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It’s been estimated that around one billion animals have perished in the devastating Australia wildfires. But thanks to the efforts of tireless rescue workers hoping to salvage the remains of these incredible species, hope is not lost.
Nature has been working with a team of producers on the ground to cover the rescue and recovery stories from Southwest Australia, where kangaroos, wombats, tiger snakes and more have been transported and cared for their injuries. Anja Taylor set aside time to discuss the situation in Australia and how Nature has been documenting the massive push to save injured and traumatized animals.
First can you provide an update as to the current situation on the ground in Australia?
On the back of the hottest year on record, a severe, prolonged drought and devastating fires, we have now thankfully had rains. While this has helped either extinguish or contain the blazes, many regions have experienced an absolute deluge – with torrential rains delivering a new series of impacts on native freshwater animals – like fish, platypus, turtles and invertebrates.
The rains have swept tonnes of thick ash into waterways, killing hundreds of thousands of fish, including almost all of the remaining population of endangered Macquarie Perch. Described as a ‘river of black porridge’ oxygen levels dropped to zero within hours of the flooding. Ash and other nutrients in waterways promote bacterial growth, which sucks the oxygen from the water. The additional problem of sludge in the water means fish may not be able to pass the water over their gills to extract enough oxygen. From past events, fish can take decades to recover their populations, or may not recover at all. Because the burns happened over such a large area, this time it is not just local populations at risk, but entire species. There have been rescue efforts underway – even just saving one or two individuals from a fish species can mean saving hundreds of thousands of eggs.
Platypus numbers were already dropping before the fires, due to drying rivers, but ash loads have further reduced the available water. Preliminary reports are suggesting many platypuses died in the flooding events.
Have experts been able to properly tally the wildlife that has been affected by the disaster?
Scientists are very concerned about many threatened species in Australia following the bushfires.
The most widely reported national figure of more than a billion animals killed in the bushfires comes from Professor Chris Dickman of Sydney University. Prof Dickman used a method employed by the World Wide Fund for Nature for a 2007 report on the impacts of land clearing on Australian wildlife. The authors of that report used known densities of mammals, birds and reptiles, multiplied by the areas of land approved for clearing – but in this case Prof Dickman applied them to the fire scorched regions.
The calculations are conservative and don’t include animals like bats, frogs and insects – which would easily take the figure into the billions. Chris Dickman says many species could be extinct before they were discovered.
Although it’s too early to report extinctions, there are some rough figures emerging. Almost 50 nationally threatened animal and plant species are thought to have at least 80% of their habitat affected by fire. The Kangaroo Island Dunnart, an endangered small marsupial that looks similar to a mouse is thought to be the worst affected mammal. It lives only on the 160km island off the south coast of Australia and has had almost all its habitat wiped out.
Other endangered animals affected are the long-footed potoroo in the states of New South Wales and Victoria, the glossy black cockatoo in South Australia, the Blue Mountains water skink, the rufous scrub bird and three critically endangered turtles, which have had most of their habitat burnt. Around 113 species have been prioritised for ‘urgent management intervention’ over the coming year. Most of these have had at least thirty percent of their range burnt and include 13 birds, 19 mammals, 20 reptiles, 17 frogs, 5 invertebrates, 22 spiny crayfish and 17 freshwater fish.
Following the fires, the biggest threat to animal recovery is the presence of feral animals like foxes and cats, which head towards fire ravaged areas. With a lack of vegetation and ground cover for small animals to hide in, its easy pickings.
Can you discuss efforts being made to locate and nurse injured animals?
The response from rescuers and carers has been phenomenal.
While filming, I joined the Karran family in Kangaroo Island, who have been out day after day on their own time, searching through the fire grounds for injured animals. So far, they have rescued more than 94 koalas – not counting other animals like kangaroos and reptiles. While the koalas have been sent to the wildlife park for rehabilitation, the Karrans’ couch is now a bed for at least four joeys, which must be bottle fed and wrapped up in a make-shift pouch each day.
On the mainland, rescuers have been swimming through mud and ash-filled rivers to rescue freshwater animals like turtles and platypus trapped in the mud. Triage centres have been set up across the country to treat animals coming in with burns to hands and feet. We filmed with the Sydney Wildlife Rescue Mobile Unit in its first weekend of operation. Like a campervan full of vets, the unit had travelled down from the city to rural fire-affected areas so that carers with injured animals could bring them in for assessment. In one day, we saw several kangaroos, a bird, wombat, snake and wallaby come in for assessment.
Hundreds, if not thousands of carers have opened their homes to animals, including vet Wayne Boardman and his wife Katrina who currently have 118 flying foxes in their care. Looking after these animals can take up many hours of the day and they often require months of care – for instance wombats need to be around 2 years of age before they are released back into the wild.
Have rescued animals shown signs of trauma? What can be done to help them?
Animals rescued from fire zones are often very traumatised, not just from the injuries, but the terrifying experience of the fires and extreme conditions following. Many young animals are orphaned and unable to fend for themselves without a parent, like the juvenile rainbow lorikeet we saw assessed at the mobile vet clinic. Found trembling on the ground and covered in mites, the lorikeet had been abandoned in the fires and was severely traumatised. When taken into care, these animals are often buddied up with other animals of the same species, to help them regain their confidence increase their chances of successful release. Although young animals often require bottle feeding, efforts are made to reduce human attachment before they are released, so that they remain ‘wild’ and can cope in their new environment. Many animals in rehabilitation show remarkable capacity for recovery. Koalas are often found in their burnt habitat, huddled in a ball on the ground with nothing left to eat, dehydrated, injured and making no effort to escape capture – but if they survive the initial ordeal, with proper care, they can be climbing trees, interacting and feeding themselves within a couple of weeks.
How can the lost habitats be replaced? Are there any discussions of plans?
Australia is a land well accustomed to fires and many of our nation’s plants like Eucalypt and Banksia, need the heat from fire to germinate and Eucalypts have dormant buds deep below the bark and underground which burst to life several weeks after a fire.
Bushfire smoke also contains chemicals that trigger all sorts of seeds to grow and ash is a nutrient rich bed to grow in, so Australian forests can really spring back to life after a fire, as long as there is a bit of rain. Rain has certainly followed this fire event.
But what is worrying scientists is the scale of these fires. So large in size and intensity they have left very few unburnt refuges for animals to survive in. Even natural fire breaks like rainforest, which traditionally don’t burn, have been consumed. These are ecosystems that are not so resilient to fire and these plant species may take a long time to recover. Following these fires, the biggest challenge to wildlife is finding something to eat as well as predation from feral animals. With so much groundcover wiped out, native small animals are particularly vulnerable.
As the climate changes and temperatures rise, droughts, heatwaves and fires are pushing even fire loving Australian trees to their limits. Big trees are dying, canopies are thinning out and they are producing less seed, so how they will regrow after these fires is not fully known.
Many groups have been working independently to restore habitat, some by fencing large areas to protect from predators, others are trialling long tunnels to provide cover for small mammals and nest boxes for birds left without nest hollows in old trees. Regular food and water drops are occurring in different regions. The government has also pledged 50 million dollars to be spent on habitat restoration and wildlife rehabilitation, including helping frontline responders such as carers, rescuers, wildlife hospitals and zoos.
There are also calls to implement a national indigenous burning program, using knowledge from traditional custodians of Australia that go back thousands of years. Cultural burning uses ‘cool burns’ to help reduce fuel loads and fire risk, while considering the vegetation, soil type, moisture levels and fauna to decide the size, shape and direction of the controlled burn. Several landowners have credited cultural burns for saving their properties from the more severe impacts of the fires.
Finally, what sticks out to you the most about your time covering the wildfires?
When our crew joined the Karran family to film one of their rescues, I expected to be confronted by injured animals but nothing prepared me for the severity of what I saw. Inside a burnt plantation we came across two kangaroos and their joeys – the mothers were both lying on the ground. Their large feet had been melted completely off by the hot ground and almost no flesh remained – they had only small bone stumps left. They had lain in that position, in that condition, for two weeks, slowly starving, while still feeding their dependent joeys. But the two large joeys were completely unharmed, despite their size and ability to bound across ground faster than we could run, they had been bundled in the pouch during the fires, protected and cared for until their mothers’ very last breath. The image of the two female kangaroos standing up to defend their offspring as we arrived will never leave me. The two joeys were successfully rescued and are doing well in care.
I’ve also been very moved by the extent to which everyday Australians, some with full time jobs, are working around the clock to rescue and rehabilitate injured wildlife.
When and how did coverage start?
We began filming on the 12th of January, after driving down to Wandandian, NSW to meet carers from Wildlife Rescue South Coast who had organised a mobile vet care unit to visit them. At that stage the South coast Currowan Fire was still burning – a massive blaze that raged for 74 days across around 500,000 hectares.
Watch some of Nature’s coverage on their YouTube channel.
IMAGE SOURCE: Anja Taylor