SAN DIEGO -- Researchers supported by San Diego Zoo Global are preparing a trip into Australia's mountainous region to rescue koalas under threat by wildfires raging across the continent.
The fires have burned about 18 million acres to date and continue burning throughout Australia.
According to a recent estimate by ecologists at the University of Sydney, about a half-billion animals have been impacted by the bushfires burning in New South Wales, with millions of animals believed dead throughout the country.
Researchers with San Diego Zoo Global have been tracking koalas using radio-tagging technology in the Blue Mountains, a region west of Sydney, since 2015. The area is known for providing a home to the world's most genetically diverse koala population and is a valuable asset for researchers dedicated to preserving the species.
"We have been working in this area for many years now, tracking koalas to learn about them and to assess their population numbers," Director of Science for Wildlife Kellie Leigh, Ph.D., said. "The population of koalas in the Blue Mountains have high levels of genetic diversity. This makes this particular population very important for the survival of the species."
Leigh and volunteers with Science for Wildlife have already found and rescued 12 koalas in the region. The koalas were moved to the Taronga Zoo in Sydney and will remain there until the fire threats recede.
"The hardest thing for me is to actually see them drinking water," a San Diego Zoo official told FOX 5. "When you come here to the San Diego Zoo, and if you're doing a koala tour, we talk about how koalas don't actually have to drink water -- they get their moisture from the eucalyptus leaves. So seeing them drink that water is just heartbreaking to me."
The team was preparing Wednesday to return to the Blue Mountains to begin another koala rescue mission.
"In the short term, we will be engaging in search and rescue for wildlife that needs assistance, and putting in water sources for the wildlife that have been left behind," Leigh said.
Once the wildfires are extinguished, the team will focus on stabilizing the area's koala population. "Our long-term goal will be to re-wild the koalas that were rescued and recover the population in the region," Leigh said.