Australian Bush Fires Devastate Wildlife, National Park Habitat

Animal survivors find help from wildlife organizations and in suburban backyards

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IN the midst of the bush fires, a firefighter showed up at the Wildlife Information and Rescue Service (WIRES) and asked, ``Can you put up a friend who's been helping with the bush fires since last night?''

``The volunteers assured him that they would be able to set up a bed for his friend,'' says volunteer Roy Starkey. ``The firefighter smiled and opened his jacket. Inside was a ring-tailed possum.''

Mr. Starkey is one of four volunteers constantly answering ringing phones at WIRES headquarters in this suburb north of Sydney. Bringing animals in to be cared for is something that WIRES has come to expect. This voluntary organization in normal times gives people advice about getting possums out of their attics. But with the recent bush fires, callers want to know what to do to help with injured wildlife.

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In terms of numbers of deaths and houses lost, these fires were not as bad as others have been. But the effect of the fires - which burned nearly 1.2 million acres of mostly bushland - on wildlife here has been devastating.

``Usually fires in Australia are less intense, and that enables animals to get away,'' says Heather Parsons, spokeswoman for WIRES. ``This particular fire, because it moved with such velocity, meant that a large majority of animals in several burnt areas didn't escape.''

WIRES estimates that 90 percent of wildlife in areas affected by the fire has been destroyed. Out of a colony of 15,000-20,000 red- and grey-headed fruit bats, only 100 were retrieved.

THE fire also destroyed the habitat for survivors. The 37,500 acre Royal National Park (RNP), was 90 percent destroyed. Aerial shots show a lunar landscape, with scorched earth barren of trees. Out of the tens of thousands of animals that had lived in the park, only five have been found alive.

But areas of bush surrounding suburbs were more patchily burned. Now, animals that managed to out-run, fly, or hop the fires have a raft of new problems. ``In trying to get back to their own territory, they're having run-ins with other animals whose territory they pass through,'' says Ms. Parsons. ``They're malnourished, disoriented, having to compete with other animals for food, and under attack from domestic cats and dogs.''

Residents who live near bushland are being advised that wildlife may show up in their backyards seeking food and water.

``We're telling people if they find an animal...put it in a box where it will be warm, dark, and quiet,'' says Parsons. ``Then ring us.'' WIRES, which has 26 branches statewide, has a network of trained animal carers as well as volunteer veterinarians.

WIRES and the National Parks and Wildlife Service (NPWS) are advising people not to take food to the national parks or to areas that have been burnt. The danger is that feral predators can lurk nearby, killing other animals that come for the food.

But providing food in one's backyard may help some animals. Peter Cheeseman, who lost his garage and a storeroom in the blaze, pointed to a nibbled piece of tomato he left outside the night before. ``We know they're out there,'' he says.

Veterinarians donating their services for injured wildlife are just part of the flood of generosity seen here in the past few days. WIRES estimates that 75 percent of their calls were from people wanting to donate money or to help.

A new aerial survey by scientists of the RNP has shown that it was not as completely destroyed as initially thought and that unburnt areas provided a haven for animals.

``The effect on wildlife by these fires has been profound,'' said David Keith, fire research scientist with NPWS. ``However, fire is a natural phenomenon and eventually after five or ten years the ecosystem will reach maturity once more.''

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