A koala has been reunited with the heroic grandmother who rescued him from a NSW bushfire near Long Flat, 49 kilometres west of Port Macquarie.
Local resident Toni Doherty was visibly emotional as she visited the koala, dubbed ‘Lewis’ after one of her grandchildren, at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on Wednesday.
In a video that went viral this week, Doherty was seen rushing to the koala’s aid, wrapping the animal in her shirt and pouring water over it.
“It was terrifying to see him just come out of the flames and he looked so defenceless running along the road,” Doherty told Nine News.
“I knew I needed to put something around him as I ran to the tree, so I just took off my shirt and covered him with it. I just tried to get him out of the fire, it was so hot and so frightening.”
Port Macquarie Koala Hospital Clinical director Cheyne Flanagan said the koala had been put on fluids and oxygen and was “probably the worst one” they had in their care.
“He’s got, what we call, partial thickness burns and there’s one little spot of full thickness. So he’s got really badly burnt hands and feet, he’s got burns under his arms, his nose is burnt and a bit of his private parts are burnt as well, and he is singed all over,” she said.
Doherty said the 14-year-old koala had since “gone to a carer’s home away from the koala hospital, where he will receive continuous care”.
The country’s koala population has been a major victim of the flames, with more than 350 of the marsupials feared killed in a major habitat. 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.
Bear has found dozens of koalas in need and for research purposes so far this year, but is yet to find any since starting his bushfire deployment earlier this month.
Population estimates for koalas, native to Australia, vary widely, from as few as 50,000 to little more than 100,000.
They dwell mostly in eucalypt forests in eastern states and on the coastal fringes, usually living up to 20 years, carrying their young in a pouch and sleeping for up to 18 hours a day.
Temperatures are set to soar this week, worsening conditions in bushfire-ravaged New South Wales and Queensland. The Bureau of Meteorology warned people to ‘have a plan to beat the heat.’
The fires have already claimed six lives and destroyed more than 303 homes this bushfire season.
James Redmayne contributed to this report.