Weeks after bushfires destroyed their home in Mallacoota, Australia, an eastern grey kangaroo and her joey stop to look directly at photographer Jo-Anne McArthur. “Miles of eucalyptus plantations, once teeming with wildlife and birdsong, had fallen quiet,” says Jo-Anne, who also saw dehydrated and hungry koalas clinging to the burnt trees. “The silence was deafening; the earth crunchy and sand-like. The smell of smoke and decomposing bodies hung in the air…”
And yet, here was a pair of survivors. Jo-Anne lifted her camera, framing the kangaroos between the fire-scarred trees and ash-blackened earth. Moments later, the burdened mother hopped away, continuing her search for food.
This has become the reality for many animals struggling to survive in the aftermath of Australia’s hottest and driest summer in recorded history. One estimate suggests that, in the state of New South Wales alone, more than 800 million animals have been affected. If the states of Victoria and South Australia are included, that figure rises to over one billion.
It’s impossible to say how many animals have perished, but the eyewitness accounts are heart-breaking. Koalas roasted alive in the trees. Endangered fruit bats and cockatoos falling dead from the sky. Kangaroos, wombats and possums lying still on the ground, their paws burnt and black. Although scientists won’t know the full extent of the losses until long after the smoke has cleared, there is no doubt they will be catastrophic. Australia already has the highest species extinction rate in the world. In the wake of the fires, there are grave fears that endangered species – many of them found nowhere else in the world – will be lost forever. Already, the federal environment department has identified more than 100 nationally threatened species which are believed to have had more than half of their habitat affected by bushfires.
The blazes have affected domestic livestock too. More than 13,000 cattle and sheep have been confirmed dead (or euthanised) in New South Wales alone. Government predictions suggest a total death toll closer to 100,000.
Even for the animals that survived the flames, the nightmare is far from over. Habitats have been erased on such a scale that food and shelter will be much harder to come by for the foreseeable future. As a result, it could be decades before affected areas – and the animals that rely on them – bounce back.
A HISTORY OF FIRE
Australia has always had bushfires, but the scale of destruction in the 2019-2020 dry season is unprecedented. Record-breaking temperatures and months of severe drought created the ideal conditions for so-called ‘megablazes’, turning large swathes of the south-east into disaster zones. At their peak, the fires were so big that they generated their own lightning. The smoke pollution was visible from space. Air quality as far away as New Zealand was affected.
To date, the blazes have torn through 12 million hectares of land – an area approximately the size of England. Making matters worse, many fires are still burning, and meteorologists warn that the hot weather and elevated fire risk is set to continue before the dry season comes to a close. Already, the fires have claimed the lives of 34 people (including four firefighters), and destroyed more than 2,000 homes in New South Wales.
Even as the death toll soars among Australian animals, stories of survival continue to emerge. Heroic wildlife rescuers have sprung into action to help save as many animals as possible from burn zones. Injuries range from singed fur to severe burns.
Rescue work is dangerous in the immediate aftermath of the fires. Various hazards mean that workers may have to wait before they can access a certain area.
“Trees are so burnt and brittle that a gust of wind is enough to knock them over,” explains photographer Doug Gimesy, who was on the ground to document animal rescues. “And if it’s not the trees falling on you, it’s the heavy branches. Eucalyptus trees are a particular concern, because they burn for days internally. Incinerated roots can create underground coal pits that people fall in to. Several people have suffered second degree burns this way.”
With more patients arriving daily, wildlife shelters quickly reached capacity. Homes, primary schools and public halls become makeshift wildlife hospitals, helping to save as many animals as possible. Volunteers from across Australia – and even some from overseas – flocked to affected areas to help. Consequently, many patients recovered well, and were discharged. Others required critical veterinary care, or euthanasia.
The bushfires haven’t been kind to Australia’s iconic marsupial. In some parts of its range, the losses have been staggering. Take Kangaroo Island, for example. Once a safe haven for endangered koalas, at least 25,000 (half of the local population) are now feared dead. It’s a devastating blow to the future survival of the species.
In places where the fires didn’t reach the canopy, koalas have fared better. However, many of the survivors sustained injuries in the aftermath of the fires. Some of the worst affected animals burnt their paws when descending from charred trees. Others attempted to walk across scorched ground.
Photographer Doug Gimesy documented the transport of six koalas which had suffered extensive burns in the wake of the fires in Mallacoota. The koalas arrived at a triage centre set up by the DELWP (Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning) to administer first aid to wildlife. The centre was not fully equipped for long term recuperation of the injured koalas. Once they were stabilised, the decision was made to evacuate them for further treatment.
The Royal Australian Airforce (RAAF) was dispatched to fly the koalas in a C-27J Spartan to the East Sale base in Victoria. From there, the koalas were driven to Melbourne Zoo and Healesville Sanctuary for further care. They were accompanied all the way by Zoos Victoria staff, including a vet and a vet nurse, who continually assessed the koalas during the flight. All six survived the journey, and will hopefully return to Mallacoota once recovered. The release will happen when it’s safe to do so, in an environment that can support them in the future.
Gimesy also documented koalas being assessed using drones piloted by members of the Victorian Police. Officers have deployed the drones to see if they improve the chances of finding koalas in burnt forest. The drones are fitted with infrared cameras, which make the animals easier to spot. A second optical camera allows the rescue teams to make preliminary health checks, without having to bring the koalas down from the trees, which stresses them.
The use of drones is part of a trial project. The technology isn’t perfect, but shows promise. Under the right temperature conditions, the drones have helped officers locate koalas, and check them for injuries without having to leave the ground.
In late December 2019, over a period of just three days, around 4,500 grey-headed flying foxes died in Yarra Bend Park, outside of Melbourne. This time, it wasn’t the flames or the smoke that killed them, it was the heat.
Flying foxes can experience fatal heat stress when temperatures exceed 40°C, with some events causing mass deaths on a calamitous scale. In December 2019, Australia broke its all-time temperature record twice. An average maximum of 40.9°C was recorded on 17 December, broken a day later by 41.9°C, both beating 2013’s record of 40.3°C. An unfortunate quirk of flying fox behaviour causes them to respond by ‘clumping’. As it gets hotter, they try to escape the heat and drying effects of the wind and sun by leaving the safety of their roosts in the branches of trees.
Searching for relief, a distressed bat eventually lands on the lee side of a big tree trunk, closer to the ground, where it’s cooler. This seems to be a signal to other bats that a refuge has been found, prompting them to follow. A negative feedback loop results – too many bodies in a tight scrum equals a lot of body heat. Panting and dehydrated, the bats are too exhausted to move. One falls, and the rest cascade on the ground, crushing and suffocating each other. Bodies pile up at the bottom of the tree.
For Australia’s bats, extreme heat can be just as devastating as bushfires. But these twin threats, when they occur in tandem, are multiplied. Much of the flying foxes’ habitat lies directly in the fire zones along Australia’s east coast. It’s a crushing blow to the species, which is already listed as vulnerable to extinction. The bats use these forests as stepping stones, moving up and down the coast in response to changes in local food resources. The destruction of their habitat not only reduces those resources, but impacts their ability to migrate. Making matters worse, the bats are vital to the health of Australian ecosystems. By pollinating native plants and dispersing seeds across vast areas, they “garden” the forest by night, helping them to regenerate. If the population crashes, it will most likely impact the ability of burnt forests to bounce back. We covered this story in more depth here.
In river catchment areas in New South Wales, mass fish deaths have been blamed partly on ash and debris flowing into waterways in the wake of the fires. The combination of extreme weather events – heatwaves and drought, leading to bushfires and followed by heavy rain – are expected to have cascading impacts on fish and freshwater wildlife. Although the individual impacts of drought, fires, and flooding are not new phenomena, these three things working together in tandem has created a “triple whammy” of pressures on Australia’s rivers. Scientists believe it could take decades for some rivers to recover.
Of the 113 priority fauna species identified by the federal government as worst impacted by bushfires, over half are freshwater species – including 22 crayfish, 17 frogs, 17 fish, 3 turtles and the iconic platypus.
Ash washed into waterways chokes streams and clogs fish gills, but it also brings nutrients that can lead to algal blooms. At the same time, the loss of shade from riverside vegetation drives higher water temperatures and exposes prey to predators. For aquatic species, there is little escape. While patches of forest may be left unscathed by the fires, damage to waterways flows downstream, leaving few clean water refuges.
GLIMPSES OF HOPE
The land is blackened, millions of hectares erased in a matter of weeks. Wildlife populations are decimated. The burn scars will take years to heal. And yet there are survivors. There are glimpses of hope. Rescue efforts are working, and many animals, now fully recovered from their injuries, are back in the wild. The work of dedicated wildlife carers continues, boosted by support from all corners of the globe. Individuals and organisations have pledged millions of dollars in aid. The Australian government has made an initial investment of $50 million to support both short- and long-term recovery.
And landscapes are bouncing back, too. Burnt trees are already sending out epicormic shoots – which grow from buds that lie dormant underneath the bark. Epicormic growth is the result of tree damage or stress. Eucalyptus trees have extensive epicormic buds that are highly protected by the bark. This allows them greater insulation from the intense heat of fires than other tree species. Eucalyptus trees are therefore some of the most successful resprouters in the world.
On the ground, other signs of regrowth – ferns, fungi and little blades of grass – are pushing through the ash. These new colonisers, which have lain dormant in the soil, are now able to take advantage of the bare ground and lack of competition from other plants.
While the appearance of new plant life brings hope to devastated ecosystems, many of these forests will never be the same. Vegetation is recovering, but there are still many animals out there whose habitats have been destroyed and are struggling to survive. However, for now, nature’s recovery is underway, and the leaves are starting to return to Australia’s ravaged forests.
Needless to say, there is still a long way to go, and new challenges to meet. While climate change is not the direct cause of the bushfires, scientists warn that higher temperatures and more drought will lead to longer fire seasons, and more frequent and intense fires in the future. New research has found that human-induced climate change increased the risk of the weather conditions that drove the fires by at least 30%.
Australia’s wildlife is on the road to recovery, but it’s a road paved by the actions we choose to take. Surely the time has come for a drastic change of direction.
A HELPING HAND
Nature Picture Library supported Wildlife Victoria with a donation to help the animals injured in the fire. Caroline Dazey from Wildlife Victoria told us more about the impact our photographers’ images had on her and gave us an update on the situation facing volunteers on the ground on 10th February 2020:
“I grew up just north of the town of Mallacoota and spent my childhood running around that bushland, so some of the photos of that area just broke my heart a little. The good news is that we are actively distributing funds to wildlife shelters and carers that need it, and many shelters are already starting the rebuilding process. With many fires still burning here and just over the NSW border, we have been very pleased to see some rain this week to help get them under control.”
Image by Doug Gimesy / naturepl.com
To see more images from this story, please visit our Australia bushfires gallery.