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Australia's fires have killed over a billion animals. Here's how to help

Some of the most heart-wrenching images from the bushfires involve injured koalas, kangaroos and more. But there are ways humans can help.

Australia's animal population is unquestionably special. Many of its best-known species, such as kangaroos and koalas, are native to the country, and many creatures there can't be found in any other nations outside zoos.

In the massive bushfires sweeping the country, Australia's wildlife is helpless and populations are being devastated. Some of the most heartbreaking images and videos coming out of the crisis involve Australia's animals -- koalas shielding their babies from smoke, kangaroos being comforted, Patsy the Wonder Dog saving a herd of sheep, piles of burn cream and bandages stacked up, ready to treat injured wildlife.

Shockingly, no clear end is in sight. The bushfires, experts say, could last for months. As we point out in our primer on the fires, hot and dry conditions last through April in Australia, which won't help the situation. But you can. Numerous charities are working around the clock to try and save Australia's beloved animals. We'll continue to update this post as conditions change and news breaks.

How many animals are involved?

This question is never going to have a definitive answer, but even the estimates are staggering. Unlike humans, animals don't have birth certificates or other ways to track them accurately. But on Jan. 8, University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman offered a horrifying new estimate of the number of animals killed in the bushfires.

Dickman estimates more than a billion animals have been killed across Australia, with 800 million dead in the worst-hit state of New South Wales alone. Early estimates included only mammals, birds and reptiles, but Dickman notes that once the insect, bat and frog populations are added in, a billion begins to look like a low estimate.

The World Wide Fund for Nature, or WWF (known in the US and Canada as the World Wildlife Fund), used Dickman's numbers to create its own sobering estimate that 1.25 billion animals may have been killed directly or indirectly by the fires.

A recent report in The New York Times notes that some experts are "dubious" about the numbers. There's naturally limited access to the burned areas, and the death toll is arrived not by counting individual animals, but through math -- multiplying the number of animals expected to inhabit a given area by the total acreage burned.

Which animals are affected?

So many different species, from livestock to insects, have been touched by the fires. There's no way to make a chart of which populations were hit the hardest, but statistics on some of the different animals are beginning to emerge.

Koalas

The images of injured koalas, long a favorite animal of many and an Australian icon, have dominated worldwide media coverage. Terri Irwin, widow of famed naturalist Steve Irwin, told Australian morning program Sunrise the koala's natural instincts and habitat work against them. "Koala instinct is to go up, as safety is in the top of the tree," Irwin said. "Eucalyptus trees have so much oil that they ignite and actually explode in a fire."

Again, numbers are hard to come by, but the news isn't good. A NASA image of Kangaroo Island off of Australia's southern coast shows a full third of the island is now covered with burn scars or active fires. Ecologists in Flinders Chase National Park there estimate 25,000 koalas -- half the island's population -- may have been killed.

Flying foxes

Steve Irwin's daughter Bindi Irwin recently posted about another species that's been affected. 

"Hundreds of grey-headed flying foxes, a species listed as vulnerable, have been flown to Queensland after the rescue center they were recovering in was at risk from fire and evacuated," Irwin said. "Some of the orphans are now being cared for by the team at the zoo's wildlife hospital until they're big enough to go home, and there's no threat of fire." 

She notes that the flying foxes are affected by other issues as well, and back in September, flying fox admissions to the zoo's hospital "skyrocketed by over 750% due to drought conditions and lack of food."

Camels

CNET's parent site CBS News reported on Jan. 7 that 5,000 to 10,000 feral camels will be shot in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands (AYP) of South Australia. While the camel cull isn't as directly related to the fires as other animal deaths, officials say the animals are endangering humans by drinking too much water as drought and the fires make it an even more precious commodity.

The Department for Environment and Water told CBS thousands of camels are flocking to tanks, taps and any other available water sources in local communities. The news was so shocking urban-legend site Snopes.com even added a page on the feral camel cull, dubbing it true.

Livestock

Farm animals, too, are helpless in the face of the fires. On Jan. 5, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) reported thousands of farm animals burned in the fires had been euthanized, and the country was racing to bury "hundreds of thousands" of bodies to "fight off a biosecurity emergency."

Agriculture Minister Bridget McKenzie has offered 100 veterinarians to affected areas to assess and euthanize injured stock, ABC reports.

ABC photojournalist Matt Roberts took video of the drive into Batlow, a country town southwest of Sydney, with a population of less than 1,500. Batlow was on the fringes of a large fire front, which tore through the town in early January, and Roberts' video shows the devastation it wrought. Charred remains of livestock fringed the road into town.

How can I help?

News from the fires is ever-changing and fast-moving, and not everything posted on Facebook or Twitter is accurate. In just one example, an image of Australia created to show all the areas affected so far by fires was re-captioned as a NASA image. That led many to think all the fires shown on the map -- some of which are no longer burning -- were currently blazing. Stay aware of where your information is coming from, and use that same type of good judgment when planning a donation.

  • Koalas are a focus for donations given to the WWF. However many koalas survive, they will need trees, and many have been burned down. Once the fires clear, the WWF hopes to plant 10,000 desperately needed trees in what's called the "koala triangle" between southwest Sydney, Gunnedah and Noosa. The group also lists what different donation amounts will do for the koalas -- $50 for tree-planting efforts, $75 for food and medicine, etc.
  • WIRES Wildlife Rescue, Australia's largest wildlife rescue organization, is based on hard-hit New South Wales, and has a popular Facebook fundraising page you might have seen. (WIRES stands for Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service.) WIRES volunteers go into the burned areas after it's safe to do so and rescue what animals they can, though some are hurt so badly they must be euthanized.
  • You can also donate to Zoos Victoria's bushfire emergency wildlife fund, which uses donations to help fund emergency veterinary assistance and scientific intervention.
  • The famed Irwin family runs the Australia Zoo in Queensland. The late Steve Irwin's parents founded the zoo as a small reptile and fauna park. Steve himself grew up helping out there, and it's now owned by his American-born widow, Terri. The zoo's wildlife hospital is accepting donations and is planning to build a ward for flying foxes, who've been hit hard by the fires.
  • The RSPCA of New South Wales is working to evacuate animals in threatened areas as well as travel into burned landscapes to rescue and treat the injured. The site notes that donations will keep the group's inspectors on the road responding to emergencies and assisting animals in need.
  • Staffers at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, joined by National Parks and Wildlife Service crew leaders, have spent weeks searching for koalas affected by the fires, and have brought 31 to the hospital so far. The group is raising money through a Go Fund Me page.
  • The devastation at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park has made headlines across the globe. The group is raising money through a Go Fund Me page for help with veterinary costs, koala milk and supplements, extra holding and rehabilitation enclosures and more.
  • The Animal Rescue Collective is a joint project of numerous rescue groups in Australia. The group's Facebook page keeps followers up-to-date on what the various groups are doing and what they need to help with.
  • The small town of Mallacoota in Victoria has just over 1,000 human residents, but it's right in the heart of the fire devastation. A Go Fund Me page raising money for its wildlife shelter started out with a goal of raising $10,000, but is now up to $81,000 and still climbing.

Raising funds for humans and more

While the animal population is surely in need, our longer story on the Australian fires lists numerous ways you can donate to other causes. Auctions, fundraisers, concerts and other activities and groups are helping raise money for firefighters, provide emergency housing, supply needed food to those displaced and much more.

Originally published Jan. 8.