Experts worry Australian species at risk as wildlife workers continue rescue operations
TORONTO -- As the death toll soars among Australian animals impacted by the nation’s sweeping bushfires, those who care for koalas and other threatened wildlife are kicking their rescue efforts into overdrive.
“It’s so sad,” Sue Moore told CTV News, describing the effect of the wildfires as “devastating.”
Moore is knownin Australia as the koala whisperer. She has saved more than 70 koalas this year alone, though none were rescued directly from the fires.
She has spent 15 years rehabilitating wildlifeand has a keen understanding of how crucial the different animals are to the Australian ecosystem.
“We have pigmy possums that do the pollination[and] we have our flying foxes,” she saidof the animals more commonly known as fruit bats. “They're extremely important cause they pollinate and go all around.”
Experts with the University of Sydney estimated earlier this month that more than 800 million animals have been killed in the bushfires since September, with over one billion impacted.
It is believed that the true number of animal deaths could be even higher.
Kangaroo Island, a sanctuary in the south of Australia just a few miles offshore from Adelaide, has been decimated by the wildfires. The sanctuary is home to numerous animals, including kangaroos, koalas and possums. Over 50,000 koalas lived there before this season’s fire, but now experts believe that number has been halved.
A disaster response team from the Humane Society International was deployed earlier this month to search for survivors in the blackened remains of eucalyptus forests on the island.
Kelly Donithan, a specialist for HSI, said in a news release that “these are some of the toughest scenes I’ve ever witnessed as an animal rescuer: the bodies of charred animals as far as the eye can see.”
In a tweet last week, the organization detailed one particularly affecting encounter for staff: the moment when HSI came across an injured koala crouched only feet away from the body of a deceased one.
“The wildlife death toll is so high that those who survive are living among the dead,” the tweet reads.
The wildfires have eaten up more than 100 thousand square kilometres of brushland, rainforests and national parks. Australia already has the world’s highest rate of extinctionand experts are concerned that these fires are speeding up the pace of extinction for many species unique to the region.
Even if animals survive the flames themselves, their habitats and food sources are being erased, making it harder for survivors to reboundexperts say.
Koalas, one of the nation’s most iconic animals, had lost around 30 per cent of their habitat in New South Wales by the end of 2019.
Canadian ecologist Clare Anstead says that recovery of species and the environment as a whole could take decades.
“It’s hard to say what the long term consequences are going to be, from an ecological standpoint,” she added. “You have so many animals that have been affected.”
Christopher Dickman, a professor with the University of Sydney, said in a news release that environmental scientists and ecologists in Australia feel that they’ve been “frozen out of the debate” regarding the country’s environmental policy.
“I think it's now time to bring the scientists back into the tent to look at what is likely to be happening over the next few decades and to think about how we can maintain both the human community in good health and as much biodiversity as can be retained under this evolving situation.”
Although the work is piling on for rehabilitation workers, there is still a positive side.
In a video posted to HIS Australia’s Twitter Saturday, Erica Martin, CEO of HSI Australia, cradles a tiny baby koala -- known as a joey -- and reports that the wounded are already “bouncing back.”
Moore pointed out that the support across the globe and from organizations on the ground has led to the rescue of countless animals.
“It's amazing,” she said. “I'm absolutely gobsmacked on how the population, even the whole world, has just come all together. I've actually got goosebumps even thinking about it.”