The devastating Black Summer bushfires brought global attention to Australia's native animals with images of wildlife fleeing the flames featuring on worldwide news.
It was estimated more than three billion animals were fire-affected. Our iconic koala received international focus after footage of a passing motorist wrapping a badly burned koala in her shirt went viral
These images brought an outpouring of international and local concern and support for our wildlife. WIRES was privileged to receive significant donations in response to the Black Summer bushfire allowing us to immediately fund important rescue and rehabilitation projects across Australia.
Sadly, Australia's koala populations are continuing to face a rapid decline with an estimated 30 per cent loss overall since 2018. While the overall loss is on national basis, NSW has seen the largest population loss with an estimated 41 per cent decline.
One of the first initiatives WIRES was able to support was the University of Sydney's Koala Health Hub (KHH) with a $1 million grant, the largest one-off living gift made to the university's School of Veterinary Science.
According to Koala Health Hub director, associate professor Damien Higgins, the need for diagnostic support and disease expertise is greater than ever.
"The numbers of koalas in care is increasing due to drought, longer-term impacts from fire, and the ongoing pressures of habitat loss," Professor Higgins said.
"Population recovery will require sound evidence-based decisions across habitat management, captive breeding and translocation, as well as coordination and capacity building in the rescue and rehabilitation sector."
The grant has supported many new KHH initiatives including the Koalavet online video forum to help improve veterinary coordination and training. More than 50 koala and wildlife vets from across the country attend the forums to share and evaluate the latest koala care information.
In terms of ongoing protection, the biggest threats to koalas, other than drought and bushfires, are habitat loss through land clearing, road accidents, dog attacks and chlamydia.
Those living in koala areas can help by planting feed trees and encouraging local councils and community groups to do the same.
Also important is the restoration and maintenance of koala 'corridors' to ensure they can safely move through existing areas and establish new habitats.
As housing developments continue to encroach on known koala habitats we need to learn to live together by containing pet dogs, especially at night when koalas are on the move.
They often travel through backyards and gardens seeking new feed trees and water, and are especially vulnerable to dogs which naturally regard them as intruders and will often attack.
Similarly, pet cats that are free to roam, no matter how well-fed, kill thousands of nocturnal native animals across Australia, including gliders and possum joeys as well as birds and their chicks. Keeping them indoors at night significantly reduces the risk of smaller marsupials and birdlife being injured or killed.
Since the fires WIRES has continued to receive inquiries from the public wanting to help in a hands-on way with many opting to volunteer as active wildlife rescuers and carers. WIRES identified a need to create a course for people wanting to help but who are time poor due to family and work commitments.
The result is the online course Rescue 101, which trains volunteers to safely rescue birds, possums, lizards and turtles and transport them to the nearest vet or trained WIRES rehabilitator. For more information, visit www.wires.org.au.
WIRES has launched a $5 million national grant program over five years to improve outcomes for Australia's native wildlife. It is open to individually licenced wildlife carers through to multi-partner collaborations. It is designed to support best practice wildlife rescue and rehabilitation, native species recovery projects and increase emergency preparedness.
This is one of many new initiatives WIRES is supporting over the next 12 months. As we look to the future, WIRES remains optimistic about our much-loved native wildlife.
Awareness of their plight after the bushfires and in the face of increasing climate change has touched the hearts of generations of Australians and animal lovers around the globe. Our mission continues to be to rescue, rehabilitate and release native animals back into their natural habitat and we are now sharing our 35 years of knowledge and expertise with other rescue groups around Australia with the long-term aim of creating a national approach to native wildlife protection and preservation.
- John Grant is a spokesperson for WIRES.