By Joey Clarke, Science Communicator
It has been a difficult summer for wildlife in parts of the country. Following years of dry conditions, the catastrophic bushfires that raged through south-eastern Australia took an unprecedented toll on Australia’s biodiversity, with more than 1.25 billion animals estimated to have perished. But after all the stories of loss and destruction, hope is sprouting from the ashes.
Fortunately, no AWC sanctuaries were directly impacted by the fires so we were uniquely placed to take a proactive approach to help with the recovery effort. AWC ecologists and land managers stepped up, embracing a renewed spirit of collaboration among the conservation community. Working with local partners, AWC’s dedicated field team volunteered their skills to deliver camera trap surveys, fence construction, cat trapping, tree climbing, and even Koala catching. AWC teams have been deployed across six sites to conduct targeted surveys, assess damage to habitat, provide strategic advice, and carry out urgent interventions to protect surviving populations of threatened species.
Saving the Kangaroo Island Dunnart
Kangaroo Island was hit especially hard by the bushfires in January when vast tracts of mallee woodland were incinerated. Even before the fires, the unique Kangaroo Island Dunnart (a small carnivorous marsupial), was considered very rare, having been recorded at only a small handful of locations in the past two decades. Overnight it become one of Australia’s most critically threatened species, losing more than 95 per cent of its habitat to fire.
In the days immediately following the fires, to everyone’s great relief, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife (KI LfW) detected dunnarts in an unburnt patch of critical habitat. AWC immediately provided additional cameras to replace equipment lost in the fires, enabling rapid assessment of dunnart habitats within the Western River Refuge.
The loss of habitat meant the dunnarts were at extreme risk of predation by feral cats – without urgent intervention, this population was headed for extinction.
The immediate priority was to create a safe refuge for the remaining dunnarts by fencing out predators. AWC partnered with KI LfW and local landholders, the Doube family, to secure and protect the dunnart population with feral-proof fencing. AWC’s Regional Operations Manager in the south-east, Joe Schofield, oversaw construction of the ‘critical refuge area’. With troops and machinery already stationed on the island to help with the bushfire clean-up, the Australian Army graded the 1.7 kilometre perimeter fence line. Within a week, materials were assembled and construction of the fence had begun.
Meanwhile, AWC’s feral predator control expert, Murray Schofield, supported KI LfW by removing cats from the area. By the time the fence was closed, seven cats had been removed and none remained within the refuge.The dunnarts within the refuge are faring well and frequently detected on camera traps.
Western River Refuge: a full-scale wildlife sanctuary
The critical refuge area ensures immediate protection for a small population of Kangaroo Island Dunnarts, but plans are now underway to expand the feral predator-free area into a ‘Stage 2 Western River Refuge’ to secure a further 370 hectares. Incredibly, the team has already removed a total of 23 cats from the Stage 1 and 2 areas. The expected outcomes from this project are exciting: the expanded sanctuary will provide long-term protection for a suite of threatened species, including Southern Brown Bandicoot, Southern Emu Wren, Heath Goanna, Western Whipbird, Bassian Thrush and Kangaroo Island Echidna.
Vital ecological assessments
The impact of the bushfires was felt far and wide. In northern New South Wales, two conservation reserves owned by South Endeavour Trust were heavily impacted: Bezzant’s Lease near Glen Innes, and Kewilpa near Casino. Both reserves fall within the range of several threatened species, including the Powerful Owl, Giant Barred Frog and Spotted-tailed Quoll – the largest marsupial carnivore on mainland Australia and a nationally endangered species. AWC offered rapid response, post- fire camera trap surveys at both properties, conducted surveys for frogs and birds, and spotlighting for nocturnal mammals. The results are encouraging: AWC ecologists confirmed the survival of a number of significant species, including Greater Gliders, Koalas, and Common Wombats (part of an isolated population in the Northern Tablelands). Significantly, the team also sighted two Spotted-tailed Quolls.
AWC also provided staff and resources to offer professional bushfire recovery advice to Wollombi Valley Landcare in the NSW Hunter region. One of our ecologists joined researchers from the Australian National University to assess the fire impacts on Regent Honeyeater habitat sites in the Wolgan, Widden and Capertee Valleys in NSW. Before the bushfires, the population of this critically endangered species was estimated to be fewer than 400 individuals.
In late March, AWC joined Blue Mountains organisation Science for Wildlife to assist in the release of a group of Koalas that were rescued from the path of the raging Gosper’s Mountain ‘mega-fire’ in December. This newly rediscovered Koala population is among the most genetically diverse in Australia, making it critical for the conservation of the species. AWC ecologists and expert tree-climbers provided on-site assistance with the release, and to radio-track and monitor the animals as they settled home over the following days. Beyond our involvement in this important rescue operation, AWC is actively looking to secure an area of high-quality Koala habitat to bolster conservation efforts for this Australian icon.
Prospects for potoroos
AWC is committed to helping bushfire-affected species. Work is now underway to identify critical habitat for threatened species like the Long-nosed Potoroo, a pint- sized kangaroo relative with an already highly fragmented population. Long-nosed Potoroo habitat was badly impacted by bushfires in the area around the NSW- Victoria border. AWC is now searching for large tracts of land that are strategically positioned to make a significant, positive impact on the future of this species.
Despite the heavy losses sustained by Australia’s biodiversity last summer, we believe these projects highlight that hope springs eternal for Australia’s wildlife. If there is a silver lining, perhaps it is the unprecedented focus on Australia’s biodiversity and recognition of the urgent need to act. AWC maintains a strong commitment to helping our wildlife to recover from the bushfires. With 80 per cent of the team in the field and a strong track record delivering an innovative conservation model that works, AWC’s practical approach to conservation is exactly what the times demand.