Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park reopens, releases koala survivors

Kangaroo Island Widlife Park is welcoming back visitors after the coronavirus, while at the same time continuing its wildlife rescue role.

Park staff are nursing about 40 orphaned koala joeys that remain in the specially built enclosures once housing hundreds of injured koalas.

More than 200 adult koalas have been released into appropriate habitat since the bushfires, when more than 700 injured and shocked animals were brought to the park.

About 600 of those were koalas from the Island's timber plantations and bushland, with about a 40 per cent survival rate thanks to veterinarians, volunteers and staff at the park.

The park became the centre of wildlife rescue on Kangaroo Island during the horrific bushfires of December 2019 and January 2020.

After being a hive of activity in the first three months of the year, visitation and volunteering at the park shut down virtually overnight due to the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Owners Sam and Dana Mitchell and their son Connor reopened the park on Saturday, May 16.

"We are not expecting big numbers. Winter time is always out slow time of year," Sam Mitchell said. "But then January and February after the fires were the busiest we've ever been as people wanted to see where the wildlife was being cared for."

Like many on bushfire-affected Kangaroo Island, it has been difficult for the family to wrap its head around the whirlwind of recovery followed by the solitude of coronavirus.

"It was going from so much to nothing," Dana Mitchell said.

Interview with Sam

The park has set up a charity called Kangaroo Island Koala Rescue Centre, whose board of directors are overseeing the distribution of funds that came pouring in from around the world after the bushfires.

The funds are specifically dedicated to wildlife care and the long-term plan was to buy and rehabilitate a block of farmland back into koala habitat, he said.

Research is also being conducted into the disease free status of KI's koalas, which are known to be free of chlamydia.

Blood tests are being done on rescued individuals to see if they are also free of koala retrovirus (KoRV) and how that relates to breeding success.

The park has 12 staff but at the height of the crisis there were four staff each from Austraia Zoo and Adelaide Zoo, as well as vets and staff from the RSPCA and the State Government vet agency Save'Em.

There was also help from the Hunter Valley zoo and the Australian Army, who helped build the park extensive wildlife rescue enclosure set-up.

The Block television show even built a new hospital at the park.

Feeding the surviving koalas was a huge task with staff venturing out almost daily to go "gum cutting" to feed the koalas.

Sam Mitchell said they are still finding the odd malnourished and disorientated koala in patches of burned out scrub, which they relocate to more favourable habitat.

The epicormic growth resprouting from plantation bluegums was not suitable for koalas as its was very waxy, he said.

Epicormic growth on bluegums in the Kangaroo Island timber plantations where most of the koalas died.

Epicormic growth on bluegums in the Kangaroo Island timber plantations where most of the koalas died.

Sam Mitchell believes there were more than 50,000 koalas on Kangaroo Island before the bushfires of 2019/2020, mostly living in bluegum timber plantations.

The fires that destroyed 90 per cent of the timber plantations probably destroyed at least 90 per cent of the koala population, meaning thousands upon thousands were killed.

One person who dealt personally with the rescue of some of these animals was Kai Wild, a qualified arborist and climbing expert and State Emergency Services volunteer.

Kai the koala joey when she arrived at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park.

Kai the koala joey when she arrived at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park.

Kai Wild spent seven weeks on Kangaroo Island, only leaving when coronavirus arrived.

He is now back at home in western Sydney, but said he would love to come back, particularly for the release of joey Kai, named after him.

The tiny, singed koala was one of 107 he rescued and was found next to a plantation on the south coast.

"I'd be back there in heart beat and would love to see joey Kai being released," he said.

He continues his conservation work back in NSW, including protecting the last remnants or unburned bushland from logging.

Sam Mitchell said baby Kai and the other young joeys would soon be ready to release, once they reached 3.5 kilograms.

He encouraged KI locals and anyone in South Australia able to travel to come in see the recovering joeys, and also all the other animals in the park.

These include a baby wombat rescued from the NSW bushfires, dingoes, the reptiles, monkeys, penguins and other birds.


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