Protecting Australian wildlife during catastrophic bushfires
Over 1 billion animals died in Australia’s destructive and ongoing bushfires that began burning in June 2019, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
“There have been massive numbers of sheep, cattle and other livestock killed too,” Josh Meadows of the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) said.
Rescuers managed to save local and imported animals including wombats, kangaroos and koalas. They have been placed at wildlife sanctuaries until they’re deemed ready to return to suitable bushland environments.
Now the rescuers’ greatest fears include access to proper food and water and avoiding predation from animals introduced to Australia like cats and foxes. The food problem is exacerbated by some species’ diets.
“According to our zoologists, eucalyptus is the only food source for koalas,” Christine Demichael of the Palm Beach Zoo said. “They need abundant amounts of it in the wild to survive. The real concern is more in the short term about how to feed the koalas that have been moved to safety and if there is enough eucalyptus to keep them healthy until the forests can be reestablished.”
Several indigenous species face extinction, like the Kangaroo Island dunnart. Before the bushfires began burning on the island, fewer than 500 of them were believed to be alive.
The glossy black cockatoo, long-footed potoroo, western ground parrot, blue mountains water skink, regent honeyeater, eastern bristlebird, southern corroboree frog and brush-tailed rock-wallaby also face extinction, the ACF (Australian Conservation Foundation) reports.
“These species were already under pressure in most cases because their habitat has been cleared to make way for housing or industrial projects like logging and mining,” Meadows said.
The ACF believes the burnt bush will return but not “as it was.” Half of the Gondwana Rainforests, a World Heritage Site landmark situated in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, have been destroyed.
“These are ‘wet’ rainforests that have never burned before,” Meadows said. “We used to think they were unburnable. But climate change is changing the rules and hitting these World Heritage Sites very hard.”
Amidst such costly destruction, whether the Australian government’s response has been strong enough is no small question. The ACF applauded the $50 million in funding to help aid Australian fauna by Minister of the Environment Sussan Ley and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg.
“The government has done the right thing by quickly bringing together experts and community groups to map out the best way to respond,” Meadows said. “If we want these species to be around for our children and grandchildren to appreciate, the government will need to protect critical habitats, fund scientifically robust recovery plans and strengthen our national environmental laws.”
Meadows also emphasized that the Australian government must strengthen its policy on climate, noting its current insufficiency for two notable reasons.
The first is a rise in climate pollution since the current coalition government took office in 2013.
The second reason is that Australia was one of the nations responsible for 90% of global climate pollution, and its response to that problem was ranked low by the 2020 international Climate Change Performance Index. According to both Meadows and the Index, Australia scored zero out of 100 on climate policy.
It’s too early to determine the impact of conservation efforts. The ACF believes the devastation and loss of life -- humans, animals and architecture -- will spur the Australian populace to demand serious climate change reform.
“People who may have thought climate change was a vague, distant threat are now breathing bushfire smoke and reeling from the lives lost, the thousands of houses destroyed and the death of so many animals,” Meadows said. “The call for credible climate action are growing louder as more and more Australians demand a serious response to the climate crisis.”
The Palm Beach Zoo currently features two Queensland koalas named Oz and Katherine in their Australian exhibits. The zoo hopes to use them as visual inspiration to support Australian recovery endeavors.
“Our conservation efforts are ongoing, and we hope to raise several thousands of dollars to send to the zoos’ Victoria efforts,” Demichael said. “The recovery of Australian wildlife will take many, many years and we will use our Koala Experiences at Palm Beach Zoo to educate people on how they can help for the future of the species. There is no timeframe for the end of our efforts.”
By Benjamin Wainer