It's a hard image to forget: a koala and her joey sitting dazed on a blackened log, against a background of charred trees and smoky air. When they are offered water from a bottle by a firefighter, they gulp it down like children.
The koala has suffered the brunt of the recent bushfires across our eastern states. One rescue organisation based on Lismore campus – where koalas are often seen – has been working overtime to cater for animals affected by the fires.
Friends of the Koala, a largely volunteer-run rescue and care organisation, usually houses up to 20 sick, injured and displaced koalas. Over the last few months, this number has exceeded 30 as a combination of bushfire threat, drought and habitat loss have placed the local koala population in crisis.
“Bushfires have thrown a massive spotlight onto the plight of the koalas,” says Friends of the Koala vet nurse Marley, “but the reality is, this crisis has been going on for decades”. Friends of the Koala have cared for more than 5,000 animals over the last 30 years.
The koala has been listed as 'vulnerable' since 2012 in Queensland, NSW and the ACT. The Australian Koala Foundation is now recommending it is given a 'critically endangered' listing to protect the estimated 100,000 animals in the wild that face the impending threat of functional extinction – when there are not enough animals to reproduce and maintain a sustainable population.
On Lismore campus, volunteer Owen has just finished building two new rehabilitation enclosures to cater for the extra animals. “At the moment we are just trying to house them all,” he said.
During his time with the organisation Owen has developed his tree climbing skills so he can also undertake rescues above ground. With no hospital facilities at Lismore, two of his recent rescues are waiting to be transferred to Currumbin Wildlife Hospital. They are both infected with chlamydia, the scourge that has decimated koala populations up and down the east coast. “The joey has it all in his eyes and is just about blind. The mum though has advanced chlamydia and will probably need to be euthanased, there’s probably nothing more we can do for her,” he says.
Dehydration is also a major problem thanks to the drought. “A lot of the animals we rescue, when they come in they are severely dehydrated. They just can’t get enough moisture from the leaf which is in turn suffering from the lack of rain,” says Marley, the organisation's vet nurse.
Friends of the Koala is in desperate need of volunteers to gather leaf, keep cages swept and monitor animals in care. The organisation is always in need of donations to keep the rehabilitation centre open, with the hope one day of building a hospital facility to service the Northern Rivers. "We receive no ongoing funding so rely on the good will of people to support our cause," said Claire, Communication and Operations Manager.
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