Bushfires have killed more than 2000 koalas and their “bodies may never be found,” an emergency parliamentary inquiry heard on Monday.
The New South Wales upper house held an urgent hearing into the populations and habitats of the native Australian marsupials to analyse the extent of the devastation from the fires on the state’s north coast.
Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told the inquiry a massive swathe of the “known biodiversity hotspot” has been wiped out.
“We can say without any doubt there will be ongoing declines in koala populations from this point forward,” he said.
“There is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies.”
North East Forest Alliance president and ecologist Dailan Pugh said 2000 koalas may have perished.
Emma Hurst MLC for Animal Justice Party told HuffPost Monday’s hearing is a wake up call to recognise that the nation is “at crisis point” and the government must act immediately.
“Critical habitat is being destroyed at an alarming rate and koala populations in New South Wales are edging ever closer to extinction,” she said.
“Evidence is being given at an emergency Inquiry hearing today in Parliament that over 2000 koalas are now presumed dead due to these mega fires.
“Wildlife corridors and a Great Koala National Park must be established as soon as possible. We must stop all logging that is further decimating koala habitat. And wildlife groups trying desperately to save the few koalas must be given funds to support their vital work.”
Hurst added that without government action, koalas will soon be “gone forever.”
The inquiry heard from organisations that have been on the front line in treating koalas affected by the fires, such as the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, conservation groups, Indigenous fire practitioners, National Parks & Wildlife and Department of Planning, Industry and Environment.
Parties commented on what steps could have been taken to prevent the devastation to NSW populations.
Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, which recently raised more than $1 million for koalas through a GoFundMe page, currently has 51 koalas in its care, 31 of which have been affected by the NSW bushfires.
With only four paid staff members and the rest of the work done by 150 volunteers, Ashton said it’s been a “frenetic” time for the carers.
“We’ve got most teams here by 7:30-8:00 in the morning and we close at 4:30pm but they are here quite a long time after that and working from home as well,” she said.
Warmer weather brought by climate change threatens to worsen conditions for koalas, as deforestation has narrowed habitable areas, said James Tremain of the Nature Conservation Council of New South Wales.
“Devastating bushfires are going to knock out some of these key population centres, but so will increasing temperatures,” he said, by affecting the nutrition value of the leaves that are the animals’ sole food source.
In Queensland, a Cattle Dog cross-breed named Bear, has been trained to find and save koalas injured in Australia’s recent devastating bushfires. Bear is also able to locate quolls and other small Australian marsupials in the wild.
There were 96 fires burning in NSW on Monday with only about a half contained and more than 1,600 firefighters deployed to do back burning and create containment lines.
Sydney with its population of 5.2 million has been blanketed by unhealthy haze and smoke for weeks, with conditions worsening on Friday as several fires merged into a giant blaze that may take weeks to put out.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison has been under pressure to address the impact of climate change and while some additional money has been provided, Morrison has repeatedly rejected any links between the fires and his conservative policies, including support for the coal industry.
The fires have already claimed six lives and destroyed more than 303 homes this bushfire season.