It is 8pm on January 29 when Kailas Wild receives a life-changing message on his mobile phone.
He is sitting in a bushfire debriefing at the Marrickville SES when a text comes through asking whether he knows anyone on Kangaroo Island who can climb trees.
There is an injured koala high up in a tree and they can’t reach it from the ground.
Kai, an aborist and conservationist, instantly knows what he has to do, and by 4am the next morning his ute is packed for the 20-hour drive to his fire-ravaged destination.
During the next seven weeks of volunteering he saves 100 koalas, crowdfunds $65,000 via social media and his story captures the imagination of the world media.
Now Kai is sharing that story in his own words in a book titled The 99th Koala: Rescue and resilience on Kangaroo Island.
He will also be part of a panel discussion at this month’s Word for Word National Non-Fiction Festival being livestreamed from Geelong.
“From my perspective it was a real relief to be able to help at the time,” Kai says of his efforts on the island which had lost half of its koala population, with many more left injured and starving.
“Looking back, I think I kind of did what I could with what I had and I absolutely would do it all again.”
Kai admits it was tough and dangerous work – and not just because of the tree climbing side of things.
“The koalas are pissed off and they don’t want to have anything to do with you,” he says.
“They can be dangerous and I’m kind of glad that people can see them in that light and they command a bit of respect as opposed to them being seen as animals for us to find cute.”
It was also a traumatic experience emotionally and Kai shed many tears because of the things he saw and endured.
The toughest of those relates to the 99th koala, who Kai and fellow volunteer Freya were able to rescue but, due to the severity of her injuries, had to be euthanised.
“I deliberately don’t go into some of the details around that because it was such an intense and overwhelmingly traumatising experience for me,” he says.
“But it is a real motivation for me to promote habitat conversation so we prevent the need to interfere with wildlife in the first place.”
A happier memory is that of a rescued joey koala – later named Joey Kai by its carers – who has been nurtured back to health, with Kai able to watch its release online from his home in NSW.
“I thought maybe I’d feel disappointed that I couldn’t be there but I actually felt, in the true sense of the word, this ecstatic feeling,” he says.
“I was so relieved and so happy that he made it through that whole rehabilitation process without being too humanised or without having any complications.”
Kai says being able to share his experiences on social media was another positive to come out of the situation.
“It was essential to my wellbeing and my ability to have the means to be able to help for that long,” he says.
“As soon as there was that crowd-funding element I had to navigate making sure I was doing the right thing by the koalas, the people I was working with and then also staying accountable to the people who donated money to me.”
Kai says writing the book was therapeutic and he hopes readers will be inspired to make a difference where they can.
“I just hope people feel they have the power within them or can ask themselves ‘what am I good at, what do I love and how can I use that to help?’
“I’m glad to be able to tell the story to remind people of what happened and what is to come if we don’t really start looking after our natural environment.”
The Word for Word literary festival is being livestreamed from November 20-22.
In Our Nature with Kailus Wild will be at 3pm on November 22.
For the program and bookings, head towordforwordfestival.com.au