With the events of March-October dominating our memories of 2020, it's sometimes hard to remember that the year started with devastating bushfires that destroyed vast swathes of Australia, including regional Victoria, and ended up killing or injuring an estimated 3 billion native Australian animals.
Among the injured were 14 koalas from East Gippsland, which were badly burnt in the fires and were brought to emergency triage centres in the region, then on to Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary for medical treatment. Some needed multiple surgeries and months of follow-up treatment, and when they were well enough, they continued their recovery at Healesville Sanctuary and Phillip Island Nature Parks, until they were recovered enough to be returned to the wild.
Now the time has come for them to return to their wild homes, with all 14 now back in East Gippsland. Each has a collar with a tracking device, so scientists can continue to monitor their health and wellbeing as they adapt back into their natural habitat.
Zoos Victoria senior veterinarian Dr Leanne Wicker oversaw the project and says seeing them back in their homes was a heartwarming sight.
“It was a special moment to see these koalas, who have been through so much, finally return to the wild,” she says. “I will never forget the injuries and trauma that first confronted us in the wildlife triage units in January. Sadly, there were many animals that we couldn’t save, but we gave our all to treat the badly burnt paws, noses and ears while monitoring for internal injuries."
“It has been a huge undertaking and responsibility for all involved to slowly rehabilitate these koalas, and a real privilege to now be able to bring them back to their homes where they can complete their recovery as the project team continues to monitor them to gain further understanding on the health, welfare and long-term survival of recovered fire-affected koalas released back in the wild.”