May 7 - Koala populations have been in decline for decades, listed as ''vulnerable'' throughout Australia. But at a private wildlife refuge located in the state of New South Wales, the iconic marsupial is is being restored to health. Ben Gruber has more.
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===REFEEDING WITH CORRECTED ASPECT RATIO===
It is an unmistakeable symbol of Australia, but the koala is under threat. Urban expansion, climate change and disease, have put the marsupials on the list of threatened species.
Across Australia there has been an outcry about the koala's decline. But government worker James Fitzgerald, felt words weren't enough, so he purchased 780 acres of virgin forest land in south-eastern Australia to create the Hammer's Hill Wildlife Refuge.
He says it is a sanctuary where healthy Koalas can thrive and injured or diseased Koalas can heal.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) JAMES FITZGERALD, OWNER, HAMMER'S HILL WILDLIFE REFUGE, SAYING:
"There are no sub divisions, there are no roads, there are a few fire trails that really don't get traffic and so it is rugged country, and so just the terrain has kind of protected this population. And, I guess the evidence is that people are seeing them really regularly now. And if you went back ten years it was much rarer to hear a koala story, just from the antidotal (sic) evidence, the weight of it, is showing that this population does appear to be expanding, which is good news."
Fitzgerald says genetic tests have shown the local koala population to have unique traits he thinks might make them less vulnerable to chlamydia, a sexual transmitted disease that has ravaged koala numbers in recent years.
But even if these Koalas are genetically strong, Fitzgerald says they are no match for the devastation caused by bush fires. It was one of these massive fires that led Tony the koala to Fitzgerald's refuge. He was found at the side of the road, badly traumatized.
(SOUNDBITE) (English) JAMES FITZGERALD, OWNER, OWNER HAMMER'S HILL WILDLIFE REFUGE, SAYING:
"We believe he was hit by the heat because he has melted fur on his back. He was on the ground, quite a depressed koala obviously he had been through a fairly horrific experience. My understanding is that can get up to 3000 degrees in front of those bush fires. So we think the heat melted his fur. He may of fallen out of the tree."
But Tony's story has a happy ending. After months of recuperation, he was released back into the wild, near to where he was found on a property just north of the refuge owned by Max and Coral Talbot. They say they are happy to have Tony back.
SOUNDBITE) (English) CORAL AND MAX TALBOT, OWNERS OF LAND WHERE TONY THE KOALA WAS RELEASED BACK INTO THE WILD, SAYING:
(CORAL) "It's just part of the magic of living here." (MAX) We hope that this particular area will be left alone and that and that they will always have this habitat and as long as we own it, it will stay that way."
Fitzgerald shares that same hope. He is now working on expanding the refuge and creating a protective trust. He wants to make sure that his koala's will always have a safe place to call home.
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