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Tea Leaves

Australia's firestorm is a wildlife disaster

More than 1 billion animals are feared to have died, and many more will follow

An injured koala looks on while being treated at the Wildlife Emergency Response Centre on Australia's Kangaroo Island on Jan. 19.    © Reuters

Six months ago, koalas were so abundant in the wildlife paradise of Kangaroo Island, off the coast of South Australia, that authorities were being urged to consider a cull. Today, up to 25,000 koalas -- half the island's population of the bear-like marsupial -- are feared dead in the bushfires that have raged across much of the country in recent weeks.

In the charred forests of the Blue Mountains, inland from Sydney, helicopters are dropping carrots and sweet potatoes to feed rock wallabies searching for food in their devastated environment. Nearly 2,500 km to the west, sharpshooters have just killed more than 5,000 wild camels, desperate for water, that were threatening the health and safety of remote Aboriginal communities.

The death toll among Australian wildlife from bushfires over the past three months will never be known precisely, but the latest estimate from the World Wildlife Fund is that 1.25 billion animals, birds and reptiles are dead, with millions more injured. Many others are likely to die from stress and starvation in the months ahead. For example, wombats, the stubby, slow-moving marsupials that live in burrows, are highly susceptible to heat and stress.

Some native species face the threat of extinction -- vulnerable creatures such as the long-footed potoroo in Victoria and the brush-tailed rock wallaby in New South Wales, along with marsupial gliders that can swoop as far as 100 meters from tree to tree using a membrane of skin, the large bats known as flying foxes, and beautiful birds such as the glossy black cockatoo.

Bushfires do not just destroy habitat and food -- they also open up hitherto protected areas to predators such as feral cats, foxes and wild dogs, and make it easier for imported pests such as rabbits, goats, pigs and camels to compete with native wildlife for food, water and shelter.

Years ago I worked with Japanese film crews making wildlife documentaries on Kangaroo Island. They were drawn to the island by its natural beauty, the sheer abundance and health of the koalas, kangaroos, reptiles and birds that lived there, and by the penguins, seals, sea lions and other marine life that took advantage of the pristine coastline.

Now, an area covering about a third of the island's 440,000 hectares has been burnt, including most of the beautiful Flinders Chase National Park, which provided an environment largely free from human impact.

A wallaby stands amid burned bush land on Kangaroo Island on Jan. 19.    © Reuters

The flora will recover over time, but some of the animal and bird colonies may not. The losses have been too great. The Australian government has committed 50 million Australian dollars to national wildlife recovery, but that is just a starting point for a long process that will be complicated by drought, the likelihood that more bush will be cleared to prevent further fires, and increased pressure from feral predators.

Amid the gloom, it is uplifting to see the global response to this Australian tragedy. Around the world, people are donating money, and groups such as the Animal Rescue Craft Guild are knitting woolen mittens for the singed paws of koalas, pouches for baby kangaroos that have lost their mothers, and booties for the burnt feet of wallabies.

On the ground, volunteers are venturing into burnt bush land in search of injured wildlife or to leave food and water for survivors. WWF-Australia aims to raise 30 million Australian dollars specifically for wildlife rescue and recovery. There will be plenty of options for spending the money. In the Barrington Tops high country north of the Hunter Valley in New South Wales, where the Aussie Ark rescue group breeds feisty Tasmanian devils, it is adding a new project: the creation of a 7,000-hectare sanctuary to house between 1,000 and 1,500 endangered koalas. Just building the fence will cost close to AU$1 million.

A rescue volunteer holds the burnt paw of a brushtail possum in Merimbula, Australia, on Jan. 9.   © Reuters

Australia has an astonishing diversity of wildlife, from tree kangaroos in tropical Queensland to the duckbilled platypus in east coast rivers and the cuddly little quokkas of Rottnest Island in Western Australia. But Australian attitudes to animals are not always protective. The country has the world's worst record of mammal species extinction, with 100 lost in the past 200 years.

The latest camel cull triggered a stream of negative comments from around the world, and the shooting of kangaroos to use as pet food or for the game-meat market is seen by some as a national disgrace.

My own little corner of the Hunter Valley has escaped the fires, with smoke haze the only health hazard. But the heat and the wind has desiccated our back yard, and the colorful birds and lizards that usually frequent it are now few and far between. I shall definitely revisit Kangaroo Island, though. As Delene Weber, a fire and diversity expert at the University of South Australia, says, "regeneration is always inspiring to watch."

Geoff Hiscock is an Australian-based writer.

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