Over the last week, Australia’s National Park staff have air-dropped thousands of pounds of vegetables to vulnerable rock-wallaby colonies affected by bushfires in New South Wales.
Bushfires have been burning through Australia since September, and conditions have grown increasingly dire. The scene on Kangaroo Island was recently described as apocalyptic, slow-moving animals like koalas are unable to escape the flames, and conservative estimates suggest that over one billion animals have died nationally. Animals in New South Wales account for at least 800 million of those deaths.
And while brush-tailed rock-wallabies usually survive the initial danger posed by the fire, they become stranded in a habitat that lacks food and water.
"The wallabies were already under stress from the ongoing drought, making survival challenging for the wallabies without assistance,” New South Wales environment minister Matt Kean says in a statement. "At this stage, we expect to continue providing supplementary food to rock-wallaby populations until sufficient natural food resources and water become available again in the landscape, during post-fire recovery."
Operation Rock Wallaby - #NPWS staff today dropped thousands of kgs of food (Mostly sweet potato and carrots) for our Brush-tailed Rock-wallaby colonies across NSW #bushfires pic.twitter.com/ZBN0MSLZei— Matt Kean MP (@Matt_KeanMP) January 11, 2020
The vegetables, mostly sweet potatoes and carrots, were delivered by helicopter to 12 sites across Capertee and Wolgan valleys, Yengo National Park, and Kangaroo Valley. The food drop is the most widespread yet and will be accompanied by feral predator control to protect the wallabies.
Brush-tailed rock wallabies were considered vulnerable nationally in Australia when they were last assessed in 2014 by the IUCN Red List, but their population is decreasing. In New South Wales, the small marsupials are already considered endangered. Habitat loss can be devastating, not only for highly specialized species like koalas which rely on eucalypt forests for both food and shelter, but for all the animals affected by bushfires.
“We’re talking mammals, birds, plants, fungi, insects, other invertebrates, amphibians, and bacteria and microorganisms that are critical to these systems,” insect ecologist Manu Saunders tells Karin Brulliard and Darryl Fears at the Washington Post. When habitats are destroyed, she says, “it doesn’t matter” that some individual animals survive because “they’ll die anyway.”
The air-dropped, wallaby-saving vegetables are one hopeful solution standing in stark contrast to the recent decision to cull 10,000 camels. Camels were brought to Australia in the 1800's as a means for transportation across the desert, but now over one million of them mostly roam feral. There, the country’s drought has pushed some camels to enter villages in search of food and water, posing a threat to the safety of both people and their potable water.
The international response to photos of injured marsupials and other animals has overwhelmed some volunteer organizations with bins of handmade donations, reports PBS News Hour’s Alison Thoet. Crafted gifts are well-meaning but sometimes misguided. Crochet bird nests are hard to clean, knit marsupial pouches are a hazard because sharp claws get caught in loose fibers, and not all designs available online are accurate wildlife groups’ needs. Organizations are also stressed that they no longer need so many koala mittens after such large initial donations.
“The best outcome is to ask first and use only approved designs,” Ryan says. “There is an awful lot of waste because bad or unwanted patterns are out there on the internet. I could cry sometimes when we receive things made with love but not usable because of sewing method or fabric or size.”