Australia has started 2020 with prolonged and devastating bushfires. In place of our usual 22nd Report on our cessation of trade in ivory and rhino horn, we spoke to our friends at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) about their work in relation to the bushfires.

1. Has the recent rain helped with the bushfires?

Blazes have been downgraded after significant rain but with high fire dangers still remaining. The good news is that they have helped firefighters control their spread, and given them some respite.

In NSW some rain has fallen across every fire ground including some of the state’s largest fires – along the south coast, the Gospers Mountain fire north of Sydney, and the multiple fires in the Snowy Valley near Kosciuszko National Park, where separate fires have merged to create a giant cross-border blaze that reaches into Victoria.

In Victoria, the hard-hit East Gippsland also experienced welcome rain. The town of Mallacoota, where 4,000 people dramatically sheltered on the beach on New Year’s Eve, received 30mm over the past two days.

But as of 21st January, there were still 87 fires burning in NSW and 17 fires burning in Victoria.

2. Do we know what caused the bushfires
to be so extreme this year?

Australia is accustomed to an annual bushfire season – it’s not a case of ‘if’; but ‘where.’ This year however, the fire season started much earlier than normal with unprecedented intensity and unpredictability. These fires are so powerful that they are creating their own weather systems with lightning sparking more spot fires.

The catastrophic conditions affecting large parts of Australia have been aggravated by months of severe drought, very dry fuels, dry soils and excessive heat. Record breaking temperatures including days where weather conditions are considered “catastrophic” have also impacted wildlife with animals suffering dehydration and birds and flying foxes (bats) literally falling dead from the sky. All of these factors have been compounded by climate change.

3. How many animals do you estimate
have perished?

Researchers from the University of Sydney estimated that half a billion animals have been killed by the fires. However, as the fires have intensified and spread, revised calculations put that figure at over 1 billion animals.

As shocking and incomprehensible as these estimates are, they are unfortunately likely to be conservative as they are only for the State of New South Wales and only for mammals, birds and reptiles. The figures don’t include insect, frogs or bats – species which are suffering losses in the hundreds as a direct result of the heatwave that is accompanying this current bushfire season. They also don’t include animals that are dying due to the heatwaves and due to the lack of food and water.

With over 24.7 million acres of land already burned and the fires burning across the country, over 2,200 homes have gone up in flames and 29 people have lost their lives, the true cost of life is insurmountable.

4. What has your team been doing in the recent bushfires?

IFAW has been active on the ground since the bushfires started back in September 2019, working with local partners to help animals affected by the devastating bushfires. In the early days of the disaster, we purchased an off-road wildlife rescue vehicle for one of our partners in northern NSW, as well as purchasing emergency enclosures for animals including koalas, kangaroos, birds and bats, as well as possum nesting boxes. Additionally, we’ve purchased and donated a disaster trailer, protective fire gear for several groups, fuel cards for caregivers and rescuers, medical supplies, the transfer of a water tank and UHF radios and food.  We also provide support for the wildlife carers themselves providing vaccinations, mental health support as well as providing additional team support so that the carers themselves can take a day off.

IFAW has also been able to deploy our koala detection dog, Bear, along with his handler at Detection Dogs for Conservation, into fire zones, and continue the sponsorship of a veterinary nurse at Friends of the Koala and a vet at Bonorong Wildlife Sanctuary’s clinic in Tasmania. In Victoria, IFAW has supported Mosswood Wildlife founder, Tracey Wilson, as her team deploys with local firefighters to rescue injured or burned wildlife, beginning with national parks near Koroit. We are in constant partnership with many more local wildlife groups to assist and meet their needs.

As the fires have escalated in scale and intensity in the first days of 2020, additional team members from our international offices with expertise in disaster response and risk reduction have been sent to increase our capacity and expand our relief efforts – assisting with critical needs assessments and getting supplies to where they are needed most.

5. What happens once the fires stop?

We have been working with local wildlife groups here in Australia for over 30 years. That work has included helping set up the NSW Wildlife Council, sponsoring National Wildlife Care Conferences, providing grants and medical supplies to groups to assist with the rescue, rehabilitation and release of animals and have supported veterinary care positions to deliver fast and expert care to sick, injured and orphaned wildlife.

When the fires subside and eventually stop, the response will continue for many months – as fire grounds are deemed safe for search and rescue teams; it’s often in the weeks and months after fires that surviving animals start to suffer the impacts of starvation and dehydration. Our team and support will remain – we will continue to work to rebuild and restore damaged habitats. This includes ongoing endeavours to plant thousands of eucalyptus trees with our partner Bangalow Koala and restore a vital wildlife corridor in the Northern Rivers Region of NSW. You can find out more by visiting our website:
www.ifaw.org