One of a dozen koalas removed from the Blue Mountains region in Australia by a research team from San Diego Zoo Global. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo.

As fires fueled by record-breaking high temperatures and severe drought continue to devastate Australia, a wildlife search and rescue operation headed by a San Diego Zoo Global research team is focused on recovering koalas in the country’s Blue Mountains region.

The team has been tracking koalas in the region about 60 mile east of Sydney for several years to learn more about them and assess the population number. According to San Diego Zoo Global, koalas in the Blue Mountains have high levels of genetic diversity, which makes the population particularly valuable for the survival of the species.

Fires over the past few weeks in the Blue Mountains region alone have burned more than 2.5 million acres of habitat and threatened wildlife. More than 15 million acres have been affected so far, with wildfires joining together in some areas to create mega-fire events.

With an estimated 1 billion animals feared dead, according to an expert with the University of Sydney, the situation is an environmental disaster.

Dr. Megan Owen, San Diego Zoo Global’s director of population sustainability, said small wildfires occur naturally without devastating an entire population — but the massive scale of the Australia fires changes everything.

“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,” Owen said. “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.”

The researchers have used radio-tagging to track individual koalas in the region since 2015. As the wildfire threatened the area, 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.

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.

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.

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