As images of bushfire-affected koalas on life support are still going viral, the death toll for the marsupials has reached 350 in NSW alone. It’s a crisis which has tugged on the nation’s heartstrings, including Indigenous songwriter Christine Anu.
After being inducted into the Australia Zoo Walk Of Fame on Friday, the singer has spoken about the work the zoo’s medical unit is doing to treat koalas affected by the recent prolonged period of unusually dry and hot conditions.
“Of course bushfires will affect the food source, the habitat for koalas,” Anu told HuffPost Australia.
“The biggest trauma incidents for koalas are actually vehicles hitting them because they are running around because their homes are being burnt down.”
Having had the opportunity to see the koalas during her visit to Australia Zoo, Anu said now is the time to continue the discussion around the effects climate change has on the bushfire season.
“I really wanted to say, ‘What if this (habitat) disappears because of climate change?’ We’ve got to make good choices and I think that’s what the message is,” she said.
“When it disappears it won’t be there again, it’s not like it can come back from extinction. It’s not going to be there for my grandchildren, and I was a child who was connected to the great outdoors.”
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.
“Koalas are definitely in trouble in New South Wales, but if the declines continue at the same rate as the last 20 to 30 years, koalas could be extinct in the wild by mid-century,” Tremain added.
Last week Koala Conservation Australia president Sue Ashton said she was “very, very concerned” about koalas’ welfare as authorities warn of a severe heatwave this week.
“Port Macquarie is currently surrounded by fires. If the wind picks up, we could lose even more habitat and more koalas,” Ashton said in a statement. “It’s just so unpredictable – we don’t know what will happen.”
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital has 14 fire-affected koalas in its care and a GoFundMe page for the organisation has raised more than $500k to fund rehab and rescue efforts.
With additional reporting by Melanie Burton (Reuters).