“Up to 30% of the koalas in the region may have been killed because up to 30% of their habitat has been destroyed,” Minister Sussan Ley told a morning radio news program. “We’ll know more when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made.”
Besides suffering burns, the animals are starving and water is scant. Eucalyptus trees — a source of koalas’ staple food — have been destroyed by fire.
Ley said she’s been working with koala experts to establish fire-safe corridors and to develop a plan for releasing animals that have been rescued and are recovering in hospitals.
The mid-north coast of New South Wales where the fires are raging is home to an estimated 15,000 to 28,000 koalas, The Guardian reports.
Fires have been burning out of control since October amid a record drought and heatwave, claiming the lives of nine people and destroying hundreds of homes. Last week, average temperatures hit 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit.
All animals are at risk in the bush fires, and experts believe a staggering number have already been killed. But Australia’s native koalas were already at risk before the destructive new threat. The Australian government lists the koala population as “vulnerable.” Community volunteers and firefighters have been struggling to save the animals they can.
In one heartbreaking scene in Adelaide, a koala stopped in the middle of a roadway and approached passing cyclists. It clambered onto one rider and drank eagerly from an offered water bottle. “This koala walked right up to me as I was descending and climbed up onto my bike while I gave him water,” rider Anna Heusler posted on Instagram.