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Australian fires killed entire koala colonies

AS THE bushfire crisis eased in New South Wales yesterday, Australians began counting the cost to their ravaged wildlife. They also embarked on a heated debate between conservationists and land-management authorities over who to blame for the disaster.

Some animal welfare groups believe that virtually all the wildlife which lived in national parks along the New South Wales coast may have perished in the firestorms which took hold a week ago, destroying more than 1 million acres before they were finally brought under control on Tuesday. Four people died in the fires and 185 homes were razed.

About 100 fires burnt under control yesterday, as authorities lifted emergency regulations over most of the state. But the row over the causes of last week's catastrophe is likely to escalate. Some farming groups and MPs have blamed conservationists for bringing pressure on fire authorities to scale back controlled burning strategies in recent years, thereby allowing a build-up of tinder-dry fuel in forests. The National Parks and Wildlife Service has defended its fire-control policies, and argued that many fires started outside national parks. Several inquiries are under way.

Phil Koperberg, the New South Wales Bush Fire Services Commissioner, appealed to Australians to learn from the fires rather than bicker about the blame. 'What happened was the inevitable consequence of living in Australia, a bushfire-prone part of the world. Never before has New South Wales had to fight fires on such a wide geographic front with such intensity, and gotten away with such small (human) losses.'

Charles Wright, the chief executive of the RSPCA in Sydney, said yesterday: 'I would say that 95 per cent of the wildlife in these forests would be destroyed. It will take 30 to 40 years before the colonies of animals develop again. It would be akin to a city like Sydney burning down. Humans can rebuild their homes quickly, but animals take far longer to re-establish.'

Wild animals had no salvation from the infernos. Although the fires destroyed forests covering less than 1 per cent of New South Wales, a state three times the size of Britain, the annihilated zones covered some of the most thickly wooded coastal areas where much of the state's wildlife once lived.

The greatest fears now are for koala bears, a national symbol of Australia, whose numbers had dwindled this century as cities expanded into their native habitats. The Australian Koala Foundation believes that entire koala colonies perished in the Royal National Park and the Kuring-gai Chase National Park in Sydney and in parks near the Central Coast and northern New South Wales. More than any other animals, koalas are unable to survive fires of such ferocity. They are slow- moving and live in eucalyptus trees, the leaves of which provide their staple food.

Other lumbering native animals, such as wombats and ring-tailed possums, also stood little chance. Authorities are hoping for a greater survival rate from those which were able to move quickly, such as kangaroos, wallabies, emus and lizards, or fly, such as bats and gliding possums. But those that did manage to flee have no food and shelter to return to, and are likely to fall victim to predators as they move towards residential areas in search of food and water.