Brushfires ravage Australia's fragile koala colonies; nearly 1,000 animals may have been incinerated
The lucky ones escaped the inferno with singed ears and burned feet, clinging to rescuers who came to save the already imperiled koalas.
But hundreds others of already vulnerable koalas feared dead in a historic bush fire that has torn through the eastern Australia coast, which has claimed the lives of at least four people.
Rescuers and volunteers wandering through charred eucalyptus trees in New South Wales for marsupial survivors have found bleak signs of devastation: koalas incinerated while seeking refuge, leaving ash where conservationists hoped to tally the dead.
"It's a national tragedy," Port Macquarie Koala Hospital clinical director Cheyne Flanagan told ABC News Australia.
She estimated earlier this week that as many as 350 koalas had been killed, but conceded that number could certainly rise as koalas dehydrate or starve to death. More than 2.5 million acres have already burned on the east coast, with more fires in the west.
Fire roared through serene Lake Innes Nature Reserve, where as many as 600 koalas lived in a colony and died in the trees while seeking shelter, News.com.au reported.
Social media has been awash with photos and videos of people stumbling upon burned and thirsty koalas placed in laundry baskets and munching on leaves indoors.
Koalas are already considered vulnerable to extinction by wildlife officials due to forest clearing and human expansion, and their numbers have plummeted to below 20,000 in their primary habitat in New South Wales, according to the World Wildlife Fund, which said they could be extinct by 2050.
But the fires have been so devastating that koalas could be reclassified them as endangered in the state, Flanagan said.
Conservationists have raced to install water stations for surviving koalas stricken with dehydration. The stubborn animals typically rely on eucalyptus leaves for much of their water consumption, but the fires have destroyed swaths of their habitat and food source.
Koalas eat as much as 2 1/2 pounds of leaves per day and even reject leaves that do not contain enough water, according to National Geographic.
Hotter and drier weather brought on by climate change - which has exacerbated the fires - have also ravaged eucalyptus, driving koalas to seek artificial water supplies in Gunnedah, the "koala capital of the world" in New South Wales west of Port Macquarie, the magazine said.
Conservations have sounded the alarm over the fire's impact on the sensitive species.
They typically breed once a year, Koala Conservation Australia President Sue Ashton told the television show "Today," making each death a significant event.
"I don't know how we are going to come back from this," she said.