Forest fires threaten unique creatures in the Australian 'Galapagos'

SYDNEY: It has been described as the Galapagos Islands and has long been a refuge for some of the most threatened creatures in the country. But devastating forest fires in recent days have nullified decades of careful conservation work on Kangaroo Island and have threatened to completely eliminate some of the island's unique fauna.

Experts working on the island say that the fires have killed thousands of koalas and kangaroos, and have also raised questions about whether any member of a species of mouse-shaped marsupial carrying their young in a bag has survived. Similarly, it is not clear how many of a single flock of bright black cockatoos escaped from the flames and if they have a future on an island where much of their habitat has become smoke.

Located off the coast of South Australia State, Kangaroo Island is approximately 50% larger than Rhode Island and is home to 4,500 people and what was a thriving ecotourism industry. But the wildfires that have been devastating Australia's fringes have burned a third of the island, killing a father and his son and leaving behind a razed wasteland and a devastated community.

They have also left people fighting to help the bugs that have survived. The care of all these animals is quite surprising, said Sam Mitchell, co-owner of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park.

“However, we are seeing many things that are too far away. We are seeing kangaroos and koalas with burned hands, they have no chance. It has been quite emotional. ” Inspired in part by the late Australian wildlife expert Steve Irwin, Mitchell and his wife, Dana, bought the commercial park seven years ago when they were just over 20 years old, and since then they have been renovating the place and hosting rescue animals.

On Friday night with the fire approaching, Dana fled with her 18-month-old son, Connor, while Sam stayed to defend the park and his dream. A wind change saved the park from the forest fire road.

Mitchell said the fires killed thousands of koalas on the island, a particularly devastating loss because the creatures have remained largely disease free there, while many koalas in mainland Australia suffer from chlamydia.

The couple is currently caring about 18 burned koalas, and they have had to sacrifice many more.

Meanwhile, Heidi Groffen couldn't do anything, since the eight monitoring stations she and her partner had set up to track the mysterious Kangaroo Island dunnart, the mouse-shaped marsupial, melted in the flames.

Groffen, an ecologist and coordinator of the nonprofit Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, said the population of approximately 300 Dunnarts may have been completely eliminated because they are too small to escape forest fires, although she hopes that Some have taken refuge in rock crevices.

Even if there are survivors, there is no food for them now, he said. We hope to take some to captivity before they leave completely. He said creatures have fascinated her for a long time because very little is known about them.

Also uncertain is the future for the 400 or so Kangaroo Island glossy black-cockatoos. Once prevalent on the South Australia mainland, the birds retreated to the island after humans destroyed much of their traditional habitat.

“Unlike some of the other animals, the birds are in the best position to escape. They can get a little further from the fires, said Daniella Teixeira, who is working on a doctorate on birds at the University of.

But like dunnarts, cockatoos might discover that they don't have enough food left on the island, particularly because they eat only from a single type of tree known as a fallen oak. And many hot spots on the island continue to burn.

Teixeira said that careful conservation work over the past 25 years has seen the population of bright black cockatoos increase by 150, but those gains have been eliminated within a week.

She said she is currently writing the final chapter of the thesis that began in 2016, but suddenly everything has changed.

It is quite difficult to sit here and write a document about them when I don't know their status today, he said.