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Sanctuary fights to save animals whose habitats were destroyed by fire

by Janis Frayer, NBC News |

KINGSCOTE, Australia — Kangaroo Island's animal sanctuary, where iconic Australian species such as koalas, wallabies and kangaroos have flourished in safety, has now become a scene of devastation in the midst of the country's catastrophic wildfires.

Half of the island off Australia's southern coast has gone up in flames since late December as the record-breaking wildfires have raged in the country for months.

While it is impossible to know exactly how many animals in Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary have died in the flames, staff say that 700 to 800 carcasses have been recovered. Dozens of volunteers are now fighting around the clock to provide veterinary care and food for those that survived.

“They have gone through so much. They are all bundling,” Byron Manning said as he pointed to a koala perched on a branch of a singed eucalyptus tree, clenching a baby koala, or joey. “You will find a lot of the young ones bunched together in times like this.”

Established in 1997, the privately-owned, 5,000-acre sanctuary is visited by as many as 50,000 people a year with most of its income coming from tourism, including wildlife tours and holiday stays.

Manning, who usually works at another wildlife park, rushed to Kangaroo Island to help out when the blazes broke out.

Now, there is very little greenery left, including on eucalyptus trees that koalas rely on for survival.

It could take months for the trees to rebound, he said, but in the meantime, the sanctuary’s wildlife is at risk of starvation.

Nearly 500,000 acres of Kangaroo Island — Australia's third-largest island and a wildlife-rich tourist spot that attracts nearly 200,000 visitors a year — have been burned in the blazes described as “hell on earth” by Mayor Michael Pengilly. There are currently six active grass fires burning on the island, although fire officials say the situation has stabilized.

Volunteers, including some of the 450 military personnel deployed to the island to help with the recovery effort, are tasked with looking for animals in distress.

They are seeing many koalas and wallabies with burns, making it harder for them to fend for themselves. Squeaking and squirming, some are put in crates and taken away to be examined.

Meanwhile, a group of soldiers has been lining up to hand-feed baby koalas. Wrapped in towels and holding on to stuffed bears, the joeys are fed special formula from a syringe.

But adult koalas need green leaves to survive and they are in short supply. Volunteers have been scouring the island in search of tree patches untouched by the fires in hopes of harvesting some greenery for the animals to eat. They are also leaving buckets of water around the park to keep them hydrated.

Volunteer veterinarian Ian Hough said some of the wildlife was also having trouble coping with the extreme heat they experienced weeks before the fires even started.

Climate scientists say Australia's fires are a taste of what the world will experience as temperatures rise.

Since September, the blazes have claimed more than 2,000 homes and consumed millions of acres of land. The smoke from the fires is expected to make at least one full trip around the globe, NASA said.

Driving on a scorched road through the sanctuary, James Geddes, one of the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary owners, said they are used to intense fires in summertime, but the recent wave has been especially damaging.

Thirty koalas died in the flames, he said, and another 20 will likely not survive their injuries.

“We may be down to 25. It’s hard to know,” Geddes, 61, said.

He was also concerned about how the fires will affect the sanctuary’s biodiversity.

It’s estimated more than 1 billion animals have been killed in Australia's fires, either directly or from related causes, such as starvation, dehydration or habitat loss.