Koala That Rocketed To International Fame After Wildfire Rescue Dies

A koala that made international headlines after being pulled from an Australian brushfire in a daring rescue has died.

In a statement released Tuesday, the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital announced that it decided to put Ellenborough Lewis to sleep as his injuries were too severe.

“We recently posted that ‘burns injuries can get worse before they get better,’” a Facebook post read. “In Ellenborough Lewis’s case, the burns did get worse, and unfortunately would not have gotten better.”

Last week, motorist Toni Doherty spotted the koala clinging to a tree as a wildfire raged around him near the country’s east coast. Doherty sprung into action, dashing toward the stranded and singed marsupial, dousing him with a bottle of water then swaddling him in her shirt. She named him Ellenborough Lewis, or Lewis for short, after one of her seven grandchildren.

Australia’s Nine News caught the heroic act on camera, sending the footage viral online where American media outlets spotlighted the animal’s struggle for survival.

On Saturday, the Koala Hospital cautioned that his path to recovery was uncertain, as he sustained burns to his hands, feet, arm and legs, requiring “substantial pain relief” and “round the clock care.”

“At the Koala Hospital we do not keep koalas alive ‘to save their lives’ if this means pain and discomfort that is too much,” it added. “We are all about animal welfare first and foremost.”

Its ultimate decision was based on that principle, the organization said Tuesday.

But Lewis’ story is not unique. It’s part of a “national tragedy” plaguing the nation, the hospital’s clinical director Cheyne Flanagan told ABC News Australia in October. That month, a fire south of the hospital was estimated to have killed around 350 koalas or more, the outlet reported.

A dehydrated and injured Koala receives treatment at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in Port Macquarie on Nov. 2, 2019, after its rescue from a bushfire that has ravaged an area of over 2,000 hectares. Hundreds of koalas are feared to have burned to death in an out-of-control bushfire on Australia’s east coast, wildlife authorities said Oct. 30.

Severe drought has turned the forests of New South Wales into brushfire hotbeds, further jeopardizing koala habitats. According to the Australia Zoo, there are roughly 40,000 to 100,000 of the animals left. However, the constant blazes have made it difficult to evaluate the population’s current size, so estimates vary enormously. By contrast, the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List places the number of mature koalas between 100,000 and 500,000.

Over the weekend, claims emerged in news reports that koalas have become “functionally extinct” ― meaning they no longer play a meaningful role in the ecosystem or that the population will not continue ― but use of the term is disputed.

The Red List categorizes koalas as vulnerable, but not yet endangered, and that its population is on a downward trend.