The inferno that’s ripped through thousands of square miles of Australia has, as of four days ago, reportedly claimed six lives, around 600 homes, millions of acres of forest, and koalas en masse. Today we’ve lost another baby, whose rescue uplifted social media for a fleeting moment and whose death quashes joy.
But it’s for the best. Yesterday, the Koala Hospital Port Macquarie announced that aggravating burns forced them to put down Ellenborough Lewis, age 14. Toni Doherty, the man who first spotted the koala struggling by the side of the road, can be seen in a video following him into the smoldering brush and swaddling him in a bloodied blanket as he cries, something koalas do when something is “catastrophically wrong,” an ecologist tells the BBC. (Relatable!) Ellenborough Lewis, whom Doherty named after one of her grandchildren, was one of an estimated 350 to 700 koalas who have perished in the fires.
The Koala Hospital Port Macquarie announced the sad news in a Facebook post yesterday:
Today we made the decision to put Ellenborough Lewis to sleep. We placed him under general anaesthesia this morning to assess his burns injuries and change the bandages. We recently posted that “burns injuries can get worse before they get better”. In Ellenborough Lewis’s case, the burns did get worse, and unfortunately would not have gotten better. The Koala Hospital’s number one goal is animal welfare, so it was on those grounds that this decision was made.
We thank you for your ongoing support.
Donations apparently poured into the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital after Ellenborough Lewis’s rescue, according to their GoFundMe campaign to help treat 31 koalas brought to the center. They’ve raised over $1.7 million out of their $25,000 goal and pledge to use the remainder of the funds to increase the number of drinking stations and establish a koala breeding program.
Lewis’s story represents precarious conditions for koalas, which have evolved to survive brush fires–as the New York Times reports, they tend to take refuge in trees, making them far more vulnerable to the current high-intensity fires, which can exacerbate smoke inhalation, cause them to overheat and fall, and scorch their paws as they climb.
The crisis has prompted claims that koalas are “functionally extinct” and endangered. Speaking to the New York Times, scientists have rejected those labels (Redlist currently labels them “vulnerable”), as they can create the perception that koalas are beyond salvation–a dangerous assumption for the efforts to help them. The point of contention is mainly the Australian Koala Foundation’s argument that koalas should be classified as “functionally extinct,” listing their overall population as 80,000. The Times points to a separate study by over a dozen university researchers estimating that number at 329,000, with an “estimated average decline of 24 percent over the past three generations.”
The Washington Post reports that fires in Australia have accelerated and intensified over the last decade in part due to rising temperatures and high winds (we can confidently call this climate change). Earlier this morning, the New South Wales Rural Fire Service tweeted that 125 fires continue to blaze along the east coast, with more sparked by widespread lightning.
In any case, over the past week, we’ve seen a lot of scorched koalas given water and rescued by some very good dogs who are sniffing for droppings. RIP, Ellenborough Lewis. Now I’ll leave you with the horrifying image of hundreds of koalas burned alive, because it’s true, and the small comfort of the existence of Toni Dohertys in this world.