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Inside a sanctuary struggling to save koalas from Australia's wildfires

It may be hard to fathom an Australia without a wild animal as nationally symbolic as the koala, but this season’s fires have left the species in deep trouble, even as it already faced multiple threats.

Most burn victims die, so 'every single koala that we can save is vital'

Patu faced wildfires before he was even born. The hope is that he’ll be released into the wild, but there’s nowhere safe to do that right now. (David Common/CBC)

Inside Patu's enclosure at the Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary, human visitors aren't supposed to make eye contact with the one-year-old joey. The hope is that he'll be released into the wild, and the volunteers here don't want him too comfortable with people.

Of course, Patu is a koala teenager, curious and bold. He just climbs over, his big eyes fixed on any visitor. 

"I really believe that every single koala that we can save is vital,'' says Amber Lilly, the assistant manager here. The Truro, Nova Scotia, native now lives in Australia, amidst the country's most devastating wildfires in years. It's thought tens of thousands of koalas have been killed, extirpating the species from certain areas in the country.

"Koalas generally climb up to get away from danger," says Lilly and, as a result, "they can burn their chins, their noses and their ears … and the hands and feet as well."

That's how Patu's mother, and so many other koalas, ended up at this sanctuary in Port Stephens, 200 kilometres north of Sydney.

Eila was burned in wildfires a year ago. She'd only just become pregnant with Patu. The sanctuary has spent months helping her recover, putting ointment on her burns, and specially knitted mittens to protect her burned hands and feet.

Nova Scotia’s Amber Lilly, now living in Australia, checks in on Elia, burned in wildfires a year ago. (David Common/CBC)

She still shares a tree with Patu, but soon, it's planned, both can be returned to the wild. Though there is nowhere safe to do that right now.

There are dozens of bushfires throughout Australia, though primarily along the southeast coast. They cover thousands of square kilometres. There is a fire right now in Port Stephens, not far from the sanctuary. It's not large but everything is a threat in these dry, hot conditions.

"With these recent bushfires, there's just a lot of pressure," says Lilly, "I think that the next generation may not see a koala in the wild."

It may be hard to fathom an Australia without a wild animal as nationally symbolic as the koala, but this season's fires have left the species in deep trouble, even as it already faced multiple threats. Much habitat had already been lost to development, pushing koalas out of the trees and sometimes towards roads, where hundreds are hit and killed by cars each year. 

A koala version of chlamydia has further endangered the animals. It can lead to blindness and death, and is activated and worsened by stress, which there has been plenty of thanks to the wildfires. It's thought at least half of the only completely chlamydia-free population on Kangaroo Island, in southern Australia, has been killed, devastating hopes of using those animals to repopulate the rest of the country.

'We have been sold out'

Ron Land, manager of the sanctuary, says he's "disgusted" by the wildfires. "It's killing koalas."

He blames a failure to manage forests, deal with climate change and protect koala habitat for leading to the situation today.

"We have been given the great fortune to come from what we think is the best country in the world, but we have been sold out by a succession of governments, of different political stripes."

Smoulder is currently in care with full thickness and radiant burns, meaning the burns have gone through all the layers of his skin. (Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary)

So it has been left to a small number of facilities and rescue organizations to save any koala possible. But doing so is enormously expensive.

Sanctuaries and rescue organizations have never brought this many koalas into care. Tens of thousands are feared to have died.

The Port Stephens Sanctuary often has veterinary bills of $10,000 for the most severely burned animals every month. They receive no government funding for their work, so fundraising is key to their survival.

They're building an admission-based walking trail and glamping sites where visitors can interact from a distance with those koalas in their care who cannot ever be released into the wild. The revenue generated through that project will help cover some of the sanctuary's rescue and recovery costs.

Watch: Climate protests heat up as Australia burns

Thousands took to the streets in Sydney to protest what they call climate inaction by the Australian government as wildfires throughout the country worsen. 2:03

But even if they have the money, it doesn't guarantee success.

Only two of the seven koalas rescued from the fires this year have survived.

"It's very upsetting," says Lilly, who discovered the latest to die on the ground the morning a CBC crew visited the facility. "We thought that he was going to be ready for release. We don't know what happened."

All of the animals burned in the bush this season have been given a fire-related name. Char was the one who died. Sooty before him. And Smoulder is still receiving round-the-clock care in a volunteer's home.

Sooty, who later succumbed to his injuries, was burned in the Mid North Coast Bushfires. (Port Stephens Koala Sanctuary)

The sanctuary has successfully returned koalas to the wild, and makes every effort possible to do so. 

But the wildfires aren't the only consideration. Three years of profound drought have negatively affected the koala's primary food source. Eucalyptus trees have either died, burned down, or don't have the nutritional value they once did.

Koalas get 90 per cent of their water from the food they eat, rather than drinking water directly (hard to do in the trees). But eucalyptus leaves currently don't have the water content the koalas need for sustenance.

Many of the koalas brought into care are suffering from dehydration.

When necessary, Lilly hand-feeds a nutritious paste to those animals who can't eat.

"I feel, at this time in particular, everything I can do to help is really important."

These may seem like extraordinary measures, but these are extraordinary times for the koala. Its very existence in the wild is at risk. Saving even one koala is critical.

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