For cyclist Anna Heusler, who lives in Adelaide in South Australia, her passion for the riding regularly takes her out in the countryside, where wildfires have devastated the habitat and wildlife such as koalas, kangaroos, and other vulnerable species.
In December 2019, the cyclist had a surprise encounter with a very thirsty koala that stopped her in the middle of road, begging for a drink, and Heusler began recording. She later posted the video of the koala gulping up all the water she and fellow cyclists had on Instagram. The video soon went viral.
It was a scorching day for a bike ride, with temperatures of 42° C (108° F). When Heusler and the dozen or so cyclists in her group saw a koala venturing out on the road, their first reaction was to try to get it back into the forest. "We stopped the bikes to help the koala get off the road otherwise they get hit by cars," she told CNN. The cyclist was also surprised because the koalas tend to keep their distance from people.
"[T]he koala walked up to me very quickly, he was obviously very thirsty," she said. "As I was giving him a drink from our water bottles, he climbed up into my bike."
In the video, the koala thirstily laps up the water from her bottle. "I've never seen anything like it," one of the other cyclists comments. Heusler felt for the desperately dehydrated koala.
"We gave him as much as we could and then made sure he was off the road and back to safety," Heusler told 7 News Sunrise.
The fires that have ravaged the southern states of Australia, especially Victoria and New South Wales, have affected up to 500,000 wild animals thus far, including the country's iconic species: the koala and kangaroo.
Fires have now spread to areas once considered important safe havens for koalas, such as Kangaroo Island, which lies off the coast of Adelaide and hosted an important disease-free population of the koalas.
As John Woinarski, a professor at Charles Darwin University and threatened-species researcher explained to ABC News, "Certainly, their population liability [on the island] would have crashed for many of these species and their risk of extinction has been substantially increased."
As for Heusler, she has tried to use her momentary fame to draw attention to the plight of the koalas as well as those who are rescuing them and fighting the fires. "There's nothing but tragedy in Australia. It's burning out of control," the cyclist and animal lover told CNN. "I hope this episode helps spread awareness. The firefighters are the real heroes, not me."
Heusler has raised over $13,000 for Adelaide Koala Rescue, "who are doing an INCREDIBLE job of rescuing and caring for over 110 koalas that have been injured in the Adelaide Hills bushfires and/or suffering from dehydration," as per her GoFundMe page.
Even if all the fires were to stop today, which isn't likely given high temperatures and winds, the outlook for koalas is fairly bleak. Australia's Environment Minister Sussan Ley told the ABC News radio program AM that 30 percent of the country's koala population has already been lost. Going forward, finding suitable habitat for the surviving koalas will be a big challenge, as will be the loss of genetic diversity.
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