Sanctuary Destroyed by Black Summer Recovering from the Ground Up

On 23 January 2020, the world changed for James Fitzgerald when a megafire tore through his wildlife haven on Ngarigo country in southern New South Wales (NSW). He lost his home and life’s work. 

In a double tragedy, the water bomber fighting to protect Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust Sanctuary crashed, killing all three US crew, Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson, and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Junior. 

The scale of devastation and enormity of loss was overwhelming. Most native animals perished and those that survived were struggling with no food or shelter. An estimated 80% of koalas were lost from this important population—one of only two that is recovering in the state. We deployed IFAW x UniSC koala detection dog Bear to help find koala survivors.   

Since then, IFAW and our friends Habitat Innovation and Management have been bringing the sanctuary back to life. We’ve been providing new homes for wildlife, planting native grasses and trees, and undertaking soil erosion control and fencing to aid landscape recovery.

Thousands of old hollow-bearing trees that animals rely on were destroyed. As a result, surviving hollow-dependent animals were left homeless. The forest floor was charred and ground-dwelling animals like dunnarts, antechinuses, echidnas, and reptiles also lost their homes. 

Small hollows for feathertail gliders and pygmy possums take over 100 years to form naturally. Larger hollows for glossy black cockatoos and greater gliders can take up to 400 years or more to form. 

The animals of Two Thumbs can’t wait for nature to take its course. This is why IFAW is giving nature a helping hand by installing innovative, ready-to-move-in Habitat modular nest boxes.  

These aren’t run-of-the-mill timber nest boxes. They have been cleverly designed to mimic natural hollows. Some can even house different non-competing species such as birds and microbats who would naturally co-habit in the same tree.  

They are already providing a much-needed lifeline for many animals including three species of glider, crimson rosellas, and possums. Proof that if you build, they will come.   

We’ve also set up homes for ground-dwelling animals such as echidnas and small marsupials including dunnarts, antechinus, and spotted-tail quolls.

In a world-first innovation, we installed 20 of these Habitat marsupial dens. The bespoke dens look like up-turned mini-submarines with fin-shaped air vents. They have a ‘mezzanine’ level for smaller critters to take refuge off the ground from predators. We covered them with rocks, sticks, and branches for camouflage and insulation.  

Within days, a host of different animals came to inspect the new digs, including echidnas, a Cunningham’s skink, brushtail possums, antechinuses, and a common dunnart. An eastern pygmy possum, which is a threatened species, also showed interest.  

In a bid to attract important apex predators back to the sanctuary, we constructed five raptor nesting platforms. Mimicking how birds like wedge-tailed eagles, little eagles, and brown falcons build their nests in nature, we picked the right tree in the right location and used dead branches to construct a large platform with easy fly-in access (and a priceless view).  

While there is still much to be done, the recovery efforts give us hope as we look to further restore and protect this very special sanctuary and the people and animals that call it home.    

The hollow deficit at Two Thumbs is indicative of the larger housing crisis Australian wildlife is facing. The Black Summer dealt a deadly blow to the already dwindling number of suitable trees left for animals to live in. 

When old hollow-bearing trees are burned or cut down, they won’t regrow in our lifetimes. Many animals depend on these trees, including threatened species like the glossy black cockatoo and greater glider.  

We cannot continue on this path, particularly with climate change fueling more frequent and intense fires. We need to stop cutting down native old-growth trees and do everything we can to protect our forests and the animals that call them home.  

P.S Have you seen the new Amazon serie, Poacher? It features our good friends at Wildlife Trust of India and is based on one of the biggest elephant poaching cases in India in 2015. Watch the trailer here

By IFAW Wildlife Campaigns Manager Josey Sharrad

Top Image: The IFAW and Habitat Innovation and Management teams with one of the raptor platforms at Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust Sanctuary. Photo © IFAW

April 2024