SYDNEY – YouTube star Sam the koala was slowly recovering Thursday from severe burns received in Australia's devastating bushfires, thanks to a little tender love and care from her new boyfriend Bob.
Animal rescue workers said the two marsupial fire survivors were doing well but it would be four or five months before they would be ready for release back into the mountain ranges of southeastern Australia.
"He puts his arm around her and comforts her. They're very sociable," Jenny Shaw of the Southern Ash Wildlife Shelter in Rawson, Victoria state, told AFP.
Sam and Bob were united at the shelter earlier this week when a firefighter found a thirsty Sam wandering in the ashes of a eucalypt forest consumed by the worst wildfires in the country's history.
Video of Sam eagerly drinking water from a bottle offered by helmeted firefighter Dave Tree has scored almost 150,000 hits in two days on Internet site YouTube, making her the unofficial mascot of hope for fire victims.
More than 180 people died in the firestorm on the weekend, but the toll on the region's unique wildlife is believed to be in the millions -- including kangaroos, koalas, tree gliders, lyrebirds, wombats and reptiles.
Shaw said the animals at the shelter, one of dozens of centres inundated with injured wildlife since the weekend, seemed to gladly accept human help.
"They know they're being helped, they're so cooperative," she said.
"Sam has just taken it all in her stride. She's improving but she has been very badly burned."
She said the koalas were a unique breed from the Strzelecki Ranges in southeast Victoria, and were larger and more furry than other types of koalas found elsewhere in Australia.
Koalas live high in the branches of eucalypt trees and usually escape fires by simply climbing higher out of reach of the flames.
But the fires that razed more than 1,000 homes and 450,000 hectares (1.1 million acres) of bushland on the weekend were so intense whole trees were bursting into flames at once, leaving little hope for tree-dwelling marsupials.
Firefighter Tree described Sam as "looking pretty bewildered" when he found her at the foot of a blackened stump.
"Things do survive the bushfire... are you alright buddy?" he says in the footage captured by a fellow volunteer on a mobile phone.
"This is amazing... how much can a koala bear?" he said as he poured two bottles of water into her mouth.
Wildlife experts fear thousands and possibly millions of native animals may have perished in the firestorm, threatening the genetic diversity of species already suffering from loss of habitat and climate change.
"There are literally thousands of Australian native animals who have been killed or orphaned and who are suffering from dehydration, smoke inhalation and severe burns, as well as serious injuries suffered as a result of attempting to flee the fires," said Carmen Welss from the Foundation for National Parks and Wildlife.
"With their environment now devastated our koalas are also at high risk of starvation with multiple koala communities at threat of being completely wiped out."
Gayle Chappell from the Hepburn wildlife shelter told the national AAP news agency on Wednesday that the toll of wildlife from the fires "will be in the hundreds of thousands, possibly millions."
"We are not just talking the animals we are familiar with, there are gliders and all sorts of possums, antechinus (a mouse-like marsupial), bandicoots, birds -- there is so much wildlife," she said.