It's eerily quiet around Tallaganda National Park and state forest, south of Canberra, where the horrifying Black Range bushfire raged through last November. Normally you could hear a summer symphony of rustling leaves, cicadas and birdsong; instead, the forests are blackened and deathly silent. Only Wildcare volunteers move among the ashes, searching for animals that have miraculously survived, then giving them vital food and veterinary care.
President of Queanbeyan-based Wildcare, Belinda Hogarth-Boyd, explains how WWF-Australia is helping the organisation to get the region's wildlife - kangaroos, wallabies, wombats, echidnas, possums and gliders among them - back on the road to recovery.
How has Wildcare responded to the fires?
Our normal mission is to rescue injured animals, rehabilitate them and release them back into the wild. Since the Tallaganda fire, this has expanded into an emergency response. We've had three active teams: two recovery teams, one focussed on rescuing injured animals and another supporting the wildlife that has survived; and our support team, which organises supplies and the necessary support. We didn’t have access to the fireground for a long time so our capacity to do rescues was limited, but now that the Tallaganda fire is out, we’ve applied for access to find injured wildlife. There are huge numbers of animals within the burnt-out landscape that don't have food or habitat and are facing starvation, so we’ve been providing support-feeding for them for months. We’re also undertaking these activities in two new firegrounds - Calabash and Clear Range near Michelago, NSW.
What animals are coming into your care?
Many are ground-dwelling guys, like echidnas and wombats. They mostly have respiratory issues from smoke inhalation, pneumonia, that sort of thing. The wombats tend to be juveniles because mum has either escaped or been killed and left them behind in the burrow, so these little guys turn up on their own, often with burnt feet and whiskers. One had a collapsed lung from smoke inhalation. The injuries are complex, and not just burns.
During our food drops we're also seeing some larger animals (kangaroos and wallabies), and monitoring them - tempting them to come in. We can see by the way they move that they've got burnt feet. Deep burns can be very painful, so we're treating them under general anaesthetic.
What does their treatment involve?
There's a lot of time and logistics involved for our specialist wildlife vets to provide ongoing care. Once the wounds have started to heal and the animal is mobile, they can go into an outsideenclosure to get some condition and put weight back on, to get ready for release.
What food are you using?
We have meadow and lucerne hay, supported by browse, which is a range of cut vegetation suitable for wombats, possums and large macropods. They need this fibre to help with their digestion. We're also providing pellet feed, which is a good source of sustenance, and fruit and vegetables, which are great for the little animals and possums. Fruit also helps to attract insects, which are another source of food for some wildlife.
What has the WWF support enabled you to do?
This is a marathon, not a sprint; we'll be support-feeding wildlife for months. We're going through 300 bales of hay and a pallet of pellet food a month, which costs $9,500 a month, and the amount of food we need is growing as more properties get on board. We'd been working month-to-month, unsure whether we could afford to keep going.
WWF's wonderful support gives us a really stable base from which we can continue our support-feeding program for the next 12 months; it gives us the security to keep going and to focus on the future. It also allows us to build some habitat for smaller animals like possums, as well as demountable release enclosures, so we can prepare animals for release and move them into a range of different locations. This will help us to distribute wildlife among landscapes that are recovering.
What's next for Wildcare?
Our challenge is to find release sites for the animals we rescue and treat. I hope these fire events bring a focus to our wildlife and remind people what a treasure it is to our country. I hope people come to really love and appreciate our wildlife out of this, so we can support animals not just for the next year, but for the next decade and the next generation.
Over the weeks we've been coming out to feed animals we've started to hear a little birdsong and started to see some butterflies. You get really excited when you see a beetle because you can see the land is recovering.
Donate to WWF's Australian Wildlife and Nature Recovery Fund today, to help support those on the frontline still working around the clock to help care for and feed our surviving wildlife and ensure long-term plans and projects are in place to restore and protect critical wildlife habitat for the future.