Australia govt commits $46m to wildlife fund as koalas, wallabies endangered by bush fire 'ecological disaster'

Vets and volunteers treat koalas at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, on Kangaroo Island, Australia, on Jan 10, 2020.
Vets and volunteers treat koalas at Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, on Kangaroo Island, Australia, on Jan 10, 2020.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MELBOURNE (REUTERS) - The Australian government committed A$50 million (S$46 million) to an emergency wildlife recovery programme on Monday (Jan 13), calling the bush fire crisis engulfing the country "an ecological disaster" that threatens several species, including koalas and rock wallabies.

Huge wildfires have razed more than 11.2 million hectares, nearly half the area of the United Kingdom, destroying or severely damaging the habitats of several native animals.

Some estimates suggest as many as a billion animals, including livestock and domestic pets, have either died in the blazes or are at risk in their aftermath due to a lack of food and shelter.

"This has been an ecological disaster, a disaster that is still unfolding," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters on Monday as he visited the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, where 45 koalas were being treated for burns.

"We know that our native flora and fauna have been very badly damaged."

Images of burned kangaroos, koalas and possums, along with footage of people risking their lives to save native animals have gone viral around the world. Knitters around the world have responded to a call to create thousands of protective pouches and blankets for injured wildlife.

The Australian division of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has advised the government of 13 animals whose habitats have been either destroyed or severely damaged. They include three critically endangered species: the southern corroboree frog, the regent honeyeater bird and the western ground parrot.

"Huge proportions of globally significant areas like the Gondwana Rainforest and Blue Mountains World Heritage Areas along with the Australian Alps and Western Australia's Stirling Ranges have suffered catastrophic burns," WWF said in an e-mailed statement.

Other animals at risk include koala populations across the south-east, the Kangaroo Island dunnart, glossy black cockatoo, long-footed potoroo, Blue Mountains water skink, eastern bristlebird and the brush-tailed rock wallaby.

In a mission dubbed Operation Rock Wallaby, national park staff used helicopters to air drop thousands of kilogrammes of carrots and sweet potatoes to brush-tailed rock wallabies in remote areas of New South Wales state.

"The provision of supplementary food is one of the key strategies we are deploying to promote the survival and recovery of endangered species like the brush-tailed rock wallaby," NSW environment minister Matt Kean said.

 
 
 
 

"The wallabies typically survive the fire itself, but are then left stranded with limited natural food, as the fire takes out the vegetation around their rocky habitat."

Mr Frydenberg said the "iconic" koala would be a focus of national government funding, adding that the full extent of the damage would not be known until the fires are out - something experts say could be months away.

Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box said an estimated 30 per cent of koala habitat - eucalpyt woodlands, which they use for both food and shelter - in NSW state may have been lost. The koalas' heavy fur and tendency to climb higher when threatened are severe disadvantages in fast-moving bush fires.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said reviews would be brought forward on whether certain koala populations should be listed as "endangered" rather than "vulnerable".

"Everything that can be done to rescue and recover koala habitat, will be done, including innovative approaches that look at whether you can actually put a koala in an area that it hasn't come from," Ms Ley said.