(CNN)Australian authorities on Wednesday charged a landowner and two companies with more than 250 counts of animal cruelty over the deaths of dozens of koalas during a clearance operation last year.
According to a statement from Victoria state’s Conservation Regulator, 21 koalas were found dead and dozens more injured at a timber plantation in Cape Bridgewater, about 377 kilometers (234 miles) southwest of the state capital, Melbourne, in February 2020.
Authorities euthanized 49 of the wounded koalas, with many suffering from starvation, dehydration and fractures, the statement said.
A man and an earthmoving company are accused of causing “unreasonable pain or suffering to dozens of koalas,” the statement said. “They are also charged with destroying koalas which are a protected species.”
They face a total of 126 charges each, including 18 aggravated cruelty charges for allegedly causing fatal injuries. One cruelty charge was laid against a separate contracting business for allegedly disturbing the koala population. The statement did not name those accused.
The maximum penalty for one charge of animal cruelty is nearly $78,000 for a business and more than $32,000 or 12 months’ jail for an individual.
In a statement at the time, Conservation group Friends of the Earth Australia called the incident a “koala massacre,” adding it was “alarmed that such wanton destruction and widespread death and injuries continue to plague the south west Victorian plantation industry.”
Threats to koalas
Koalas are a protected species in Australia and face a number of threats to their survival.
The country’s koala population suffered severe losses during the catastrophic bushfires of 2019, which destroyed more than 12 million acres (48,000 square kilometers) of land across the state of New South Wales alone.
More than 60,000 koalas either died, lost their habitat or suffered injury from the flames, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
Experts say the species is also facing localized extinctions because of the threat of chlamydia, which causes blindness and painful cysts in a koala’s reproductive tract that may lead to infertility or death.
The climate crisis has made koalas more susceptible to the disease. Chlamydia spreads more quickly through their population under stressful environmental conditions, including hot weather, drought and habitat loss, according to the Australian government.
In mid-2021, an Australian government report on the conservation status of koalas recommended the animal’s status be changed to “endangered” in Queensland, New South Wales and the Australian Capital Territory, as a result of the rapid population decline in those areas.