Bushfire recovery: Saving the koalas

Living Well | Sue Hewitt | Posted on 28 February 2020

How Victorian wildlife conservation organisations are saving our koalas.     

Leafy is one lucky koala; he was among the first rescued from ground zero at Mallacoota after bushfires ripped through East Gippsland. 

He spent weeks in intensive care at Healesville Sanctuary for burns to his feet as well as stress and is now being rehabilitated at Phillip Island Nature Parks

While thousands of koalas perished in the summer blazes, some like Leafy survived by climbing high into trees but burnt their hands and feet on still smouldering tree trunks as they came down to the ground.  

Woman patting koala in tree

Rescued survivors underwent intensive care at Healesville Sanctuary before being moved to new sanctuaries, such as Phillip Island, as part of wildlife recovery efforts co-ordinated by the Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning and Zoos Victoria.

Phillip Island Nature Parks’ conservation manager Jess McKelson says Leafy is well on the way to recovery and is now climbing and building muscle strength and eating well. 

Three female koalas – Blinky, Solo and Trip – which all had burns to their feet, are also healing. They no longer need bandages or medication and are free from infection but still need special care. She says another four koalas – Skye, Jeremy, Rivers and Frankie – arrived late February and the conservation program is preparing to receive more survivors in the coming weeks once they have completed their initial intensive care at Healesville.

The Mallacoota survivors are disease free so have been kept in quarantine pens away from 20 existing animals in Phillip Island Koala Reserve, some of which are infected with chlamydia which causes infertility. 

“The newcomers are being given the space, care and attention they need and are responding well to their new temporary home,” says Jess. 

“At present they are still in critical care in purpose-built pens well away from the public viewing areas to ensure they aren’t disturbed. We treat them as wild animals with minimal contact with people at this stage because we don’t want to humanise them.”

These fires have been so intense and extensive that it is going to take years to recover.
Koala in a tree
Close up of koala in a tree
Koala in a tree

The koalas will be cared for as long as is needed before being released into the wild at a time and place to be determined. 

Jess says the recovery of wildlife will be long-term as experts were still grappling to understand the extent of the loss of entire ecosystems. Meanwhile, she and her team were planning to extend the recovery centre and build more pens. 

Phillip Island Nature Parks’ Koala Conservation Reserve was established in 1991 to protect and preserve the koala population on Phillip Island and Jess says it is heartening that the reserve can now contribute to the protection, preservation and recovery of animals from other areas. 

RACV has provided vital support to Phillip Island Nature Parks’ conservation efforts, since the two organisations formed a partnership in 2015. RACV’s head of partnerships, education and events, Megan Ballantyne, says RACV members have raised more than $5.5 million through ticket sales to the Parks’ attractions, with the proceeds going directly to conservation programs. RACV members and staff have also planted more than 30,000 trees at the conservation parks.

Wildlife Victoria’s chief executive officer Dr Megan Davidson says her group has been overwhelmed by support, raising almost $10 million for its bushfire recovery fund

“These fires have been so intense and extensive that it is going to take years to recover,” she says.

She urges people returning to fire-affected areas to call Wildlife Victoria on 8400 7300 for a qualified rescuer if they see injured or distressed wildlife. 

Those wanting to help can leave out low dishes of water as natural water sources are often polluted by ash and other things after fires. “People with fruit trees should take down the netting and share their fruit with animals whose food sources are gone,” she says. (More: What do do if you come across fire-affected animals and wildlife.)

Simple ways to help fire-affected wildlife

  • Visit Phillip Island Nature Parks where ticket prices support the conservation work – RACV members get a 25 per cent discount on tickets. 
  • Leave water bowls around the backyard with rocks or sticks in them as perches for birds and other animals.
  • Plant native trees and protect natural habitats.
  • Build or install a wildlife nesting box or preserve tree hollows.
  • Support ethical wildlife tours that respect wild animals and don’t let you hold or cuddle the animals.