And kangaroos shot, koala trees bulldozed
MELBOURNE, CANBERRA, SYDNEY, BRISBANE––Six months of bushfires ravaging Australian coastal forests and grasslands stretching into parts of the Outback are reportedly almost at an end.
The last two dozen fires in New South Wales and a comparable number left in Victoria state are smoldering on at the lowest alert level.
Flash flooding and window-and-windshield-smashing hail storms hitting Melbourne and Canberra have replaced the fires and smoke and dust clouds bigger than Great Britain or the U.S. state of Utah as the most imminent threats to animals and habitat.
Except, that is, official Australian and state governmental policy.
Policy: end of fire season begins killing season
For Australian wildlife management agencies, the end of fire season means a resumption of killing season, with a whole new set of pretexts for massacre.
Among those pretexts are the possibility that non-native species may prey upon or compete with struggling native species, though some non-native species, including feral cats and red foxes, are the major brake on the species such as rats, mice, and rabbits who most directly compete with small and often endangered native marsupials.
Mostly, though, the post-fire wildlife killing is on the same pretexts as it was before the bushfires: scapegoating non-native wildlife for the effects of habitat loss chiefly resulting from urban expansion, logging, and sheep and cattle grazing.
Fires burned equivalent of Maine or South Carolina
The fires alone killed at least 33 people and burned 29.7 million acres, equivalent to almost the entirety of Maine or South Carolina.
Kangaroo Island alone, off the south coast of South Australia, about half again bigger than the U.S. state of Rhode Island, is believed to have lost about 30,000 of the estimated 50,000 koalas who formerly lived there. Other Kangaroo Island casualties included as many as 100,000 sheep, along with goanna lizards, echidnas (“spiny anteaters”), kangaroos, kangaroo-like pademelons, mouse-like tiny marsupials called dunnarts, and about half of the habitat occupied by about 360 endangered black glossy cockatoos, recovered from the reported brink of extinction as of 1995.
More than a billion vertebrate animals are believed to have died in the fires altogether, including a third of the total koala population of Australia.
Koala fire refuge logged
Public concern for the koala losses, however, did not save a colony who fled into a bluegum plantation in Portland, Victoria state, after losing their previous habitat to the bushfires. Slated for logging, the plantation was logged and bulldozed.
“Animals Australia said it had flown in vets to care for those koalas who survived, as the Daily Mail reported that over a dozen had been killed and more than 60 were injured,” relayed George Martin of Yahoo News United Kingdom.
Animals Australia alleged “various breaches of legislation,” Martin continued, “since logging companies are required to ensure there are no endangered animals in the area where they are felling trees.”
Just beginning to make a crude estimate of the animal losses due to the bushfires is complicated not only because many of the deaths were from indirect causes, including roadkills suffered in flight, but also by a paucity of pre-fire data on the wildlife populations of most of the burned habitat.
Food chains broken
Even before the January 2020 peak of the bushfire season, the most widespread marine heat wave to hit the Western Australia coastline “since reliable satellite monitoring began in 1993 is believed to have contributed to the deaths of tiny crabs in Karratha mudflats, wild oysters at the mouth of the Fortescue River on the Pilbara Coast, and krill at Town Beach in Exmouth,” reported Irena Ceranic of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
“The South West was not immune either,” Ceranic added, mentioning losses of shellfish, crabs and mollusks, all of them central to the food chains of native shorebirds.
Yahoo News credited “NSW Central Coast woman Lisa Diggins, 41,” with starting a “grassroots initiative to empower communities to help thirsty and malnourished animals. Orange dots are being spray painted in forests to help drought and bushfire-affected native animals,” Yahoo News explained.
“Ordinarily, Australians are discouraged from feeding wildlife, but severe weather conditions have left many mammals, reptiles and birds in desperate need of human help. When people see an orange dot, they are encouraged to fill the water station at the bottom of the tree or leave food in hanging baskets provided by volunteers.”
Camels shot at water holes
Governmental agencies have also made scattered efforts to feed some of the wildlife whose foraging habitat is depleted or lost. For example, the New South Wales government in mid-January 2020 air-dropped a ton of sweet potatoes and carrots to isolated colonies of brush-tailed rock wallabies, reported Amir Vera and Amanda Jackson of CNN.
Mostly, though, the governmental response is culling.
More than 5,000 feral dromedary camels were in January 2020 shot from helicopters in the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara region of northern South Australia, for instance, nominally to protect the property and water sources of about 2,300 aboriginal residents––many of whom soon complained that the remains of the camels were contaminating scarce water holes and desecrating places of worship.
Kangaroo shooting resumed
“As bushfires continue to burn across the country, the Victorian government has restarted its commercial kangaroo harvest,” reported registered wildlife rehabilitator Michael Dahlstrom for Yahoo News Australia on February 4, 2020.
“Shooting in fire-affected North East and Gippsland remains on hold while bushfire impact on eastern grey kangaroos is analyzed,” Dahlstrom clarified, “although applications can still be submitted.”
Responded Manfred Zabinskas of Five Freedoms Animal Rescue, days after receiving the Medal of the Order of Australia on January 26, 2020 for his wildlife rescue work , “It’s a straight-out money-making venture to slaughter kangaroos to turn them into pet food. They need to know what the populations of the kangaroos are to responsibly then decide on how many they are allowed to kill. So with the massive loss of life because of the fires, how do you work out a quota when you don’t know what your population is? We’ve lost hundreds of thousands of kangaroos, and they’re not going to get a handle on that for god knows how many months, perhaps even years.”
“Protection of wildlife should be prioritized”
Agreed Lisa Chalk of Animals Australia, “The community would expect the preservation and protection of our wildlife to be prioritized over the demands of shooters, especially with the full impact of fires on wildlife and ecosystems yet to be fully understood.”
Reported Animal Liberation NSW staff member Alex Vince, from Sydney, New South Wales, on February 4, 2020, “A recovery plan published by the NSW government Department of Planning, Industry and Environment includes liberal use of lethal control programs over the next 12 months in a bid to keep native species safe. Those plans include the dropping of up to 1 million 1080-laced baits.
“To say that we are outraged is a significant understatement,” Vince said. “The last thing a fragile ecosystem like ours needs right now is to be inundated with such a heavy dose of such a dangerous and indiscriminate chemical. There is little doubt that starving animals will find and eat these baits. It’s happened in the past and it will happen again.
“Of particular concern,” Vince explained, “are carnivorous marsupials, especially starving survivors of the fires. Without reliable access to resources, some will inevitably take the bait intended for target species, like the red fox or the dingo.
“Australia has been liberally dropping 1080 baits across the country for over six decades,” Vince continued. “During that time, it hasn’t achieved any of its goals. The only accomplishment it can claim is to have left a shameful trail of dead and dying animals in its wake. Let’s be clear: we do not take issue with protecting vulnerable animals, especially in the aftermath of events like these bushfires. But we cannot sit on our hands and watch as our government endangers the welfare of many more simply so they can adopt the easiest answer.
“To date,” Vince pointed out, “no reliable account of the numbers of animals present in bushfire-impacted areas exists. This includes the absence of any studies assessing the current presence of predators in those areas.
Compound 1080 kills tiger quolls
“Yet, Australian studies have explicitly explained that 1080 baiting programs directly correlate with local extinctions of native species. Advice from the Threatened Species Scientific Committee warns that aerial 1080 baiting programs can be considered the primary cause of local tiger quoll extinctions, especially in circumstances where populations are already fragmented. The quoll is cited in the Recovery Plan as a threatened native species with known habitat in fire affected areas.”
The Western Australia Dingo Association, meanwhile, on January 18, 2020 mentioned via the Centre for Compassionate Conservation page on Facebook that, “Many of us across the country have grave concerns for the dingoes in bushfire regions. Dingoes have also suffered severe loss of habitats and also many have likely perished. They are no less deserving of our grief, compassion and care as a koala or a kangaroo.”
Sheep, cattle, & honey bees
Livestock animals also suffered. In addition to the Kangaroo Island sheep losses, about 25,000 sheep and 7,000 cattle are believed to have died on the mainland, many of them shot by farmers so that they would not burn alive, or euthanized after experiencing severe burns.
Dairy farmers interviewed by Samantha Townsend of The Land predicted that many would be forced out of the industry, between losses of animals and loss of facilities.
Even those who kept their herds, barns, and equipment intact often lost stored hay, while burnt pastures may not recover productivity soon enough to keep cow herds fed.
Some farmers were also obliged to dump weeks worth of milk when roads were rendered impassible for tank trucks, first by fires, then by flooding.
Nearly 1,000 bee hives were razed in South Australia, a reminder that if a billion vertebrate animals died from the wildfires, probably several billion other creatures died as well.