SYDNEY - Wildlife officials said Wednesday that hundreds of koalas are feared dead or injured in a severe bushfire burning on Australia's east coast.
The out-of-control bushfire started Saturday in Port Macquarie, roughly 400 kilometers north of Sydney, and has burned through 2,200 hectares of bushland including significant koala breeding areas.
"It's a known koala breeding area and we know from our research there's probably hundreds of koalas in there," Sue Ashton, president of the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, said by phone.
"The population there is very special because they are genetically diverse and very adaptable. They have good bloodlines so that's why it's such a concern to us."
"In a bushfire, koalas climb up as high as they can and curl up into a little ball, so if some fire goes past them it will usually just singe their fur and if that happens they're OK," she said.
"But if they get burned they get burns very severely."
Ashton said the hospital team's greatest fear is that surviving koalas may burn their paws and claws as they attempt to climb down singed or still-burning tree trunks.
"If their paws and claws are damaged so badly they can no longer climb, then the koala...is in a lot of trouble," she said, adding that koalas with such injuries should not be returned into the wild.
On Wednesday, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service said fire conditions are easing, and Ashton is hopeful that trained rescuers will be able to begin bringing koalas into the hospital from Thursday or Friday.
"Basically all the koalas (the rescuers) can find will be brought in (to the hospital) because even if they've survived the fire, there's no food for them there now," Ashton, whose hospital can house up to 40 koalas, said.
Koalas are one of Australia's most iconic animals. However, climate change, urban expansion, land clearing and sexually transmitted chlamydia pose threats to the koala population, which studies estimate ranges from 330,000 to as low as 80,000.
In 2012, the Australian government listed the country's most at-risk koala populations -- including those located in Port Macquarie -- as "vulnerable" under national environment law.