sábado, 21 de abril de 2012

Koala Rescue

Racing to Rescue Koalas

Koalas are under siege. Can Australia rescue them?

By Mark Jenkins
Photograph by Joel Sartore

It’s two in the morning and a koala is caught in barbed wire on a fence, like a prisoner trying to escape. A phone rings in the home of Megan Aitken in Burpengary, a suburb north of Brisbane. Aitken, 42, runs a volunteer organization devoted to rescuing wild koalas from a surprisingly wide array of hazards. Before the dispatcher has even given her the location, she has thrown her clothes on over her pajamas.

Two joeys cling to each other at an animal hospital before being placed with human caregivers. Later on, they'll be released into the wild.

Up a tree in Petrie, a town north of Brisbane, a female koala watches photo assistant Jess Hooper approach with a basket to drop on her if she comes down before rescuers arrive. Koalas often return to trees they consider their territory, says rescuer Megan Aitken, "even if those trees are now in somebody's front yard."

With no place to hide, koalas are being squeezed out of Queensland communities like North Lakes that 20 years ago were farmland and wildlife habitat. Hunted ruthlessly in the early 20th century, koalas were later protected and made a modest recovery. Today their numbers are again in steep decline.

Koala crusader Ray Chambers of the Sunshine Coast Koala Wildlife Rescue nets a female and her joey as Phil Siggers looks on. The adult had conjunctivitis, common in koalas. "You've got to be gentle with them," says Chambers, an auto repairman who co-founded the southeast Queensland organization.

Wielding a blanket, Megan Aitken of the Moreton Bay Koala Rescue team bundles a young male that was hit by a car. Development in prime koala habitat makes such scenes inevitable, she says, while the government ignores the warnings: "If koalas aren't protected, we're looking at local extinction within five years."

Locked up—temporarily—by koala rescuers in Joyner, this male will be safer after he gets a checkup, an ear tag and microchip, and a trip to a park or other locale. Hundreds of koalas are killed or injured every year on roads.

Vicky Toomey, head veterinarian nurse at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, trims a cast for Harley, who is lucky to be alive and on the mend after being hit by a car.

Savaged by a dog, Bruzer, a young male, recuperates from surgery at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, where hundreds of koalas are treated every year for injuries inflicted by dogs or automobiles. With his facial bones crushed, Bruzer succumbed to infection and complications after veterinarians tried to repair his sinuses.

Surgeon Amber Gillett comforts Sozzy, a young female, as the koala regains consciousness after an operation at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital in Beerwah, north of Brisbane. Like hundreds of koalas every year, "she'd been hit by a car," says Gillett. "After disease, road trauma is the number one killer."

Despite four hours of surgery, Robyn Stenner of the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital was unable to save Lauren, a female whose abdomen was crushed by dogs. "It's a common injury," says Stenner. "But it always breaks your heart."

Killed in a single week by cars or dogs, these koalas were mourned at the vet clinic that tried to save them. During "trauma season," from July to December, when the animals descend to the ground in search of mates and new food trees, a dozen or so injured koalas a week are brought to the clinic.
(To protect the identity of confidential sources, the yellow label at left has been blurred.)

"Everything koala" is how Deidré de Villiers describes her life. A chief koala researcher for the state of Queensland, de Villiers also cares for orphaned koalas like Judah, above, at home with her sister, Michele, who is holding Diego. "A juvenile koala's natural behavior is to grip tightly or hug its mother or, in this case, human caregiver," de Villiers says. "There's nothing like them."

Caregiver Anika Lehmann says that Talisa, a rescued female, will eventually be returned to the wild.

Volunteer David Wistrom of Narangba dons a koala suit at events to raise public awareness. "Aussies love koalas," he says, "but most have no idea how threatened they are."

Playing mom to an armful of koalas "doesn't allow me much time for anything else," says Samantha Longman of Ormiston, who's been raising orphans for five years. "But the little guys are part of our family. What we're doing is important."

Sam, the Giant Koala, towers 46 feet over visitors at a tourist complex in Dadswells Bridge, Victoria. Efforts to reintroduce koalas to suitable habitat began more than 75 years ago in Victoria, where the animals face threats similar to those in Queensland and other areas.

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