.

“WWF is determined to help restore wildlife and habitats, rejuvenate communities impacted by the bushfires, boost sustainable agriculture and future-proof our country.”

The report found reptiles were likely most affected, accounting for 2.46 billion individuals residing in areas in the path of the flames, followed by birds at 181 million, mammals at 143 million and frogs at 51 million.

A koala in a burnt out forest clings to a tree on Kangaroo Island.
Estimates suggest 41,000 koalas were impacted by fire on Kangaroo Island. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Of the mammals impacted, the research estimates that 50 million native rats and mice were living in the bushfire zones, along with 5 million kangaroos and wallabies; 5 million bats; 1.1 million wombats and 114,000 echidnas.

Animals that survived the initial fires faced an uphill battle for survival, with injury, trauma, smoke, heat stress, dehydration, loss of habitat, predation risk, and a loss of food all resulting in mortality.

Wildlife groups preparing for new bushfire season

As Australia looks towards another bushfire season, the full impact of the black summer blazes on many species remains unknown.

Caring for sick and injured wildlife across Australia is largely coordinated by volunteers and charities, with each state differing slightly in its approach.

NSW rescue group WIRES, which facilitated 9,500 rescue calls between January and March goes into this fire season better prepared after receiving $60 million in donations.

In Victoria, where 1.5 million hectares were burned, volunteer carers reported treating few animals, with many saying they struggled to gain access to fire affected wildlife due to government restrictions on access.

Hoping to improve the response this year, discussions between the state and animal welfare groups are ongoing.

Evan Quartermain and the HSI team in a burnt out forest on Kangaroo Island.
Evan Quartermain and the HSI team search for injured koalas on Kangaroo Island. Source: Michael Dahlstrom

Call for greater mental health support for carers

Volunteer wildlife carers were found to have suffered from a number of mental health issues including increased anxiety, burn out and anger, according to a study by Humane Society International (HSI) which was released last week.

The charity surveyed 35 organisations and individuals to garner a deeper insight into the challenges faced by wildlife carers and rescuers.

Evan Quartermain, HSI’s head of disaster response, was part of a small team who worked on Kangaroo Island during and after the bushfires to rescue wildlife.

He said governments and emergency services need to improve coordination when responding to affected wildlife, and ensure the mental health of first responders is prioritised.

HSI has issued 12 recommendations which include trauma counselling, investment in mobile veterinary clinics, and paid coordination teams who are trained in bushfire and wildlife response.

“The recommendations couldn't be clearer,” Mr Quartermain said.

“We need wildlife groups to be working together with governments and emergency services to drastically improve coordination, we need to build regional capacity with facilities and trained responders, and we need to look after the mental wellbeing of the volunteer responders we rely on.”

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