Unique Genetically Diverse Population Under Threat from Mega-fires in Australia
Researchers supported by San Diego Zoo Global are getting ready to go into the Blue Mountains region of Australia to look for koalas, in the wake of the wildfires that recently spread through the area. The Blue Mountains World Heritage Region is home to the most genetically diverse population of koalas in the world, and San Diego Zoo Global is committing resources to ensure that the population is recovered. Mega-fires raced through the region over the last few weeks, devastating more than 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares) of habitat and threatening wildlife.
“We have been working in this area for many years now, tracking koalas to learn about them and to assess their population numbers,” said Kellie Leigh, Ph.D., researcher with San Diego Zoo Global and executive director of Science for Wildlife. “The population of koalas in the Blue Mountains have high levels of genetic diversity. This makes this particular population very important for the survival of the species.”
Due to the tall trees and rugged terrain of the area, visual observation of koalas in the region was not feasible. Since 2015, researchers have used an innovative radio-tagging approach to track individual koalas. As the wildfire threatened the area, Leigh and volunteers with Science for Wildlife were able to quickly locate 12 koalas, removing them from the area to the Taronga Zoo, where they could be protected until the crisis had passed.
“Kellie and her team acted heroically, in the face of a mega-fire event, to save individual koalas who may be important to maintaining sustainable populations of the species in the future,” said Allison Alberts, Ph.D., chief conservation and research officer, San Diego Zoo Global. “It is this dedication to saving species that characterizes the conservationists that work with us. We are tremendously grateful for their efforts, and we know that they have a lot of new work to do, to recover the species in the Blue Mountains.”
As the team gets ready to go back into the area to assess the damage, they are expecting to need support for activities that go beyond the scientific work they had previously been engaged in.
“These fires are completely changing how wildlife management will be carried out in future in Australia,” Leigh said. “In the short term, we will be engaging in search and rescue for wildlife that needs assistance, and putting in water sources for the wildlife that have been left behind. Our long-term goal will be to re-wild the koalas that were rescued and recover the population in the region.”
Record-breaking high temperatures and severe drought have fueled a series of wildfires that have been ranging around Australia for several weeks. More than 15 million acres have been affected so far, with wildfires joining together in some areas to create mega-fire events. San Diego Zoo Global researchers have identified the situation represents an environmental disaster.
“We are hearing from our colleagues in Australia that they have tremendous concern regarding what species and habitats will remain once this event is over,” said Megan Owen, Ph.D., director of population sustainability, San Diego Zoo Global. “Historically, small wildfires have occurred naturally without devastating an entire population. In our modern world, climate change is acting as a threat multiplier, creating scenarios where species are pushed suddenly to the brink of extinction and need immediate human intervention to help them survive.”
In response to the threat facing wildlife and habitats in Australia, San Diego Zoo Global has begun a fund-raising campaign to support recovery of koalas, platypuses and other species. For more information, and to support these efforts, visit EndExtinction.org/Help.