The convoy of vehicles fleeing a devastating forest fire in southeastern Australia carried an abundant load: 11 koalas, 15 kangaroos, five chickens, two possums, two dogs and a parrot.
Susan Pulis, who runs a wildlife care center, had called her friends to put the animals in baskets or wrap them in blankets and take them to a safe place on the coast. A friend of hers emptied a room of her house to house five of the kangaroos. Pulis stuffed the smaller kangaroo puppies in padded pockets in the room of another friend's house.
“Since the fires, the animals are very different, very anxious,” he says.
Australian fires have killed at least 23 people, destroyed over 1,400 homes and devastated over 60,000 square kilometers, but they have also taken a toll on Australia's famed wildlife. Hundreds of millions of animals (many of which do not exist on any other continent) may have died by now, devastating the country's unique ecosystems.
"We took many species that were not threatened with near extinction or even extinction," said ecologist and botanist Kingsley Dixon of Curtin University in Perth.
According to him, even animals that survived the fires, fleeing or resisting, could end up dying of dehydration or starvation. "It's a biological Armageddon rarely seen to date," he commented.
Wild animals were already threatened before the fires due to man-made changes in the Australian landscape. Agribusiness is one of the biggest contributing factors to deforestation, which decimates wildlife populations, scientists say.
Estimates of astronomical animal losses and the painful images of koalas burned in this disastrous forest fire season are causing concern worldwide. Dressmakers in the Netherlands are making padded koala gloves with burned paws. In New Zealand, others sew pockets for kangaroo puppies and bat covers.
Some experts express skepticism about the high numbers quickly posted on social networks, which are based on estimates of population density of mammals, birds and reptiles from previously published studies. To reach the estimated death toll, the number of animals expected to inhabit an area determined by the total area burned is multiplied.
But it is impossible to know how many animals managed to escape the fires, for example. Efforts to assess the scale of damage are complicated by limited access to burned areas, not to mention the difficulty of documenting individual animal deaths.
But, scientists say, whatever the numbers, it is clear that the devastation is immense.
According to various estimates, at least a quarter of New South Wales koala population may have been lost. It is also very likely that many southern brown bandicoots and long-footed potoroos have died, a species of wallaby whose entire habitat has been devastated by the fires.
Experts said thousands of kangaroos and koalas died in the fire that already devastated one-third of Kangaroo Island on the south west coast of Australia. And it is feared for the survival of a subspecies of black cockatoos of which only 300 to 370 individuals remained before the fires.
Not only wild animals are being decimated. In Batlow, 460 kilometers southwest of Sydney, a video taken by a reporter showed dead sheep and cows lying on a freeway. Carcasses like these intensify the fear of biological risks in the country.
Buchan's agricultural region in the state of Victoria was also heavily affected. Farmers are having to slaughter their burned animals at a time when drought has made their livelihoods almost impossible. In the nearby town of Bairnsdale, farmers said an auction was scheduled for Thursday to move their remaining heads of cattle forward, some of which may be injured.
Cattle farmer Tina Moon of Sarsfield, a town in southeastern Victoria, said many cattle in the area had been hit by fire and had to be slaughtered. She said she saved her house, but does not know how she will make a living in the coming months.
To protect wildlife, people like Susan Pulis, who fled the forest to the coast late last month, are battling the immense transformations of the country's landscape on a small scale. They cannot save Australian wildlife on their own, but their work reinforces scientists' view that human intervention will be increasingly needed to protect animals on a warmer, fire-prone planet.
People across the country have been joining forces to help locate, rescue and feed surviving animals.
In the fire-ravaged city of Mallacoota, a man says he rescued nine koalas, and the community is building a shelter for the animals. Other people spread seeds, grass and water to hungry and dehydrated wildlife.
"I know this will not restore our farms and homes, but for some people it may create the feeling that we are not giving up fighting," said Katharine Catelotti of Sydney, whose family lost a home in Wollomombi, more than 480 kilometers north of the city. She has been spreading wild food and taking care of some animals in her home.
Other people take on more arduous tasks. One woman told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that she has been checking the pockets of dead kangaroos for puppies and marking the kangaroos without puppies so that other people don't have to repeat the same effort.
In 2013 Susan Pullis founded a wildlife shelter on Raymond Island off the coast with the intention of rehabilitating injured or abandoned animals. In August she moved to Waterholes, 50 kilometers inland, because of the felling of trees on the island, which made it impossible for her to release koalas in an environment where they could find enough food.
Your Waterholes property has been under fire threat twice recently but remains untouched. It is a fertile oasis at the end of a blackened road in the eastern Gippsland region of eastern Victoria, where burnt and fallen trees, stretched earth and melted road signs span hundreds of miles.
"It's a holocaust," Pulis said, driving to her home on Monday for the first time since the scorching heat brought a fierce fire near her.
Since then, rainfall and a drop in temperature have brought some temporary relief. But the smoke still hangs in the air. When she reached the path leading to her property, Pulis began to cry.
"This would be my koala's food," she said, pointing to the burnt eucalyptus whose leaves would feed her animals.
Arriving home, Pulis took care of the stressed and dehydrated kangaroos she had been forced to leave behind. He injected each one with painkillers – they had probably been injured as they fled the burning woods – and changed their water, contaminated with ashes.
On Saturday, when flames several feet high threatened her home for the second time, her friend Jason Nicholson helped her with a hose and hundreds of gallons of water.
Neither could believe how the house had remained intact, with the surrounding garden still green, with cockatoos singing in the trees. They predicted that wild animals expelled from the burned areas would focus on the property, which had become a garden of Eden amid miles of devastated forest.
"Here you hear the birds," said Nicholson. “Outside the silence is total. It is a death silence. ”
Clara Allain Translation
. (tagsToTranslate) australia (t) fire (t) koalas (t) kangaroos (t) leaf