Most Influential Projects 2020

11 Kangaroo Island Recovery

50 MIP 11 Kangaroo Island Single Kangaroo

For responding to epic wildfires—and rescuing an Australian ecosystem

Before COVID-19 reached pandemic status, Australia was hit by a different once-in-a-generation crisis: an outbreak of wildfires that put large swaths of the country at catastrophic risk. In a nightmare climate-change scenario brought to life, extreme temperatures paired with years of drought fueled fires across the country that consumed 46 million acres (18.6 million hectares), destroyed 6,000 buildings and claimed 34 human lives. The ecological devastation was intense, which is what made the response at Kangaroo Island so inspiring.

“Kangaroo Island is one of the last places in Southern Australia that has really extensive areas of native bushland,” says Pat Hodgens, fauna ecologist, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, Kingscote, Australia. “And the western end of Kangaroo Island was known as one of the main biodiversity hots pots in Australia.”

That all changed in January, when lightning struck the island’s northwest coast and sparked a fire that consumed almost half the island. Flames destroyed homes, farms and animal habitats, leaving tens of thousands of charred animals. Survivors, including kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and cockatoos, found themselves in a barren landscape lacking food, water and shelter.

Rescue teams raced in. Working from a deployable field hospital, South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management (SAVEM) collaborated with the Australian army’s Joint Task Force, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA), ZoosSA and local veterinarians to assess, triage and treat animals on the ground.

“The focus was on animal welfare,” says Emilis Prelgauskas, logistics manager at SAVEM, and commissioner, South Australian Environment, Resources and Development Court, Adelaide, Australia. “Once stabilized, animals suitable for care then went to places out of fire ground for ongoing treatment and/or rehabilitation.”

One of the most enduring images in the news coverage was of koalas attempting to escape the flames. Before the bushfires, about 50,000 of the marsupials lived on Kangaroo Island (a big jump from the population of 18 introduced to the island in the 1920s). With about 85 percent of the koalas’ habitat damaged by fire, estimates had the population dropping to as few as 5,000.

50 MIP 11 Kangaroo Island Construction Worker in Forest

There was another reason for concern: Kangaroo Island’s koalas are free of chlamydia, which is widespread in Australian mainland populations. So about 30 koalas were rescued and transferred to Adelaide’s Cleland Wildlife Park to help establish a special disease-free population on mainland South Australia.

While koalas and some of the other abundant and mobile species, such as kangaroos and wallabies, suffered significant mortalities, their populations are expected to recover as habitat recovers.

Yet rescue teams also recognized the dire situation facing the creatures struggling to survive on the island. So while ecologists generally oppose feeding wild animals, they were forced to make an exception. Team members, including National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia and the RSPCA, conducted aerial food drops and established food and water stations to support animals while the bushland regenerated.

Some species needed extra help. The Kangaroo Island dunnart, a small marsupial that lives only on the island, was a top priority. No more than 500 dunnarts were estimated to exist on the island before the fire—and more than 90 percent of their habitat had been wiped out. “This bushfire could have taken out an entire species,” Hodgens says. 

His team found a few surviving dunnarts hiding in unburned vegetation and, working with Australian Wildlife Conservancy, built an enclosure to protect them from their most dangerous predators: feral cats. “Timing and efficiency were the keys,” he says. “If we hadn’t removed thos feral cats and put up the conservation fence, I would be very surprised to still have dunnarts at that site today.”

To gauge progress, the Kangaroo Island team will need to study the population by capturing, marking and recapturing individuals over several seasons. This will help the team determine whether the population within the enclosure is large enough to be viable and let them compare the species’s survival inside the fence with what exists outside. “This isn’t something that we can measure in one year or in two years,” Hodgens says. “It’s going to be a very long-term project.” 

With the focus moving from triage to resiliency, the Kangaroo Island team is working to limit the effects of future bushfires, planning buffer zones, fire breaks and small-scale ecological burns to reduce the fuel available to feed outbreaks. Such measures will help preserve the Kangaroo Island ecosystem. “If we can protect lots of small patches,” says Hodgens, “it gives these threatened species a greater chance to survive a bushfire in the future.”

Related Sponsors and Organizations

  • Australian Defence Force
  • Cleland Wildlife Park
  • Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife
  • National Parks and Wildlife Service South Australia
  • Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals
  • South Australian Veterinary Emergency Management
  • ZoosSA