Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 23 January 2020

Australia establishes wildlife recovery fund after bushfires

More than one million native animals are estimated to have perished, with some species now under threat of extinction

The Australian government committed A$50 million (Dh126 million) to an emergency wildlife recovery programme on Monday, calling the bushfires crisis engulfing the country "an ecological disaster" that threatens several species, including koalas and rock wallabies.

Huge wildfires have razed more than 11.2 million hectares, nearly half the area of the United Kingdom, destroying or severely damaging the habitats of several native animals.

Some estimates suggest as many as a billion animals, including livestock and domestic pets, have either died in the blazes or are at risk in their aftermath due to a lack of food and shelter.

"This has been an ecological disaster, a disaster that is still unfolding," Treasurer Josh Frydenberg told reporters on Monday as he visited the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, where 45 koalas were being treated for burns.

"We know that our native flora and fauna have been very badly damaged."

Images of burned kangaroos, koalas and possums, along with footage of people risking their lives to save native animals have gone viral around the world. Knitters have responded to a call to create thousands of protective pouches and blankets for injured wildlife.

The Australian division of the Worldwide Fund for Nature (WWF) has advised the government of 13 animals whose habitats have been either destroyed or severely damaged. They include three critically endangered species: the southern corroboree frog, the regent honeyeater bird and the western ground parrot.

"Huge proportions of globally significant areas like the Gondwana Rainforestand Blue Mountains World Heritage Areas along with the Australian Alps and Western Australia’s Stirling Ranges have suffered catastrophic burns," WWF said in an emailed statement.

Other animals at risk include koala populations across the southeast, the Kangaroo Island dunnart, glossy black cockatoo, long-footed potoroo, western ground parrot, Blue Mountains water skink, eastern bristlebird and the brush-tailed rock wallaby.

In a mission dubbed Operation Rock Wallaby, national park staff used helicopters to air drop thousands of kilos of carrots and sweet potatoes to brush-tailed rock wallabies in remote areas of New South Wales state.

"The provision of supplementary food is one of the key strategies we are deploying to promote the survival and recovery of endangered species like the brush-tailed rock wallaby," NSW environment minister Matt Kean said.

"The wallabies typically survive the fire itself, but are then left stranded with limited natural food as the fire takes out the vegetation around their rocky habitat."

Mr Frydenberg said the "iconic" koala would be a focus of national government funding, adding that the full extent of the damage would not be known until the fires are out β€” something experts say could be months away.

Threatened Species Commissioner Sally Box said an estimated 30 per cent of koala habitat β€” eucalpyt woodlands, which they use for both food and shelter β€” in NSW state may have been lost. The koalas' heavy fur and tendency to climb higher when threatened are severe disadvantages in fast-moving bushfires.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said reviews would be brought forward on whether certain koala populations should be listed as "endangered" rather than "vulnerable".

"Everything that can be done to rescue and recover koala habitat, will be done, including innovative approaches that look at whether you can actually put a koala in an area that it hasn't come from," Ms Ley said.

Meanwhile, a political poll showed Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison's popularity has declined sharply amid the bush fire crisis.

Mr Morrison has come under attack for being slow to respond to an unprecedented crisis, even taking a family holiday to Hawaii while fires were burning. He acknowledged during a television interview on Sunday that he had made some mistakes.

"We have heard the message loud and clear from the Australian people," Mr Frydenberg said on Monday, when asked about the poll result as he announced the wildlife protection fund.

"They want to see a Federal Government adopt a very direct response to these natural and national disasters," Mr Frydenberg said.

The Newspoll showed Mr Morrison's approval rating dropped 8 points to the lowest level since he took over leadership of the conservative Liberal Party in August 2018. He was overtaken by Labor leader Anthony Albanese.

The poll was taken after Mr Morrison announced a A$2 billion bush fire recovery fund and called out 3,000 army reservists to back up state emergency workers β€” responses that were viewed as too slow.

Mr Morrison said on Sunday he would take a proposal to Cabinet to hold a Royal Commission national inquiry into the bushfires, including examining the response to the crisis, the role and powers of the federal government and the impact of climate change.

After weeks of raging fires whipped up by erratic winds and temperatures over 40C, conditions eased at the weekend with showers forecast for New South Wales, the worst hit state, over the next few days.

"If this BOM (Bureau of Metereology) rainfall forecast comes to fruition then this will be all of our Christmas, birthday, engagement, anniversary, wedding and graduation presents rolled into one. Fingers crossed," the NSW Rural Fire Service said on Twitter.

Updated: January 13, 2020 07:56 PM

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