The people of Ngorundire have a special word for Kangaroo Island, “Karta” of the Island of the Dead, a Dreamtime name that will hold tragic significance during the black summer fires of 2020. Never in its history has the island experienced such devastation, with more than 200,000 hectares of land burned to ashes.
In just six weeks, the koala population on Kangaroo Island will go from one of Australia’s largest colonies to being listed as critically endangered, with an estimated 40,000 koalas perished.
RSPCA South Australia, along with a number of other wildlife organizations, has been activated by PIRSA (Department of Primary Industries and Regions) to form a wildlife restoration task force. Quickly assembled groups of veterinarians, animal care workers and volunteers were tasked with treating hundreds of injured and flooded koalas from eucalyptus farms and from farmland adjacent to Flinders Chase National Park.
One of Australia’s most unique habitats has been turned into a fiery hell
As her team was driving through Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on the hard-hit west side of KI, RSPCA veterinarian Gail Kothari was shocked to remember what they saw.
“This was a difficult day. We faced scenes of utter devastation. Kilometers of land were left black and charred. Protected fires destroyed themselves and many animals lost their lives. Others were simply unhelpful, and the best we could do for them was to end their lives and end their suffering,” she said. My heart breaks when I think of those moments.”
Without adequate infrastructure, Gale’s team had no choice but to create a temporary sorting and processing space inside one of the few remaining sheds, and prepare the brine by throwing a rope over a roof keel. At the main triage center in Parndana, veterinarians from several organizations discussed the best way to treat burns as they collaborated to save as many animals as possible, while members of the Australian Defense Force scavenged the charred remains of the animals into mass graves.
South Australia has never experienced an environmental disaster of this magnitude and severity.
He highlighted the urgent need for a local wildlife hospital in South Australia
The report from the Wildlife and Habitat Task Force on Wildfire Recovery in South Africa, which was established shortly after the fires, noted that:
Forty nationally threatened species (27 plants and 13 animals) have destroyed more than half of their known habitats on Kangaroo Island, and dozens of other listed species have been affected by fires at Cudlee Creek, Secret Rocks, Bunbury and Keilira.
“It is estimated that the number of koalas on Kangaroo Island (where the species is introduced) has decreased from 50,000 to between 5,000 and 10,000.”
Despite being very rich in native wildlife, South Australia is the only state in Australia that does not have a large wildlife hospital, which is why the main recommendation in the report was to introduce a comprehensive wildlife hospital and state emergency sanctuary in order to mitigate the loss of native animals in natural disasters in the future.
Now two years later, as the state’s leading animal welfare organization, RSPCA South Australia has stepped forward to plan, build and equip a facility that will ensure an adequate response to disasters such as the Black Summer fires.
Next time we’ll be prepared for the worst
The $26 million project will house the state’s first 24/7 wildlife hospital, along with local animal care facilities and animal care education facilities.
Drawing on solid knowledge of veterinary and animal care across 38 facilities operated by RSPCA Australia, RSPCA South Australia will implement best practices in design, facilities and infrastructure to deliver a wildlife hospital and disaster refuge on behalf of the state of South Australia.
The Wildlife Hospital will not only revolutionize the care of native animals across South Australia, but will also provide free 24/7 specialized veterinary care to local wildlife and 22 local wildlife rescue organizations across the state.
“If they stop working, wildlife is in trouble. So it is very much about providing support to those groups where we can, while recognizing the important contribution they are currently making to our native wildlife,” said Paul Stephenson, CEO of RSPCA SA
In addition, veterinary students and practicing veterinarians will have the opportunity to build skills and experience in treating domestic animals.
Until the first wildlife hospital in South Australia is established, RSPCA South Australia will proudly continue to work with the state’s generous, skilled and kind wildlife rescue organizations, who dedicate their time and resources to saving and protecting our native wildlife.
Construction is expected to begin in October, with an opening scheduled for early 2024 – just in time for the RSPCA’s 150th anniversary celebration in 2025.