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Review: The 99th Koala by Kailas Wild

The 99th Koala
Kailas Wild
Simon & Schuster AUS
2020, 208p
Purchased personal copy

Blurb {from the publisher/}: In last summer’s devastating fires, Kangaroo Island lost half of its koala population, with many more left injured and starving. This is the inspiring and sometimes confronting story of someone who went to help and ended up a koala dad.

When Kailas Wild – arborist by trade and conservationist at heart – heard that there were injured koalas on Kangaroo Island who could only be reached by a tree climber, he drove 1500 kms to volunteer.

Seven weeks later, he had crowd-funded sixty-five thousand dollars, participated in the rescue of over 100 koalas and had formed a special bond with a baby koala – Joey Kai. His social media postings gained tens of thousands of views and press attention around Australia and overseas, including the BBC, The Times (London), The New York Times and The Daily Mail.

The 99th Koala shares that experience, in words and pictures, and introduces us to some of the koalas of Kangaroo Island. Sometimes tragic, sometimes hopeful, Kai’s story above all commemorates our unique wildlife, and demonstrates the power of one person trying to make a difference.

It’s impossible to grow up where I did and not interact with koalas in some way. There’s a strong local population and we had several that made their homes at various times of the year, in the gums across the road from our house. Mating seasons were noisy. And then of course there’s the local koala hospital, which was established decades ago to care for and rehabilitate injured and sick koalas. If you find one (and lots of people do, either in their backyards or hit by cars, or attacked by dogs, etc), that’s where you take them. As the area increased in popularity and more people moved there, they lost more and more of their habitat and sometimes found themselves in places where it was dangerous for them. Everyone who lives there has visited, probably multiple times, and at least half have thought about volunteering there. I live 1400kms away now but I still take my kids there whenever we visit.

In September of 2019, that area began experiencing bushfires, which was very unusual. It’s a temperate climate, usually high rainfall and lacking in extreme temperatures -not immune to bushfires by any means, but unusual, especially as it was even before summer. There were loads of sick, burned and injured koalas taken to the hospital ( an estimation of a loss of around 40% of the populations as well) and it wasn’t long before other parts of NSW and then other parts of Australia, starting experiencing a truly catastrophic bushfire season, known now as Black Summer.

This is about one of those places – Kangaroo Island off the coast of South Australia. In January of 2020, it was torn apart and devastated by fires that took human lives and countless animal lives. Kailas Wild is an arborist from NSW who also volunteered with the SES and had koala-handling experience, and when he heard what had happened, he put out feelers to see if someone with his skills might be needed. After all, koalas are often high up in trees and when threatened, will climb higher. In order to get some of them down for medical attention, or to relocate them to areas less devastated, his abilities might be helpful. Even crucial.

Most of this book is photographs – stunning photographs. Some of them show koalas peering out of cages as they await medical examination or to be transported to a healthy habitat area, or orphaned joeys being bottle fed by volunteers. Others are truly devastating. Koalas with burned hands and feet or missing the fluff from their beautiful ears. Landscape shots showing the destruction of the fires and scores of trees reduced to little more than black stumps. They are all powerful images, a mix of heartbreaking and hopeful and showcasing some of the volunteers who like Wild, gave up their time and spent weeks dedicating themselves to helping the injured animals to often devastating consequences.

This book actually made me realise something I’d never thought about for people undertaking this role – how truly traumatic it must be and how much it could and would affect someone’s mental health. Wild is frank about some of the terrible things he sees or the times where he rescues a koala only for it to be assessed as so injured or burned that it could not possibly survive and the kindest thing to do would be to end its suffering. It’s heartbreaking for him each time, especially as wild animals often “rally” and appear strong as a defense mechanism: to appear weak in the wild is to be a target. So sometimes wild animals will seem quite well and it isn’t until things are truly dire, is it obvious that they are not well at all. I’ve seen this in nature documentaries and the like before, but to witness it in real life, especially after you’d put so much time and effort into each rescue, trying to help each koala, to know that some of them cannot be helped, although a reality of the situation, would still be utterly devastating. And Wild is also frank about the emotional trauma as well, how helpless he feels at times and how he questions whether stressing these already stressed koalas in his attempts to get them down from their trees, is the right thing to do. Especially for the ones who are quite far gone. It is sadly, not something I thought much about before, your thoughts are generally focused on the animals. To read the mental sadness and the toll it takes on the humans working with them, was definitely eye-opening.

I appreciated a lot about this: the effort, time and dedication of the workers, the message about the toll it takes and the subtle talk of the importance of biodiversity and tackling climate change. This book doesn’t have a lot of words, a lot of it relies on the photographs, but the ones it does have, are important.


Book #84 of 2021

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