Australia’s bushfires have devastated the country’s wildlife and habitats. Experts say the very existence of some species whose populations were already at vulnerable levels may now hang in the balance. PBS NewsHour science correspondent Miles O’Brien reports from Australia on the country’s efforts to rescue animals, why it will take so long for their ecosystems to recover and the role of climate change.
Miles O’Brien: Fresh out of veterinary school in August, Caitlin McFadden is enduring a taxing trial by fire.
Caitlin McFadden: Oh I know, I know. I know, I know.
Miles O’Brien: This little guy is an Australian possum – a marsupial related to kangaroos – who has earned the name Hissy Pants.
He’s got good reason to make all the fuss.
His paws are burnt and bloody after a fast moving fire ripped through his home in the Conjola National Park in southeastern Australia.
Caitlin McFadden: The blood and the horrible looking of the paws is actually a good thing because it means that there’s new cell growth essentially.
Miles O’Brien: So, it’s healing?
Caitlin McFadden: Healthy tissues.
Miles O’Brien: We’re seeing healing?
Caitlin McFadden: Yeah, we’re seeing healing, yeah.
Miles O’Brien: Hissy is one of about 20 animals injured in this season’s record fires that have made their way here to the Milton Veterinary Clinic.
Caitlin McFadden: I know we’ve all had a little bit of a cry about animals especially the ones that come in when straightaway you just know that that’s it, there’s just nothing you can possibly do to help them.
Miles O’Brien: Australia’s epic fire season has taken a devastating toll on animals.
Rescue Worker: We just pulled him out of the fire.
Miles O’Brien: One scientist estimates perhaps a billion could be dead… but no one really knows for sure.
Sally Sherwen is director of wildlife conservation and science at Zoos Victoria.
Sally Sherwen: So, a lot of these species that live in these habitats that have already been a critically low numbers as a result of other threats in the landscape and fragmented populations. They were already at very low vulnerable levels and one event like this does have the potential to completely wipe them out.
Miles O’Brien: It is bad news for a species hanging on for dear life.
These are grey-headed flying foxes – one of the world’s largest bat species.
They are threatened – their numbers on a precipitous decline – mostly due to lost habitat.
Megan Davidson: They’re not doing great. They are protected, but this summer has been a disaster. We may have loss between 10 and 20% of the remaining species.
Miles O’Brien: Megan Davidson is CEO of a conservation group called Wildlife Victoria.
Flying foxes are particularly sensitive to heat. Record setting temperatures this summer in the midst of a three-year drought prompted a huge die-off of these animals – even before the worst of the fires.
Megan Davidson: An unimaginable amount of forest has been burned. We’re waiting to see what that means for the survival of the species in the next few months.
Miles O’Brien: Flying foxes are pollinators that travel great distances – much farther than honey bees – meaning they play a critical role in rejuvenating blackened forests.
In some ways, fire scarred forests bounce back quickly. But it is more complex – and much slower – than I thought.
Mike Clarke: We assume that the bush bounces back we see the green returning to the forest but some of the critical assets that the animals need will take centuries to come back.
Miles O’Brien: Fire ecologist Mike Clarke is a Professor of Zoology with La Trobe University in Melbourne.
He showed me why many species won’t be returning to the charred forests anytime soon. Their homes are gone…and not easily replaced.
Mike Clarke: These are the kinds of hollows that are crucial as den sites or as refuges for native wildlife in Australia. But we don’t have anything like a woodpecker that can create a hollow.
Miles O’Brien: Without woodpeckers, tree limbs are hollowed out only with fungus and termites. And here, most of the trees are hardwood eucalypts.
Mike Clarke: So just to grow to that size of a log you’re looking at probably at least 100 years, then it falls off the tree and the termites and the fungi have to do there a bit hollowing it out – and you might be looking at another 50 or 100 years.
Miles O’Brien: A new generation of trees will also have a hard time taking root.. Acacia trees bear tough armored seeds that are dependent on fire…
Miles O’Brien: That is hard as it can be.
Mike Clarke: What it requires to germinate is for the seedcoat to be broken and that only happens typically after fire.
Miles O’Brien: But the climate emergency is making bushfires more frequent. Not enough time for the trees to mature enough to produce seeds.
Mike Clarke: This is different. Fires have been more extensive, more intense and more frequent. And all of those attributes to fire are crucially important in terms of what the fauna had evolved to cope with. We’ve changed the dials and we can’t expect them to simply adapt. That’s not how evolution works.
Miles O’Brien: In the meantime, a small army of committed volunteers is doing what it can to help orphaned and injured animals.
Doug Thron is a California based professional drone pilot and environmentalist.
Doug Thron: I kept seeing the feed coming up on the news of the burned-up koalas. And I was like, “I’m going Australia.” I’m sure because, yeah, just did literally actually — yeah, it brought me to tears to see koalas all burned up.
Miles O’Brien: So now he is helping find animals in need here using his one of a kind drone.
This kangaroo appears to be nursing burnt paws, but by the time vets with tranquilizer guns got there, they could not find the animal. Hopefully, good news.
In several other cases, Doug Thron’s drone – able to detect the heat signatures of animals – has led to speedy rescues.
Doug Thron: The most important part of the infrared drone is it saves a huge amount of time and it also allows accessibility where a human couldn’t really walk into and after a hurricane or a fire, that’s the most important part is getting to animals as quick as possible because often times, they’re going to die very quickly if somebody doesn’t save them.
Miles O’Brien: Somebody like Lorna King – a passionate animal lover in Bairnsdale, Victoria.
She is nursing back to health an 11 month old Koala named Rivers.
Lorna King: He was just wandering alone on his own, no mother in sight. So, he was picked up by the rangers from the department and brought into the vet to be checked out and they said no except for that tiny burn, he’s fine.
Miles O’Brien: Lorna is a well regarded, licensed animal rescue expert. The fires have kept her on the run. All kinds of wildlife are crawling out of the burned forest looking for food and shelter.
The day we met her, she was responding to a nervous homeowner with a snake in his garden.
Homeowner: Right below us, it that’s right keeps going in and out.
Lorna King: Here he comes It’s only his head again it’s alright.
Miles O’Brien: She made quick work of it.
Lorna King: It’s okay buddy It’s okay it’s okay can I have the bag please? It’s a nice little red belly black. Will kill you in a minute.
Miles O’Brien: It’s just one more reminder of the scope of this disaster.
Lorna King: I said to a friend of mine the other day you know, how can we correct all this? You know, I was feeling despair and I said, will we ever get it back? And he said “Yes, but it will take a long time.” Because it’s just — you know, it’s just ruined, everything’s gone, everything.
Miles O’Brien: At least Rivers will likely survive – and find his way back to some unburned bush.
In the meantime, he was content to spend a little time in my lap.
A sweet reminder of what is so precious – and in such peril – here.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Miles O’Brien, in Southeastern Australia.
Banner image credit: PBS NewsHour