Published in the Australian Veterinary Journal March 2020
On Kangaroo Island, in addition to the tens of thousands of livestock which perished, initial estimates suggest up to 70% of wildlife on the island was lost. The Kangaroo Island fires escalated rapidly when a south-westerly change with dry lightning caused the fire to spread catastrophically. Two-thirds of the Island burned out of control for 22 days.
Dr Felicity Stoeckeler from Kangaroo Island Veterinary Clinic was on the frontline of the wildlife response, and explained that the enormous numbers of wildlife affected would have quickly overwhelmed the capacity at the vet clinic, so the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park owners stepped forward and began building enclosures as quickly as the animals were arriving.
Animals were collected from the fire grounds by official organisations, members of the public, landowners, Wildlife Network members and emergency services personnel. In the initial stages, upward of 60 injured animals were triaged each day.
The overwhelming majority were koalas, with the land-dwelling animals faring much more poorly. “We have had a handful of severely burned wallabies, kangaroos, possums, and goannas, and four perfectly healthy echidnas. Otherwise, there have been over 300 koalas, the final numbers yet to be determined,” said Dr Stoeckler.
Treating these animals, and providing support for the people who have been helping them will be ongoing for some time ahead as Dr Stoeckler highlights: “The experience has been overwhelming. The vast number of injured animals, media teams, donations, organised and unannounced volunteers, have been a constantly evolving challenge to navigate. Coming off the back of a few sleepless nights, fear for the lives and livelihoods of friends and family, fear for our homes, pets and safety - it has been an experience we will never forget.”
Evan Quartermain, Head of Programs for the Humane Society International - Australia, led a search and rescue team on the fireground. This was the scene they were confronted with: “We hit the ground running after seeing dozens of charred bodies and grounded koalas in need of help in the first plantation we entered. The air was thick with smoke, ash, and death, but we pushed it to the back of our minds as best we could and got on with search and rescue.”
“The macropods we found were most often euthanasia cases, alive but with their paws nothing but bone after being severely burned several days prior. Koalas were by far the animal we rescued most, often joeys far too young to be alone that we found low in trees or curled into balls in the middle of clearings. It was an extremely confronting experience, the most devastating fortnight of my life as well as the best thing I’ve ever done. The level of suffering was immense and it breaks my heart to know similar situations are still playing out across huge areas of the country”.
The scale of the bushfire season is summed up by scientists from the Threatened Species Recovery Hub in their recent report ‘After the catastrophe, a blueprint for a conservation response to large-scale ecological disaster’ in which they note: “Long- established objectives for biodiversity conservation, and mechanisms to achieve them, may need to be reconsidered in response to the 2019-20 wildfires, especially under a future scenario of increasing impacts of escalating climate change. There may be a new normal, and recovery to pre-fire environments and species assemblages may be impossible.”
Read the full article, as well as more about the veterinary treatment of animals affected by the SA, and interstate, fires that devastated Australia this summer in the article below.