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Laksmi and her joey Ra are back in the Blue Mountains of New South Wales, Australia, following the country's devastating 2019-2020 bushfire season.

By Kelli Bender
March 03, 2021 02:45 PM
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koala release
Credit: Kellie Leigh

March 3 is World Wildlife Day!

To celebrate, San Diego Zoo Global, the San Diego Zoo's international initiative to protect the world's species, is making some changes. San Diego Zoo Global is evolving into the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. This new identity reflects San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's efforts to broaden its "approach to protecting and conserving wildlife by emphasizing that the health of wildlife, people and the environment they share are interconnected and linked to the health of our planet," according to the group.

"As part of this transformation, we are placing an increased focus on partnerships, understanding that global collaboration is vital in the future of wildlife care, developing innovative solutions to halt the loss of biodiversity, and integrating a one health approach," San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance shared with PEOPLE.

Over its 105-year history, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance has used teamwork to save animals worldwide, including as recently as last year.

When the disastrous bushfires started burning through much of New South Wales, Australia, in 2019, the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance raised money to support the countless animals injured in the fires and had their animal experts help with wildlife rescue efforts.

One of those experts is Kellie Leigh, Ph.D. — the executive director of Science for Wildlife and a San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance-supported researcher. Leigh started assisting with koala conservation in New South Wales' Blue Mountains ahead of the 2019-2020 wildfires and went to work rescuing her koala study subjects when the fires neared. Laksmi, a koala, was one of the marsupials the received help. Leigh's team evacuated Laksmi from the mountains before the fires reached her and found that the koala was packing a surprise.

koala release
Credit: Kellie Leigh

"Laksmi was one of the koalas we could get to, and we caught her successfully. She had first come into our study in August 2019. After we caught her, I did a pouch check and found she had a tiny joey in her pouch. The joey was so small it wasn't yet popping its head out of the pouch; it was staying put, drinking milk, and was busy growing in that safe and warm environment in the pouch," Leigh told PEOPLE in a statement about her koala conservation work.

After pulling Laksmi and her young joey from the mountains, Leigh's team cared for the duo until it was safe for them to return to the wild.

"We couldn't risk putting them back too early. The fire had been catastrophic, but on top of that was the impact of the drought and the heat. We had been out on the ground doing surveys, and I was also using satellite images to see if the vegetation was recovering and even the areas of bush that didn't burn were in awful condition over summer," Leigh added.

After looking after the koala duo for several months, their caretakers determined there was enough food available for the animals to be released. After putting the pair into a Blue Mountain tree, Leigh and her team took a step back to make sure Laksmi and her baby could still handle life independently.

koala release
Credit: Kellie Leigh

"Sitting in a small area having food brought to them every day carried its own risks around whether they remained fit enough to survive back in the wild," Leigh explained.

Even though Laksmi spent a few months getting pampered, and joey, Ra, was one of the smallest joeys Leigh released back into the wild, the mother and son adjusted to life in the wild — though there were a few rough patches.

"Laksmi climbed down from her release tree into what must have seemed like a completely new environment. Although it had been her home, it was now burnt. The tree trunks were all charred, and the smells would have been completely different; everything still smelled charred. She wandered around, sniffed a burnt tree trunk, climbed up a little way, then changed her mind and climbed back down to the ground and went to another tree. She kept repeating this behavior, changing trees constantly, and when she climbed one of the trees, little Ra jumped off to look for some leaves to eat, and Laksmi went to the ground again and left him behind," Leigh said of a tense post-release moment.

Luckily, since Leigh and her team were monitoring Laksmi and Ra post-release, they could step in and help.

RELATED VIDEO: Australian Wildlife Park Celebrates 'Sign of Hope' in First Koala Born Since Deadly Bushfires

"We ended up catching Ra and then carrying him over to the tree she was in. I remember a heart-rending moment. I'd been carrying Ra keeping him warm under my rain jacket as it was wet weather that day," Leigh said. "I put him up to the trunk of this huge tree to climb, he looked at the wet trunk and the big climb up, and then he turned back and reached his paws out to come back to me! There is not much on earth that's cuter than a baby koala, and my heart melted for him. But I insisted he join his mum, and eventually he made the journey up."

While is it was a difficult goodbye, Leigh is ecstatic that these koalas have a chance to strive again and protect their species.

"After the rescue, the months at the zoo and collecting and taking food to them, it would have been awful to have something go wrong when they were back in the wild," she added.

To learn more about San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance's work around the world, visit their website.