Up to a third of New South Wales’ koalas have been killed by raging bushfires, Australia’s environment minister has said.
Susan Ley revealed that thousands of the animals, in one of the most densely populated areas on the mid-north coast of New South Wales, had been lost.
It was estimated that the region was home to around 28,000 of the creatures – among Australia’s most celebrated – before the bushfires hit.
“Up to 30% of the koalas in the region may have been killed, because up to 30% of their habitat has been destroyed,” Ms Ley told ABC News.
“We’ll know more when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made.”
New South Wales’ koala population was already struggling as their habitat, Eucalypt forests, have been ravaged by years of drought.
Conservationists have voiced fears that survivors will need greater human intervention to support their recovery because of the lack of water and fires destroying their main source of food.
While eucalyptus trees are able to survive fires and provide fresh leaf growth, scientists say many do not survive particularly intense burns.
South Australia, New South Wales and Victoria have endured the worst of the bushfires to date and there are forecasts of renewed heatwave conditions next week following a Christmas lull in temperatures.
It means there is no prospect of respite ahead for firefighters – many of them volunteers – with temperatures set to surge beyond 41C in Sydney by Tuesday.
Hundreds of fires have destroyed more than 5 million hectares (12.4 million acres) in five states since September, leaving at least nine people dead and almost 1,000 homes destroyed.
It was reported early on Saturday that residents of two small communities in Victoria were told to evacuate as a fire burned out of control nearby.
Goongerah, 280 miles east of Melbourne, and nearby Martins Creek were at risk of being engulfed by the flames, according to local officials.
An alert sent to the population urging them to leave immediately read: “This may be your last opportunity to do so before fire activity increases.
“If you choose to stay, emergency services may not be able to help you.”
There are growing fears the crisis will also inflict heavy damage on the country’s economy during its peak tourist season.
The Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, is home to The Three Sisters world heritage site but the sacred Aboriginal rock formation has been shrouded in smoke for weeks.
A local business owner, Lynne Curan, said: “We’re all affected by the lack of tourists.
“I am doing about a third of what I would normally do at this time of year and I think that’s the same for everyone.
“No matter whether it’s retail, hotel, Airbnb, whatever, we’re all way down.
“Everyone’s cancelled, no one’s coming up here and yeah, everyone’s suffering,” she said.