Image Source: https://www.afar.com/
In early January 2020, a year ago and a world away, Australia was ablaze. Wildfires come as frequently to the Australian bush as they do to California’s hills, but this year was different. About 42 million acres (17 million hectares) of rural Australia had gone up in flames, from hardest-hit New South Wales, where smoke made its way to coastal Sydney, down to Tasmania and across to Western Australia. Per the Guardian, that’s more than the size of England.
Meanwhile, a local Oz story made international headlines: Kangaroo Island in South Australia, likened to Noah’s Ark and Australia’s Galápagos for serving as a refuge for some of the country’s most endangered creatures, was burning beyond the point of recognition. By the end of January 2020, almost half of the island was reduced to sandy hills and blackened branches. In the southwest, 96 percent of Flinders Chase National Park—one of Australia’s oldest national parks—was charred, rendering the home of endangered dunnarts and the glossy black cockatoo, as well as koalas, kangaroos, and platypuses, uninhabitable. Many of these animals were among the estimated 3 billion lost or displaced due to the country-wide wildfires.
Thankfully, time heals some wounds, and Kangaroo Island’s rebirth is a bright spot in a year already plagued by an ongoing pandemic. South Australia Tourism Commission paints a picture that makes you want to take a deep breath of relief:
Today a carpet of green landscape leaves little doubt that the island and hills are bouncing back. Birdsong is deafening, kangaroos and koalas are content, flora is flourishing, and the community is closer than ever. Kangaroos and wallabies can be spotted bounding through Flinders Chase National Park, feasting on new shoots and fresh vegetation.
Birdlife has returned to Flinders Chase National Park. Yuccas, which are the first plant to bloom after fires, provide a plentiful food source for birds who devour the nectar. Honey eaters, wrens, magpies, lapwings, southern emu wrens, western whip birds, eagles, kites, falcons, and seabirds are easily spotted among the regrowing vegetation.
Thirty-three glossy black cockatoo fledglings have been spotted since the fires, a hopeful sign. Craig Wickham, managing director of Exceptional Kangaroo Island and a wildlife guide, told AFAR last year that they had been building cockatoo “apartments” to replace the tree hollows that burned and could take upwards of a century to regrow. A recent count found more cockatoos than any other time in history. Exceptional Kangaroo Island has also been planting trees and building tunnels for dunnarts, the threatened nocturnal marsupial, after nearly 95 percent of their habitat was destroyed. Motion-sensor cameras have recently spotted the little mouse-like mammals—an estimated 300 to 500 remain.
And then there are the kangaroos and koalas, which became the public face of the devastation. More than 800 animals orphaned or injured by the fires came through the gates of Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, now the Kangaroo Island Koala and Wildlife Rescue Centre, for rehabilitation. To date, the Centre has had a 40 percent survival rate when the expected was 12 percent. Sam Mitchell, who has operated the park with his wife, Dana, since 2013, stayed behind with four other people to ensure the animals’ safety as the fires escalated quickly. “The wind is quite fast, the glowing gets brighter—and then you start to see the flames,” Mitchell told the BBC. “But you can’t move 800 animals, including water buffaloes, ostriches, and cassowaries [an ostrich-like bird].” The fire, luckily, skirted the park; donations to the rescue center go directly to the ongoing care, treatment, and husbandry of Kangaroo Island’s animals.
If you can’t find some comfort in these images of koalas, very much alive and well, hugging each other and the Mitchells through 2020’s harrowing annals, who knows what will.