Rescuing animals from the gates of hell
The devastating bushfires tearing through Australia have made headlines around the world. They began late August, well before summer, when south-eastern and central Queensland and large swathes of New South Wales burned. By late December, the fires had spread to Victoria and South Australia. And by January 7, more than six million hectares across the country had burned, around two-thirds in NSW, particularly on the south coast, Southern Highlands and the Snowy Mountains — the result of a landmass ravaged by prolonged and widespread drought coupled with record-breaking temperatures, huge fuel loads, low humidity and ferocious winds. To date, more than 2,000 properties have been destroyed and 25 people killed.
There have been numerous acts of true courage and sacrifice on the part of those fighting the fires as they protect both human life and property. Somewhat less considered has been the impact on wildlife. One estimate put the toll, in early January, at around 480 million animals, birds and reptiles — an almost incomprehensible figure. And that's thought to be conservative.
“Among the destruction,” writes Naaman Zhou of The Guardian, “the efforts of volunteer firefighters, residents and animal rescuers have stood out, with small acts of heroism that have saved many animal lives.”
In NSW, relatives of a volunteer firefighter shared images on Twitter of a ringtail possum escaping a blaze and looking for safety. “My cousin Dean has been a firefighter for over 17 years,” wrote Emily Swanson. “Over the weekend he was out on a run in Balmoral and found this ringtail possum in the middle of the road. As he got closer the little guy ran up his leg seeking shelter from the smoke and flames.”
Meanwhile, in the NSW town of Kulnura, firefighters prepared to protect a property from the approaching firefront. Inside, a kangaroo that had desperately sought shelter, “sat, unperturbed, on a blanket”. Another kangaroo was pictured cooling off in a backyard pool in the Hunter region of the state.
There also emerged heroic tales of animals rescuing other animals, such as an abandoned dog called Bear who helped find and save koalas injured in the bushfires. “Bear,” reported SBS News, “who usually looks for sick or injured wildlife for conservation and research purposes in calmer conditions, has been wearing protective socks on his paws to search through areas scorched by fire.”
Another story that caught the media’s attention was that of a cyclist — Anna Heusler — who, while cycling with a group of friends in Adelaide, South Australia, saw a koala sitting forlornly in the middle of the road. Noticing its distressed state, she stopped to give it water. "As I was giving him a drink, he climbed up into my bike,” Heusler told CNN. “I've never seen a koala move this quickly. They're usually not people animals, they stay up on the trees and people admire them from afar."
Australia’s koala populations have suffered great losses in the bushfires: more than 350 of the marsupials were killed in a blaze that tore through a major habitat. With reports that thousands of hectares of koala habitat having been destroyed across northern NSW and southeast Queensland, the Australian government announced a spend of AUS$3 million to help restore their environments. “While adding my personal tribute to firefighters and the communities rallying to protect homes and livestock,” said federal environment minister Sussan Ley, “I would also acknowledge the work of wildlife hospitals, veterinarians and volunteers caring for native wildlife.”
ABOVE South Australian cyclist Anna Heusler helps a thirsty koala that climbed onto her bike