Australia

Australian wildfire: Hundreds of koalas feared dead

Koala Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Koala numbers have suffered significant decline in recent decades

Hundreds of koalas are feared to have died in an Australian bushfire, animal rescuers say.

The blaze burnt through 2,000 hectares of bush containing a prime koala breeding ground in New South Wales, around 250 miles north of Sydney.

Rescuers said the deaths were particularly tragic as the koalas were a diverse breed, with one expert calling it a "national tragedy".

The native species has suffered significant decline in recent decades.

Monitoring groups say koala numbers are falling, with as few as 43,000 left in the wild. Their decline has been blamed on habitat loss, disease, dog attacks and climate change.

The marsupial is listed as "vulnerable" by Australia's Environment Ministry.

Koala rescuer Cheyne Flanagan said the large blaze near Port Macquarie had engulfed a sanctuary where hundreds of genetically diverse koalas lived.

"Because it was of such high intensity, I think that the amount of deaths will be very high, unfortunately," Ms Flanagan told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.

She said rescuers feared "carnage", and had not been able to look for survivors because the fire was still burning.

Koalas are common wildlife fatalities in bushfires. The tree-dwelling mammals usually cope by climbing to the top of trees and curling into a ball.

"If the fire goes through quickly and just singes their fur, they are fine and the fur will grow back," Sue Ashton of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital told news agency AFP.

But if the fire continues to burn up the tree "they'll perish", she said. "It's a national tragedy because this koala population is so unique."

New South Wales, Australia's most populous state, has experienced hundreds of fires in the past months.

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