Bear - Koala Hero: 'It was touch and go' Jessie's incredible journey to survival

Jessie the koala and her young daughter, Amelia stole hearts around the world. Now, their incredible story of survival has been revealed.

Jessie was critically malnourished when she and Amelia were rescued by the USC/IFAW koala detection dog, Bear and Dr. Romane Cristescu from University of the Sunshine Coast's Detection Dogs for Conservation.

Starved by the conditions of the horrific Australian bushfires, there was not much hope for the koala's survival.

"When we took her to the vet, Jessie was in a very poor state," Dr Cristescu explains. "We were worried she wouldn't even make the exam because she was not breathing well. We were even more stressed because she had a joey. It was a quite a difficult time."

After being examined, Jessie and her young daughter were taken to the care of Dr. Karen Ford at The Australian National University where they both began in intensive care, before being transferred to Dr Ford's outdoor enclosure at her own property. 

"Jessie in particular was in a pretty bad way," Dr Ford details. "She was a bit touch and go for a while. Once we had more enclosures up and running, all the koalas got shifted out of ANU and Amelia, Jessie and her new joey have been in my care since then."

Dr Ford has worked with koalas for the last 15-20 years, furthering her researching at ANU to gain further insight into the native species we surprisingly know little about. 

Since being in her care, the once wilted Jessie and her daughter, Amelia are now going from strength to strength. Jessie's also now able to care for her new baby joey, which is still growing in her pouch.

"Amelia has improved massively,' the scientist reveals with delight. "She's put on more than a kilogram in body weight, and she's eating well. She looks beautifully groomed now whereas she was very fluffy and unkept to start with.

"She's basically made a full recovery and now that her habitat is starting to recover as well, hopefully she'll be able to go out and re-establish herself in the wild, which wouldn't have happened if she hadn't come into care and been rescued," she adds.

The care Dr Ford provides is done with exceptional detail, ensuring the koala's living conditions are kept as similar to their wildlife lifestyle.

"They are fed eucalypt species that come from their area in which they originally came from to ensure they're having the same diet they would be eating in the wild, so we're not interfering with their microbiome," the scientist reveals. "That's quite important in helping them digest the eucalypt species that's in their habitat.

"We clean and mop their enclosure every day and weigh them regularly to check they're maintaining or increasing their body weight," Dr Ford adds.

And young baby Amelia is no longer the tiny bub we saw in the Foxtel documentary, Bear - Koala Hero, but growing into her own little self. 

"Amelia is doing really well,' Dr Ford explains. "She's so much bigger than she was than when she came in. If she tries to sit on Jessie these days it looks like she's squashing her!"

Amelia will need to spend as much time with her mother now, before Jessie's new joey emerges in a few months.

"They're still hanging around together while the new joey's in the pouch, but I suspect it might be a different story when the baby joey will come out. I think that once the new joey comes out, then Jessie will basically tell Amelia to go away.

"We haven't had a look at that joey because it would be a bit stressful for Jessie to manhandle her to have a look, but her pouch is very definitely getting quite bulgy!

"The joey will be checked when Jessie gets her final health check before she's released."

While Jessie and her offspring may be doing well, there's a few more factors that need to be considered before being released into their old home. 

"It's been three months since they were rescued," Dr Cristescu states, "but has the habitat bounced back enough to sustain them? That's a very stressful assessment for us to make, because we really don't want to get it wrong.

"We don't want to treat them longer than necessary because they need to go back in the wild, but also, importantly, if we release them too quickly and the habitat isn't revived enough, then they're also going to struggle."

To monitor the release date, Dr Ford has been visiting the original site where Jessie and Amelia were found, in order to keep track on when it's safe to release them. 

"The last couple of weeks we've been doing some habitat assessments and looking at how the regrowth is going in the various areas," Dr Ford tells. "We've seen signs that there are some koalas out there using those areas which is really, really good. That suggests that it's able to support koalas again now.

"There's a reasonable proportion of trees that are starting to regrow some leaves. It still very much looks like a burnt landscape, but there is food out for them now which is the main thing.

"When they came into care, there was just nothing," she says. 

Before being released, Dr Ford's team will place a GPS collar on Jessie to track her movements as part of a greater research project. 

"If we find that they're very happily using the trees with regrowth on them, then we know that that's the landscape that can support koalas," the scientist explains. "But if they're hopping between the few trees we have left that have the intact canopy, then that's an important thing to know as to how many koalas a burnt landscape can support.

"We really know nothing about koalas in that area, so hopefully it'll help us to know a lot more about what point the landscape can really sustain koalas."

But the release is organised as carefully as their intricate care, being put into the exact tree where they were intitially discovered.

"We release them into the same tree where they were found to make sure that they know the area and they're not just being put into a place where they have to learn a new landscape," Dr Ford explains.

"The main risks are if they can't find enough food. 

"We've been feeding them some of the regrowth from the trees to make sure they can eat that regrowth. We wouldn't want to find that they could only eat trees with intact canopies because it's likely to be different nutritionally."

While monitoring the koalas' health and their habitat's landscape, this will inform the impending release date when when Amelia, Jessie and her joey can continue their lives in the wild, where they belong.

"I'm hoping only a few weeks longer,' Dr Ford says of their release date. "We still have eight koalas yet to be released so we'll release a couple at a time to make sure they're nice and settled into the landscape and managing to feed etc, then we'll release the next couple.

"Hopefully within a few weeks they'll all be out!"

Watch Bear - Koala Hero On Demand

To support Bear and his team at USC's Detection Dogs for Conservation, you can donate directly here.

More LifeStyle articles:

Bear - Koala Hero: Host Tyson Mayr reveals why ‘Bear is a superhero’

Bear - Koala Hero: How you can help 

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