The Return of the Platypuses

June 22, 2020
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The platypus, liberated from the pillowcase in which it had been traveling, headed straight for water.

Sarah May, watching, marveled at its glossy coat and the smoothness of its movement. It was like a Slinky, she said: “It almost poured over the ground.” The platypus reached the still pond, slid in, and was gone. Dr. May had been anticipating this moment for months, but now that it had arrived, she found herself surprised at just how deeply moved she felt.

The glossy platypus, along with two others, arrived at Tidbinbilla Nature Reserve, a 45-minute drive from the Australian capital of Canberra, on April 30. They had been away for four months, sheltering at a zoo in Sydney. The cold, wet and windy day of their release could not have been more different from the day in late December when they had left the reserve.

Back then, Tidbinbilla was parched from extreme heat and drought and menaced by an approaching bush fire. Dr. May, the wildlife team leader for the reserve, and her crew were working long hours in thick smoke, trying to protect their lungs with face masks, their eyes red and burning. It was a grim and apocalyptic-feeling time, she said: “Fires had taken over everybody’s psyche.” But the team worried most about their animal charges, the rare, endangered and iconic wildlife that make the reserve their home.

Tidbinbilla encompasses a eucalyptus forest, a broad valley full of emus and kangaroos, and a large wetland of ponds protected by a predator-proof fence. But in December the wetland, known as the Sanctuary, no longer resembled its name. Animals came to drink and forage from shrinking, muddy ponds, which were surrounded by large areas of dried, cracked earth. Dr. May watched as water birds tried to swim through mud but ended up walking: The ponds were shallower than their legs were long. She feared that only a few days or weeks of water remained.

The reserve contacted Taronga Zoo, in Sydney, asking if it had space to shelter its platypus population, aware that the animals would be unable to survive without their ponds. Taronga, which lists the platypus as one of the “legacy species” it considers crucial to protect, was fielding similar requests from other conservation agencies, as well as farmers and landowners who saw platypuses struggling in drying creeks and ponds. “We were inundated,” Phoebe Meagher, the zoo’s wildlife conservation officer, said — but unfortunately, there was only so much space to house them.

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