ADELAIDE, Australia: At Paradise Primary School, boxes and boxes of koalas are lined up on the floor of a gymnasium. Volunteers and veterinarians tend to the animals, all victims of damaging bushfires that swept through South Australia in late December.
This makeshift emergency triage centre for wounded koalas has been a site of both tears and triumph over the past few weeks. Death has never been far away as the team at Adelaide Koala Rescue (AKR) has responded to hundreds of calls to help animals burnt, displaced and starving as a result of the fires.
But for dozens of the koalas left here now, home is calling.
There have been staggering losses to Australia’s wildlife this summer, as bushfires ripped through more than 10 million hectares of land. Experts predict that some 1.25 billion animals, including mammals, birds and reptiles, have been killed nationwide. The number reaches into the trillions when insects and other invertebrates, all essential to delicate ecosystems, are counted. And still, the blazes rage.
While the casualty rates and long term impact on the environment are hard to fathom, those working tirelessly to save and recuperate the survivors have been left holding onto small positives.
For AKR, it comes in the form of paper signs at the entrance to their triage centre. On it is listed the names of all of the koalas who have successfully “graduated” back to the wild. Each of them - like Spud and Janet and Alice Cooper - is a “cause for celebration”, according to director Jane Brister.
“I think more than anything, it’s important for the morale for our volunteers,” she said. “It’s been a really traumatic time for a lot of the team members, especially the ones that go out in the field. I’ve certainly seen things that I can’t unsee.”
Brister estimates that AKR has retrieved more than 300 koalas from scorched areas within the past three weeks, and cared for up to 120 wild animals at any one time. Each animal has different medical treatment needs - from burnt paws to singed ears and dehydration - but all of them require housing, food and a bit of love, during what is a traumatic and confusing period.
“What people love about them the most and what upsets people the most when it comes to bushfires is their innocence and their vulnerability. They can’t fly away, they can’t run away,” she said.
“They’re stuck there up a tree and they’re really defenceless. They have to rely on us to fight for them, to fight for their habitat and I think that’s in part what makes them so endearing.”
Despite the easing of the worst fire conditions in South Australia, here and right across bushfire affected areas, finding relocation refuges for rehabilitated or dislocated wildlife is proving to be a difficult challenge. For those survivors hanging on in burnt out areas, the situation is desperate too.
READ: ‘The most terrifying day of my life’: Singaporean zookeeper at centre of dramatic animal rescue during Australia bushfires
‘THEY’RE ALL BASICALLY GONE’
In Majors Creek, a small rural community close to Canberra, Bill Waterhouse and his wife Lesley run a wombat refuge, which has quickly transformed into a rescue operation for a menagerie of wildlife.
“This morning a little baby wombat was brought to us, I was called out for a kangaroo hanging in a fence and on the way home I brought home a magpie,” Waterhouse said.
The couple have been responding to rescue requests since bushfires reared up in their area in early December. The danger has not passed and they constantly live in fear of another evacuation from their property, which is home to several injured animals.
“We feel like we’re under siege, personally here, but we also feel like all the animals we’ve cared about for so many years are now being burnt to death and now our release sites and their carers are under attack,” he said. “I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t feeling a sense of anguish about it.”
Local areas that used to be safe havens for the animals they released back into the wild are now affected by fire. There are few safe places left. On the back of donations, Waterhouse is attempting to mobilise local landowners to try and provide much needed food on the edges of the fireground where wild animals are coming to scavenge.
But he has been left saddened by the lack of animals that appear to be in need of help.
“There have been very few animals brought to us, burnt or not. In general, with the amount of damage that’s taken place, we were expecting many more but it’s been so hot and so devastating that they’re all basically gone,” he said.
“We think the animals are increasingly going to be hungry, they’ll be desperate. There’s no flowers out there, there are no leaves, there are no nests.
“The canopy, if it wasn’t burnt, it was scorched. You really notice the silence. The habitat’s had it. There’s pockets left but the fire is indiscriminate. I think it’s just too late for the vast majority.
READ: Relief as rain falls over Australian bushfires
Lesley paces through the couple’s home with a tiny baby wombat tucked into her chest. With electricity still out in the area, the heat pads used to keep the small creatures warm are not working. Little Jack, as he has been dubbed, was found in the pouch of his dead mother, who had been struck by a car, a common accident during this period of prolonged drought and fire.
“The nature of the road is it's warm and water runs off it. So there’s almost always a little bit of greenery on the roadside and animals are drawn to it,” Waterhouse said.
“He’s a little pinkie and has no fur yet. He’s the size of a sweet potato with little legs and wriggly bits. It has a very good chance of surviving all the way through. It’s a two year program for him.”
Waterhouse and other rescuers are bracing for the long haul care of wildlife amid the widespread habitat destruction. But while koalas, wombats and other generalist Australian species will inevitably bounce back, there are greater fears that lesser known, critically threatened species may have already been lost.
Analysis by the Australian Department of Environment and Energy shows that 49 threatened species have had more than 80 per cent of their likely or known distribution area affected by fire. A further 65 species have had at least half of their habitats burnt.
“If the habitat of those species is removed, then there are real fears for whether they can persist. These would be species extinctions, things that occur here uniquely that won’t occur anymore,” said Chris Dickman, a professor of ecology at the University of Sydney.
“It’s clearly a really emotional time for anyone associated with the native fauna. It’s awful to see the pictures and it’s awful to know there’s a whole lot more behind them,” he added.
READ: Koalas, native animals rescued from flash floods as rain pours over Australia bushfire
Prof Dickman says while iconic, charismatic animals are important for raising awareness about the damage to natural environments, there are many, many others that are essential to ecosystem balance that have suffered major losses.
“It may be ecologically important species that carry out functions like pollination or moving seeds around in the forest environment, or are important because they move fungal spores, or digging the topsoil. If these are lost, then it means the ability of the forest ecosystem to regenerate in the future will be slowed down or compromised,” he said.
But the Australian bush is known to be resilient and he says in some areas, especially if rain has fallen, the recovery of habitats could be “rapid”.
The federal government has pledged A$50 million (US$34m) for a Wildlife and Habitat Recovery Package that will be used to try to prevent species extinction and enable the work of local wildlife rescuers. But opposition figures, like Senator Mehreen Faruqi from the Australian Greens, says that money “is just a drop in the ocean”.
“Really what we need at this time is an open chequebook from the government because that is the only thing that will ensure the survival of our species and our native species into the future,” she said.
“Wildlife carers have been working around the clock to save the animals, to protect the animals and to rehabilitate animals but you know this is really expensive work, it is time consuming work and it is absolutely emotionally draining work.”
READ: Threatened species hit hard by Australia's bushfires
The tired eyes of the volunteers at the koala triage centre are testament to the fatigue and stress inflicted upon them these past weeks.
But for each koala carried out in their hamper - their name added to the list on the door - destined for a return to a eucalyptus tree somewhere in the Adelaide Hills, a feeling of optimism infectiously hovers over the gym.
It comes even though there is a deep understanding that thousands of others have died. It is the small positives that matter right now.