Senior vet at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dr Michael Pyne, takes care of Turbo the koala, who’s recovering from chlamydia.
Senior vet at Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary, Dr Michael Pyne, takes care of Turbo the koala, who’s recovering from chlamydia. Currumbin Wildlife Sanctuary

Koala population being ravaged by disease

THE fight to save the koala on the Gold Coast is nowhere near won.

Currumbin Wildlife Hospital's senior vet Dr Michael Pyne warned of a crisis in the dwindling koala population five years ago.

Today, he says koalas are in a worse situation.

And perhaps surprisingly, it's not dog attacks nor injuries from road accidents that are having the worst impact - it's disease that's taking a bigger toll on these iconic animals.

Dr Pyne says chlamydia and retrovirus are decimating the koala population.

About 80 per cent of koalas recently treated at the wildlife hospital have had some form of disease.

Retrovirus is an AIDS-like immunodeficiency that leaves infected koalas more susceptible to infectious disease and cancers, while the sexually transmitted disease chlamydia causes painful urinary tract inflammation, infertility and blindness.

Despite a big increase in chlamydia, Dr Pyne says the situation is not hopeless - things can and are being done to prevent it.

"An experimental vaccine is showing a lot of promise," he says.

"Every koala that comes through our hospital gets a vaccination.

"Disease is the main factor why koalas are vulnerable, by a long, long way."

Researchers have announced that a single-jab vaccine could halt the chlamydia epidemic wiping out Australia's koalas.

In trials, the new vaccine has been shown to slow the rate of new infections and treat early-stage disease.

They say a third of Australia's koalas have been lost over the last two decades, largely due to the spread of chlamydia, which now affects between 50 and 100 per cent of wild populations.

For his work at the hospital since he arrived in 2000, Dr Pyne was handed the Gold Coast Council's environmental achievement award on Australia Day.

He hopes the award will "make a few of the politicians and councillors sit up and listen", and recognise the month-by-month struggle the hospital has with funding.

"We do get state-government funding now, the first time was last year," he said. "It still doesn't come close to covering what we do.

"We struggle to keep on top of those costs.'

On average, the hospital will spend about $70 on an animal's treatment, and 10,000 "patients" were admitted in the past year.

For a koala, the cost of treatment can range up to $7000.

"It's not just what goes wrong with them, it's the intense treatment," Dr Pyne said.

"It's cutting food for them every day. It's a big job caring for koalas.

"They're not only iconic and special, they're amazing animals."

A valuable "army" of about 120 volunteers and 50 students, apart from paid staff, keeps the hospital in operation.

"We do achieve a lot and make a real difference," Dr Pyne said.

"We've probably released about 65,000 animals through the years at the hospital.

"Something I've definitely seen is the level of community engagement with the hospital.

"People are confident they can bring an animal to us and we'll care for it."

Dr Pyne has improvements to the hospital in mind, if funding arrives.

"The wishlist would be to have the time, and enough enclosures, to spend one-on-one with patients," he said.

"It would be nice to have some wonderful benefactor come along.

"On a more realistic level, we're pushing to get some better in-house pathology services.

"We just don't have a budget for that. We've got to raise some funds to get it."

See the website for details if you're inclined to volunteer or donate.

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