The Great Koala Rescue Operation

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Out of the hundreds of koalas that volunteers and staff have rescued, many are being raised in captivity. Older koalas are released into intact eucalyptus plantations. (David Maurice Smith)

The Great Koala Rescue Operation

by Ceridwen Dovey; Photographs by David Maurice Smith/Smithsonianmag.com

I ​arrived on Kangaroo Island bracing myself for the sight of acres of blackened trees and white ash, but I had not expected the parasitic bright green vines wrapped around almost every charred trunk, glowing phosphorescent in the sunlight. This was no parasite, I learned. It was epicormic growth, bursting directly from the burnt trunks themselves, a desperate bid for photosynthesis in the absence of a leaf canopy.

The growth looks nothing like a eucalyptus tree’s normal adult leaves. It’s soft and waxy, with rounded edges instead of long pointy tips, and it blooms from cracks in the trunks or right from the tree’s base, rather than along the branches where leaves typically grow. It is beautiful, and also very strange, in keeping with the surreal phenomena that became almost commonplace over this past apocalyptic Australian summer, even before the coronavirus pandemic further upended life as we know it. A few weeks earlier, in Sydney, I’d watched red-brown rain fall to the ground after rain clouds collided with ash in a smoke-filled sky. During a recent downpour here on Kangaroo Island, burnt blue gum trees foamed mysteriously, as if soap suds had been sprayed over them.

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