There's no place like Kangaroo Island. Can it survive Australia's fires?

Destruction of Simon Kelly's property, a farmer on Kangaroo Island in Australia, on Jan 16, 2020.
Destruction of Simon Kelly's property, a farmer on Kangaroo Island in Australia, on Jan 16, 2020.PHOTO: NYTIMES

KANGAROO ISLAND, AUSTRALIA (NYTIMES) - Kangaroo Island is Australia in miniature.

It is a wildlife haven, with its own varieties of kangaroos, echidnas (a spiny anteater) and cockatoos, as well as a koala population seen as insurance should disaster strike the species on the mainland. It is a tourism magnet, with luxury cliff-top lodges and beaches studded with sea lions. It is a farming hub, producing veal, wool, grain and honey for purveyors at home and beyond.

Now, Kangaroo Island is unrecognisable.

Wildfires that burned for weeks consumed half of the island - more than 2,000 sq km. Two people were killed, dozens of homes were destroyed, and wilderness parks were turned to cinders, littering the landscape with animal corpses. In a bushland once teeming with the activity of insects, birds, reptiles and mammals, there is only silence and the scent of rot.

"Everything is dead," said Mr Simon Kelly, a farmer who lost more than half of his 9,000 sheep and was burying them in mass graves.

In this season of unimaginable infernos in Australia, perhaps no place is facing more daunting questions about its future than Kangaroo Island.

Tourism operators are fretting over an exodus of visitors during what is normally their busiest time of year, a problem only made worse as the coronavirus sweeping China keeps people from travelling.

Farmers who lost everything must now reassemble herds, replace equipment and wait for land to regenerate. Many of the island's 4,500 residents fear the community will suffer if people go to the mainland for work and never come back.

Before the fires, which raged from December to January, the island's revenue was split about evenly between tourism and agriculture, with each worth about A$180 million (S$167 million) a year, said the mayor, Mr Michael Pengilly.

"This is going to savage both sectors of the economy, and I have major concerns for the social and economic fabric of the island," he said in an interview. "If we lose people, it means a difference to everything. If you lost 10 families with children, that's kids out of schools, that's kids out of sports clubs."

Everyone here knows that without both industries, the community cannot survive. But the people of Kangaroo Island, which sits just off Australia's southern coast, are circumspect about their troubles. Farming has always had ups and downs, they say. Mother Nature is unpredictable; fires sometimes flare. They will find a way to rebuild.

 
 

Mr Kelly, whose sheep provided wool and meat locally and on the mainland, was philosophical about his loss. His grandfather cleared trees to build the farm in 1936, and even though nothing like this had ever happened before, he refused to blame anyone for it.

"It'll set us back a couple of years, but we'll get over it," he said, shifting sheets of corrugated steel onto the back of his truck with hands as big as dinner plates. The steel was from a shed that held two jeeps, a motorbike and US$20,000 (S$27,600) worth of hay, all of which went up in flames.

Not long before the fires, Mr Kelly had set out golden-coloured feed in the paddocks. The 64km worth of fencing around the property was brand-new. The farm was out of debt, and things had been going well.

"They were the best sheep, the best lambs. It was a good season," he said. "The whole farm was the best it'd ever been. And we're going to have to start all over again."

The sheep, whose wool had gone black from the fires, died from smoke inhalation. Cows trapped together against fences also perished. In drives through paddocks, Mr Kelly would find more wounded animals to put down, including a koala beyond help that was dispatched with a quick bullet to the head.

For days after the fires, friends would walk up the driveway and help him bury sheep. Mr Kelly and the volunteers did the same for 10 other nearby farms that had lost everything. "We call ourselves the dead sheep army," he said.

As the blazes devoured his farm, Mr Kelly spent a sleepless night shielding his home from exploding trees and flying embers. At least 65 other farmers lost their houses and much of their livestock, he said.

The toll on wildlife has also been terrible on the island, often referred to as Australia's Galapagos. Since the fires ended, there have been no sightings of the island's native bee, the green carpenter.


Mr Simon Kelly, a farmer, tends to a koala caught in the wildfires on his property on Kangaroo Island, on Jan 16, 2020. PHOTO: NYTIMES

"Unfortunately, if it's not extinct, it's close to it," said Mr Bill Dunlop, manager of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park. "Anywhere they would have been living would have been burned."

About 30 per cent of the population of a subspecies of the glossy black cockatoo, which is essentially extinct on the mainland and numbered about 500 on the island, is also gone, Mr Dunlop said. Thirty to 40 per cent of the island's kangaroos are believed to have died, as well as a third of its 15,000 koalas.

Only weeks ago, koalas were considered pests on the island, devouring vegetation meant for native animals. But now they may be needed more than ever, given the devastation that has struck koala populations on the mainland, in fire-ravaged New South Wales and Victoria.

Other animals on Kangaroo Island are facing questions about their survival: the dunnart, a small, possumlike marsupial; the Rosenberg's goanna, a lizard for which the island was considered a final stronghold before extinction; and the short-beaked echidna, which was classified as endangered in 2017.

Since the fires, the wildlife park has transformed itself from a tourist attraction into a makeshift animal hospital.

Inside a large white plastic tent one recent day, a volunteer tended to the bleeding paws of a pregnant koala. Nearly all the creatures there had bandaged paws. Some were too stunned or medicated to move; others lashed out in fear and stress at handlers.

 
 

Humanitarian groups have also been at work, scouring soot-filled forests to pluck wounded koalas from trees and cut baby kangaroos, called joeys, out of their dead mothers' pouches.

Mr Sam Mitchell, the wildlife park's owner, has raised more than US$1 million to help care for the wounded animals. But with no tourists around, he has no idea how he will continue to pay his staff, which cares for the 700 animals he owns here.

"The tourism industry is about to die," he said.

Mr Pengilly, the island's immensely popular mayor, has been at the heart of its quest to rebuild, though he briefly gained wider attention for his disapproving reply to a tweet from former United States president Barack Obama attributing the bush fires to climate change. He has spent much of his time trying to help his constituents.

When his phone rings, it sends a signal straight to his hearing aid. Since the fires began, he has barely been able to complete a sentence without reaching for his phone.

At a town meeting, he called on every person, by name, who had a question, and he knew the situation of everyone who had faced misfortune over the past few weeks.

"It's been terrifying for us," he said.

The fires peeled away so much of the island's dense scrub that they unmasked hills and other terrain that had been hidden for years. Melted signposts now droop towards the road.

Still, Kangaroo Island is keeping its arms open. Local residents and tourism operators have been at pains to assure the public that there is still much worth seeing. Most of the eastern coast remains pristine, its waters clear and the seafood abundant.

"I think Kangaroo Island will resolve to stay the same, but it will go through a tough time," Mr Pengilly said. "I'm confident we'll get there, but there's going to be a lot of heartache in the meantime."