Brush-tailed rock wallabies & long-nosed potoroos need habitat, poison drops
CANBERRA, ADELAIDE, MELBOURNE, Australia––Investigators are finding, in the wake of bushfires that ravaged protected habitat right around the forested coastal perimeter of Australia, that many rare Australian animals apparently know how to save themselves, with or without human help.
More than a billion animals are commonly guesstimated to have died in the wildfires, with many more believed to have been doomed in a grim struggle for survival in the blackened remnants of habitat, becoming easy pickings for birds of prey and the non-native predators such as cats, rats, dogs and foxes whom Australians commonly blame for having one of the worst records at species conservation of any major nation worldwide.
Rock wallabies survived in Kangaroo Valley
But far more animals are turning out to have survived the fires and the immediate aftermath than was predicted by legions of experts with alphabet soup after their names.
And many of those animals may be less jeopardized by the direct consequences of the fires than by putsches against non-native wildlife undertaken in the name of protecting the native species.
On June 17, 2020, for instance, New South Wales National Parks staff and the allied conservation organization Saving Our Species confirmed that the entire colony of endangered brush-tailed rock wallabies in Kangaroo Valley had survived, having previously been presumed dead.
The Kangaroo Valley rock wallabies were jeopardized on January 4, 2020, when the Currowan bushfire crossed the Shoalhaven River.
All found, plus a baby
None were seen for months, but radio tracking collars on two translocated wallabies, Cliff and Tara, suggested those two at least had survived.
Announced Saving Our Species, “SoS staff recently conducted trapping within the fire ground to get hands-on assessments of the health of the wallabies and to remove the tracking collars on the two translocated individuals.
“The team were ecstatic after successfully trapping and releasing several healthy wallabies, including one young at-foot individual whom they had not seen before. Since this trapping operation, they have been able to confirm more good news – the entire colony survived!”
Potoroos “can outsmart cats”
Just a day earlier, Deakin University, University of Melbourne, and University of Sydney researchers Euan Ritchie, Amy Coetsee, Anthony Rendall, Tim Doherty, and Vivianna Miritis reported having found “One mammal in particular who can outsmart cats and live alongside them: the long-nosed potoroo.
“These miniature kangaroo-like marsupials are officially listed as vulnerable,” the team wrote for The Conversation. “Extensive swathes of their habitat in southeastern Australia were severely burnt, leaving them more exposed to predators such as foxes and cats.”
However, the team discovered, “Using motion-sensing camera traps on the wildlife haven of French Island––which is free of foxes, but not cats––we found potoroos may have developed strategies to avoid prowling cats, such as hiding in dense vegetation.”
Explained the researchers, “Long-nosed potoroos are nocturnal foragers who mainly, but not exclusively, feed in more open habitat before sheltering in dense vegetation during the day. But we found potoroos rarely ventured out of their thick vegetation shelter.
“Time to rethink conservation strategies”
“This may be because they’re trading off potentially higher quality foraging habitat in more open areas against higher predation risk. In other words, it appears they’ve effectively learnt to hide from the cats.
“If these long-nosed potoroos can co-exist with one of the world’s most deadly predators,” the team theorized, “then it’s time we rethink our conservation strategies.”
Feral cats, the researchers learned, tend to avoid “areas of dense vegetation,” where they have less advantage of speed against prey species, and a greater chance of creating disturbance that might alarm prey.
“This was where we found potoroos more often,” the team found.
When the cat is away, the potoroos play
Further, the team reported, “Although potoroos and feral cats shared more than half of their activity time, the times of peak activity for each species differed. Cats were active earlier in the night, while potoroo activity peaked three to four hours later. This might be another potoroo strategy to avoid becoming a cat’s evening meal.”
“If long-nosed potoroos have learnt to live with feral cats,” the team recommended, instead of trying to eradicate feral cats, “we should instead focus on how to maintain their survival strategies.
“It’s clear cats are here to stay,” the potoroo researchers concluded, “so we shouldn’t simply fall back largely on predator eradication or [creating] predator-free havens as the only way to ensure our wildlife have a fighting chance at long-term survival.
Predator-savvy population resource
“For some species,” the team conceded, “it is vital to keep feral predators away. But for others like long-nosed potoroos, conserving and creating suitable habitat and different vegetation densities may be the best way to keep them alive.
“But perhaps most important is having predator-savvy insurance populations, such as long-nosed potoroos on French Island. This is incredibly valuable,” the team speculated, “for one day moving them to other areas where predators – native or feral – are present, such as nearby Phillip Island.”
Many native Australian species are likely to have reintroduced themselves time and again to burned-over habitat, since bushfires––albeit rarely on the scale of those of 2019-2020––have been a frequent feature of the dry season for as long as climatic history can be deduced from the fossil record.
Much current research, however, centers on whether, when, where, and how humans might be able to help Australian wildlife recover more rapidly from the recent bushfires than might otherwise occur.
113 species said to need “emergency intervention”
“The 2019–2020 Australian bushfire season, which stretched from June 2019 to March 2020, scorched an estimated 46 million acres, destroying more than 5,900 buildings, including 2,779 homes, and killing at least 34 people,” summarized Susan Fowler for DirectRelief.org on June 24, 2020, the first anniversary of the beginning of the bushfire outbreaks.
“States of emergency were declared in New South Wales, Victoria, and the Australian Capital Territory,” Fowler mentioned. Altogether, about 3% of the Australian land surface suffered fire damage.
As early as February 2020, with the fires raging on, the Australian national Department of Agriculture, Water, & Environment listed 113 animal species it claimed would need “emergency intervention” to survive.
Koalas & platypuses
The list included 13 birds, 19 mammals, 20 reptiles, 17 frogs, five invertebrates, 22 crayfish and 17 fish who were said to have each had “at least 30% of their range burnt.”
Among those species were koalas and platypuses.
The recommended emergency interventions included, in the short run, moving as many of the animals at risk as possible to safe temporary habitats at zoos and wildlife sanctuaries located safely distant from bushfires; trying to rehabilitate those who had actually suffered burns, smoke inhalation, and other injuries from the fires and, sometimes, firefighting efforts; and, because Australia is second only to New Zealand in bio-xenophobic public policy, air-dropping up to four times more Compound 1080 poison pellets than ever before in some areas to kill any surviving non-native predators who might hunt the surviving native species.
Returned to ponds
The temporary evacuation strategy appears to have helped to save at least some animals, Brooke Jarvis reported for the New York Times on June 16, 2020.
The Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, 45 minutes south of Canberra, the Australian national capital of Canberra, did not burn, but was severely jeopardized by drought.
With the spread of bushfires an imminent risk, the reserve staff and volunteers captured and sent into exile, at the Taronga Zoo and elsewhere, seven platypuses, six koalas, nearly 1,000 endangered northern corroboree frogs, 22 brush-tailed rock wallabies , “whose genetics are key to a breeding program meant to reestablish a population that is nearing extinction in the wild,” Jarvis said, “and 26 endangered eastern bettongs,” a kangaroo-like animal “already extinct on the mainland, but being reintroduced,” from Tasmania.
Nearly four months later, Jarvis narrated, “rains returned, although they came so heavily that flash floods tore through fencing at the top of the sanctuary. The ponds of Tidbinbilla refilled. The reserve tested the quality of the water to make sure it was not contaminated with fire retardants, and did surveys to make sure the ponds still held enough food,” before “Finally, it was time to release the first round of platypuses and watch how they fared.”
Koalas rehabbed on Kangaroo Island
Wildlife rescue and rehabilitation took the spotlight on Kangaroo Island, where the privately operated Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park alone handled more than 600 injured, starved and orphaned koalas, according to Travel Weekly reporter Sarah Marshall.
“We’ve had a 35%-40% success rate,” co-owner Dana Mitchell told Marshall. “We were told to expect only 10%.”
“At best, it’s estimated one-sixth of the island’s 60,000-strong koala population remains,” Marshall found.
But on the two-thirds of Kangaroo Island that either escaped the bushfires or experienced only fast-moving brush and grassfires, Marshall reported, “Koalas doze in the forks of branches, and in the absence of thick understory, elusive echidnas are much easier to spot.
“On the clifftops of Pelican Lagoon,” Marshall said, “I watched mobs of kangaroos grazing peacefully amid a haze of golden wildflowers. At Seal Bay Conservation Park, hundreds of Australian sea lions nuzzled in pristine sand.”
Manning River helmeted snapping turtle
Among the other species most imminently endangered after the wildfires, according to the Australian national Department of Agriculture, Water, & Environment, is the 80-million-year-old Manning River helmeted snapping turtle, among the few relatively large species to have endured, with little evident change, since the days of dinosaurs.
Explained Emma Siossian of the Australian Broadcasting Network in April 2020, “Drought and bushfires restricted turtles to smaller pools, with reduced resources and greater exposure to predators.
“A captive Manning River turtle insurance population has been established by Aussie Ark and recently a number of baby turtles successfully hatched,” Siossian said, but “Motion cameras reveal that wild dogs and foxes are digging up the turtle nests and eggs.
“Ground and aerial pest control is targeting the predators,” Siossian continued, “but some groups are concerned the program will impact native dingoes and leave the turtle exposed to predation by cats and foxes.”
Helping to protect native wildlife from fire damage also became yet another of the many pretexts advanced by Australian ecological nativists, over several decades, for shooting the several thousand wild horses, called brumbies, who for nearly 200 years have roamed the Australian Alps.
At Guy Fawkes River National Park, New South Wales, agents of the Australian National Parks & Wildlife Service in October 2000 shot 606 brumbies from aircraft.
Some wounded horses suffered for up to nine days before they were found and dispatched.
Public response to that debacle discouraged horse culling schemes for a time, but a 2016 draft Wild Horse Management Plan produced for the New South Wales government by the state Office of Environment and Heritage recommended culling 90% of the horses in Kosciuszko National Park, in the north-central part of the Australian Alps, chiefly through a proposed 20-year culling program.
RSPCA defends the cull
After the fires, even the Victoria state chapter of the Australian Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals “expressed support for the ground shooting of brumbies in the Australian high country, noting it was sometimes necessary to manage populations of wild animals, both introduced and native,” wrote Miki Perkins, senior journalist and environment reporter for the Melbourne Age.
“Based on the evidence of the impact feral horses are having in the Victorian Alps and the relative humaneness of ground shooting, RSPCA Victoria policy and advocacy manager Mhairi Roberts said the group supported lethal ground control and the use of professional shooters,” Perkins elaborated.
But among the major impacts of feral horses in the Victorian Alps are that they consume a great deal of vegetarian that otherwise becomes tinder in times of drought.
Australian Brumby Alliance fought cull in court
Australian Brumby Alliance spokesperson Jill Pickering declared her organization “horrified that Parks Victoria has been allowed to continue to cull our heritage horses,” even after the Australian Brumby Alliance “highlighted significant flaws, such as deer damage wrongly assigned as horse damage,” in the research done to defend the cull.
Pickering, 73, “grew up in Woking, in southwest England. She contracted polio at nine,” recounted Konrad Marshall for Good Weekend magazine on June 11, 2020. “Horse-riding was part of the regimen used to build strength in her legs. She was 60 when she saw her first brumby, on a horseback trek in Victoria.”
Pickering went on to found the Australian Brumby Alliance, which lost a federal court case in May 2020, at cost to her of $400,000, according to Konrad Marshall.
The verdict will allow the horse culling to proceed.
No wild predators
The Australian Brumby Alliance favors reducing the wild horse population through a birth control program, similar to some existing programs in the U.S., which are, however, bitterly opposed by many U.S wild horse advocates.
But comparing the Australian and U.S. wild horse circumstances is difficult. Australia has about eight times more wild horses than the U.S., and unlike in the U.S., where wild horses are preyed upon by pumas, wolves, and sometimes grizzly bears, the Australian wild horses have no predators once a foal grows too large to be felled by a dingo.
“The feral horse population in the high country has soared in the past five years,” Perkins wrote, citing official estimates, “from about 9,200 in 2014 to 25,300 in 2019.”
As in the U.S., though, the official estimates are hotly disputed by horse advocates.
“An imaginary 23,570 wild horses”
“The brumby population estimate, was based on a 2019 aerial survey covering 7,443 square kilometers of Victoria and New South Wales, used statistical modelling to determine brumby density,” explained Konrad Marshall. “Opponents believe such estimates are compromised – that the bushfires would have dramatically thinned the population. The survey spotters also only laid eyes on 1,748 actual brumbies, so the estimated total of 25,318 includes what the skeptics call ‘an imaginary 23,570 wild horses.’”
Brumbies in New South Wales have been protected since NSW deputy premier John Barilaro in May 2018 introduced the Kosciuszko Wild Horse Heritage Bill. The bill formally recognized the historical significance of the brumbies, protecting them from slaughter.
Parks Victoria, meanwhile, “decided enough was enough,” wrote Konrad Marshall.
As of July 13, 2020, shooting horses is expected to begin at any time in the Victorian end of the Australian Alps, which is the southern end.
“A sow with nine piglets will have a feast”
“They’ve bred up to the extent that they are overpopulated,” conceded Jim Flannagan, 87, to Konrad Marshall, who noted that the Flannagan family has run sheep in the Australian Alps since 1856. “No matter what the animal,” Flannagan said, “you’ve gotta have a culling rate. But you do it humanely.”
Flannagan advocated live trapping and removal, even if the only demand for brumbies is “down to the knackery in Maffra. Better that than leaving corpses in the bush for the wild dogs or feral pigs to eat,” Konrad Marshall summarized.
“Shoot a horse, and a sow with nine piglets will have a feast,” Flannagan pointed out. “It’s gonna make them real healthy. Then you’ve got another problem.”