August 1, 2018 / 7:58 AM / 3 months ago

Koalas starve as residents destroy trees to stop bushfires on Australian island

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Animal rescuers on an Australian island off the south coast say koalas are starving to death as residents cut down trees to prevent bushfires, destroying the animal’s habitat and food source.

Wendy Hendriksen, a rescue shelter worker on Raymond Island just off Victoria state, said the facility was admitting at least one starving koala each week.

“This is affecting koalas all over the state, not only here in Raymond Island,” said Hendriksen, who works on the 770-hectare (1,902-acre) site, home to about 250 koalas and 470 people.

“It’s much more obvious here, because we only have one shelter that gets all the koalas, so we are able to see the problem to a deeper degree.”

Australia is experiencing extremely dry weather, although the most intense drought has struck further north, in the state of New South Wales.

However, in trying to prevent uncontrolled fires, the clearing of land threatens koalas, which mostly survive on a diet of eucalyptus leaves.

Largely found near Australia’s coastline, the marsupials were introduced to places such as Raymond Island to help them survive after European settlers keen to trade their fur shot them almost to extinction.

But introduced populations often outgrow their captive environments and risk starvation if reproduction controls are inadequate, said Valentina Mella, a professor of life and environmental sciences at the University of Sydney.

“Bushfires, particularly in Victoria, have also been terrible for them,” Mella said.

Australian law classifies koalas as a vulnerable species, with fewer than 90,000 left in the wild, perhaps even as few as 43,000, the Australian Koala Foundation estimates.

Reporting by Paulina Duran; Editing by Michael Perry

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