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'They basically were starving': Concern over lack of food as koalas rescued from southern Queensland bushfires return to the wild

By Lucy Robinson, Thursday August 6, 2020 - 06:48 EST
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Tin Tin, now believed to be 15–18 months old, was rescued after bushfires last year. - ABC

With as many as by last season's bushfires, young koala Tin Tin is one of the lucky ones.



The joey was found in a paddock at Crows Nest, north of Toowoomba in southern Queensland, last November after fires burnt more than 20,000 hectares in the region.

Wildlife carer Trish LeeHong rescued Tin Tin from the top of a 30-metre tree using a cherrypicker.

He weighed just 1.2 kilograms.

"His mother was in the low fork of the tree and she sadly passed away within a couple of hours of us catching her," Ms LeeHong said.

"He's an amazing little koala; he's climbing really well, and he's very fit.

"So he's off to a good start."

Ms LeeHong saved 28 koalas from the area, most of them injured, orphaned or traumatised.

"Some of them were badly burnt. Most of them were affected by smoke inhalation," she said.

"It was very quiet and very eerie.

"[The land] was just black; trunks of trees and at times very deep piles of ash, a few remains of animals. It's a feeling that is hard to explain."



Koalas always destined for release

The animals spent time in a veterinary hospital after the fire, before some returned to Ms LeeHong's care.

At her sanctuary at Murphy's Creek, in the Lockyer Valley, the koalas have had time to recuperate in the company of other koalas, echidnas, birds and wallabies.

Once strong enough, they are returned to the wild.

State legislation requires the koalas to be released within 5km of where they were originally found.

"The koala is a vulnerable species and we need to make sure that we can put as much back into the environment as possible," Ms LeeHong said.



Tin Tin was in care for eight months when the day came for him to return to the bush.

Ms Leehong and a volunteer, Hali Stemmler, drove him out to a thicket of eucalypts near the paddock he was found in.

He shot up the trunk of a tree as soon as they opened the cage and he disappeared from sight.

"It's a relief that it's one less mouth to feed because it's quite a bit of work," Mr Stemmler said.

"But it's a bit of a worry because you're always thinking in the back of your mind, 'Is there enough out there for them? Are they going to be alright?'."


With food in much shorter supply after the fires, available food has been a concern shared by Ms Leehong.

"Most of the trees in that area are completely devastated," she said.

"[Tin Tin] will have to learn to just search for food.

"I just hope that he does really well. I hope that he stays away from humans and spends his time, as best he can, hopefully to produce a few more young koalas."



Fire compounds effects of drought

Lockyer Valley ecologist Martin Bennet said the fire struck a devastating blow to the landscape which had already suffered a bad drought.

"The fires just, tenfold, increase the lack of food," he said.

"A lot of the trees lost their foliage and, seeing we were in that drought, we didn't have any surface water for koalas.

"They basically were starving. The drought that kept on with 45-degree temperatures made it even worse again.

"So it all compounded on the poor old koalas."



Mr Bennet said revegetation programs would help but would take time to be effective.

"It's probably five or six years before things start to really settle down," he said.

"But then it probably is another 10 years on top of that to get back to what it was.

"And hopefully in between there's not another fire. [The land] is resilient … but it takes years."

In the meantime, landholders like Dieter Hinz, whose property near Perseverance Dam was badly burnt, have been noticing an absence of wildlife.

"I would say about 90 per cent of it is gone — I haven't seen a wallaby for a long time," he said.

"We do have to put some effort into planting some trees back again."



Mr Hinz wants to see the government fund revegetation programs around Crows Nest to speed up the land's recovery.

"I hope there is a better management program to come because we're losing the fight," he said.

Queensland's Department of Environment and Science said it was leading projects in priority areas to determine and implement immediate recovery actions for threatened species.


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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