As Australia continues to fight its record-setting bushfires, the scientific community is racing to identify and save the animals in burnt zones that are on the brink of extinction.
There is no blueprint for how to do this. But experts have recognized they’ve got to work fast in order to deal with the current crisis facing Australia’s wildlife, and to prepare for more to come in the face of worsening human-caused climate change.
“We’ve been caught with our pants down,” Sarah Legge, an ecology professor at Australian National University, told BuzzFeed News. She’s on a newly appointed government panel tasked with helping inform a large-scale recovery plan for the many species of plants and animals threatened by the fires.
“I think there was a little bit of shock paralysis” over the holiday period, said Legge. By early January, however, a consensus had emerged that “we’ve got to get organized and do something fast.”
The species considered most at risk of extinction right now are the ones that were endangered before the unprecedented bushfire season began last fall, battling already low populations on limited parts of the continent. By overlaying maps of the burnt areas with the known territories of endangered species, experts are working on drafting a preliminary list of highly threatened animals, plants, and ecosystems.
The analysis is ongoing, but experts said some species likely to end up on the list are the Kangaroo Island dunnart, the glossy black cockatoo, the Hastings River mouse, the eastern bristlebird, and the greater glider.
"The ongoing bushfires are an ecological disaster,” the government panel members wrote in a Jan. 15 update. “While the full extent of the impacts on species and natural assets will not be known until the fires are out and it is safe to access affected areas, we know they will be extensive and severe.”
The International Union for Conservation of Nature has labeled the Kangaroo Island dunnart, located only on Southern Australia’s Kangaroo Island, as “critically endangered.” There were an estimated fewer than 500 animals before the fires, according to the Australian government. They are tiny mouselike mammals with gray fur, long tails, and pointy snouts.
“All sites that we’ve seen the dunnart at in the last 30 years have burned, effectively its entire range,” Rosemary Hohnen, a postdoctoral fellow at Charles Darwin University studying the species, told BuzzFeed News by email. “Given it was previously considered critically endangered, and that it will be very difficult for individuals to survive in burnt areas, it's clear the species is in real peril, on the very edge of extinction.”
There is concern that surviving Kangaroo Island dunnarts could face food shortage, a lack of vegetation cover, and risk getting eaten by feral cats. If any of the endangered animals are found, Hohnen said, one option is to put up a fence around them to keep out predators.
The glossy black cockatoo, which the government has designated as vulnerable, is a black bird with bright red feathers on its tail that is also found on Kangaroo Island, as well as along a stretch of the east coast of Australia.
“On Kangaroo Island, 59% of its feeding habitat has been burnt. It’s also affected nest trees, including 93 artificial nest hollows that were installed by the recovery program,” Daniella Teixeira, a PhD student studying the glossy black cockatoo at the University of Queensland, said in an email. “No birds have been rescued or brought into care as far as I’m aware.”
People currently working on helping these birds recover are seeking to replace lost nests with artificial boxes, as well as plant thousands of new food trees, according to Teixeira.
“Researchers like me are hoping to study how the birds respond to these events, so that we can make better decisions about what conservation actions to take now, to help the birds in the short-term, but also give them a better chance at surviving such events again in the future,” she added.
And the government-led effort is not just looking at species that were previously considered at risk. “We will also look at species that are not formerly listed as threatened, but which may have been so severely impacted by the fire that they now qualify as threatened,” Legge said. It’s unknown how long the resulting surveying and recovery efforts could last.
While the search for endangered animals is underway, conservationists and others have launched rescue operations for other animals, including kangaroos and koalas, whose young offspring are called "joeys."
On Kangaroo Island, for example, Humane Society International workers have been working long days to find animals in need.
“The rescued animals are bundled into the car — small joeys are held by team members and larger animals are held in laundry baskets, which have proven to be excellent for transporting koalas! They are then taken to the emergency vet hospital set up at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park,” Kelly Donithan, a disaster response expert with Humane Society International, told BuzzFeed News in an email.
In the first week out in the field, HSI’s team rescued 39 animals: 32 koalas, 3 kangaroos, 1 wallaby, 2 possums, and 1 echidna.
“The most threatened animal affected by these fires is the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, which may have been wiped out by this disaster,” Donithan said. “We are trying to make sure that every animal has a chance for survival.”
Update:This story has been updated to clarify that the offspring of kangaroos and koalas are known as "joeys."