Fire and Rescue NSW team give water to a koala as they rescue it from fire in Jacky Bulbin Flat, New South Wales, Australia…
Fire and Rescue NSW team give water to a koala as they rescue it from fire in Jacky Bulbin Flat, New South Wales, Australia, Nov. 21, 2019 in this picture obtained from social media.

SYDNEY - More than 2 million hectares of land, including vast areas of forest, have been scorched in eastern Australia's bushfires. Scientists are beginning to assess the toll on wildlife, particularly endangered koala populations.

Koalas are an Australian icon. The furry marsupials live in trees and in parts of the country they are in decline. They are listed as a vulnerable species under federal environment law in the states of Queensland and New South Wales, where bushfires have destroyed vast areas of habitat in recent weeks.

Some campaigners have argued the koala is "functionally extinct" in parts of Australia. It is a controversial assertion that is not supported by many experts. They believe that to be considered to be "functionally extinct," a species must have fallen to a few hundred, or dozens, which does not apply to koalas.

Rescued from flames

They are, though, often in peril.

Several koalas have been rescued, burned and dehydrated, from the fires. Dozens of fires continue to burn across eastern Australia, and experts say it is impossible to know the impact on native wildlife.

A video of an Australian woman picking up an injured koala from a bushfire was widely viewed on social media. The animal later died at a wildlife hospital.

David Lindenmayer, a professor of ecology at the Australian National University, says droughts and fires can decimate koala populations.

"What happens is that in many cases prior to these big fires, we have extensive drought periods and that means that many species of animals are actually declining quite dramatically even before the fires hit, and so there is often what we call an interaction between the drought and then the fire. And then even in the drought periods after the fire really impair the recovery process,” he said. “So many species are dealing with multiple processes which are very hard for populations to recover from often."

Not extinct yet

Scientists fear that koalas could be heading toward extinction by 2050 if the destruction of their habitat continues.

The picture, though, varies across the country.

There are large and thriving populations of koalas in southern Australia. In parts of the states of Victoria and South Australia marsupial numbers are considered to be overabundant, and that valuable trees are being damaged by too many leaf-eating koalas.