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Australia brings animal cruelty charges in mass koala deaths

Koalas on Australia's Kangaroo Island as a Humane Society International team attempts to rescue them from bush fires in January 2020. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
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Australian regulators have charged a landowner and two businesses with more than 250 instances of animal cruelty after dozens of koalas were found dead at the site of a partially cleared timber plantation last year.

The defendants, including the plantation’s former owner and a forest- and earthmoving business, are accused of causing unreasonable pain or suffering to the koalas by clearing their habitat in Cape Bridgewater, in the state of Victoria, in February 2020. They are also accused of “destroying koalas,” a protected species, and could face imprisonment and millions of dollars in fines.

“We understand the community’s concerns about this case and we have ensured a thorough investigation which led to these charges,” Australia’s chief conservation regulator, Kate Gavens, said in a statement Tuesday.

Gavens said that the investigation included “gathering a large volume of evidence from the crime scene” and that techniques such as forensic radiography and pathology were used to determine when and how the animals died.

The inquiry was launched after Helen Oakley, a nurse, came across the dead koalas while on an evening walk near Cape Bridgewater last year. She posted a video of herself crying as she surveilled the scene.

“You can smell them. It smells like death,” she told Yahoo News Australia at the time.

Twenty-one koalas were found dead at the site and 49 were euthanized as a result of injuries suffered during the clearing, Victoria’s Conservation Regulator said in a statement Tuesday. Seventy more were reported as suffering from starvation or dehydration, with some also sustaining fractures, the regulator said.

The defendants have yet to enter a plea, the Australian Broadcasting Corp. (ABC) reported. The charges are being filed under two laws — Wildlife Act 1975 and Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Act 1986.

Oakley said that she was “ecstatic” after learning about the animal cruelty charges levied against the property owner and companies accused of participating in the clearing. “I can’t wipe the smile off my face,” she said, ABC reported.

There are fewer than 100,000 koalas left in the wild, according to estimates by the Australian Koala Foundation. The bush fires that ravaged the country in 2019 and 2020 affected more than 60,000 koalas, according to a report by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.

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