Devastating images have captured the moment a singed koala sits traumatized beside a dead companion after a wildfire decimated their Kangaroo Island habitat.
The island, off the coast of South Australia, is a biodiverse haven for wildlife. It’s sometimes described as the Galapagos of Australia. Fires destroyed as much as half of the rich habitat there when they tore through two weeks ago, leaving scores of dead animals in their wake.
In the image, taken Wednesday, the injured koala sits with its face buried in its chest near a deceased smaller koala.
While many people felt the koala’s stance made it appear as though it was mourning the death of its fellow animal, Humane Society International offered a different ― but still heartbreaking ― explanation.
Kelly Donithan, the organization’s disaster response specialist who rescued that koala, said the koala was among many on Kangaroo Island that had “shut down” in the aftermath of the fires.
“The survivors have little to no energy reserves left and we are finding them sitting on the ground totally shut down ― all too often with other corpses nearby,” she said in a statement. “We did manage to rescue this particular koala and she is doing well in the emergency rehab at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park.”
Subsequent images show rescuers from the Humane Society International Crisis Response team capturing the surviving marsupial with a towel. Humane Society Australia CEO Erica Martin said in a statement that the group was working to deliver emergency truckloads of water and supplementary feed to keep koalas, kangaroos, wombats and flying foxes alive.
It has been estimated that more than half of the island’s 50,000 koalas ― the only chlamydia-free population in the country ― may have died in the blazes. Hundreds of thousands of other animals have perished, and endangered and critically endangered species native to the island, such as the glossy black cockatoo and Kangaroo Island dunnart, face real threats of extinction in their range.
The rescuer pictured, Donithan, told One Green Planet that these were some of the toughest scenes she’d witnessed as an animal rescuer, saying there were “bodies of charred animals as far as the eye can see.”
“But as we set out each day on search and rescue, we’re still finding animals alive, injured, dazed or traumatized, and it’s such a relief to be able to give them immediate lifesaving assistance.
“We’ve seen kangaroos with devastating burn injuries and dehydrated koalas gasping for water. Amidst all this death, every time we find an animal alive it feels like a miracle.”
Australia’s federal government has pledged $50 million to a wildlife recovery fund, with $25 million going toward wildlife rescues, hospitals and conservation groups, and the other half set aside for an emergency intervention fund advised by a panel of experts.
This week, rain and cooler weather brought a reprieve for firefighters battling other blazes still burning across Australia, especially in the hardest-hit state of New South Wales. However, the NSW Rural Fire Service said, it wasn’t the end of the crisis.
“Although this rain won’t extinguish all fires, it will certainly go a long way towards containment,” it tweeted.
Nationwide, 29 people have died and more than 2,000 homes have been lost this fire season.
This story has been updated with a statement from Kelly Donithan.