Australia's 'safe' koalas population was cut in half by forest fires

SYDNEY: It is feared that at least half of the only population of disease-free koalas, a key insurance for the future of the species, will be more seriously injured after forest fires swept the sanctuary of an island, rescuers said. Sunday.

Kangaroo Island, a popular nature-based tourist attraction off the coast of South Australia State, is home to many wild populations of native animals, including the much-loved Koala, where the population was estimated at 50,000.

Massive forest fires have exploded in the vast southeast of the country in a crisis of months, killing almost half a billion native animals in the state of New South Wales alone, scientists estimate.

Conditions have been particularly severe in recent days, with a continuous fire on Kangaroo Island spreading rapidly and sweeping 170,000 hectares, a third of the island, on Friday.

More than 50 percent (of the population) has been lost, Sam Mitchell of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park told AFP, which is raising funds to treat injured koalas.

The injuries are extreme. Others have run out of habitat to return to, so hunger will be a problem in the coming weeks. A study by the University of Adelaide published in July found that the koala species of Kangaroo Island is particularly important for the survival of the general population, since it is the only large chlamydia-free group.

Bacterial infection, which causes blindness, infertility and death in the species, is widespread in koalas in the eastern states and New South Wales and also occurs in the state of Victoria.

They are an insurance population for the entire population, Jessica Fabijan of the University of Adelaide told AFP, who conducted the study. These fires have devastated the population.

Fabijan said the massive forest fires in New South Wales and the Gippsland region of Victoria, home to the main populations of koalas, would also have killed many animals.

It is one of the greatest tragedies for the population since the late 1800s when they used to hunt them for their skin, he added.

The loss of habitat, dog attacks, and car accidents have already caused a sharp decline in the population of the hairy marsupial, which is believed to be more than 10 million before the European settlement of the continent in 1788.

The koalas cannot be removed from the island because of their chlamydia-free state, the state government said, adding that veterinarians were rescuing and treating injured animals on the site.

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