Kangaroo Island is renowned for its native wildlife — the koalas are disease-free, the bees create the purest honey and it is home to one of Australia’s rarest marsupials.
- About a third of Kangaroo Island has been burnt, including much of the Flinders Chase National Park
- Aerial imagery suggests the Kangaroo Island dunnart has been impacted
- Up to 500 Ligurian beehives may have succumbed to flames
But bushfires that ravaged the 4,400-square-kilometre island have left wildlife experts concerned about the future of some of its threatened species.
About a third of the island has been charred.
The fire has devastated the Flinders Chase National Park, which is home to koalas, kangaroos, rare birds and marsupials.
Threatened Species Recovery Hub deputy director John Woinarski — who is also a professor at Charles Darwin University — said the fires across Australia had been a “holocaust of destruction” for wildlife.
“There’s almost no considerable habitat remaining for many species. That leads to local extinction events,” he said.
“Places like Kangaroo Island, where much of the landscape has been burnt in a really homogenous and extreme manner, that may mean some of the plant and animal species … may have been eliminated completely.
“Certainly, their population liability would have crashed for many of these species and their risk of extinction has been substantially increased.”
Koala numbers on Kangaroo Island have been booming. There were an estimated 50,000 living on the island.
But it is unclear how many koalas perished in the devastating bushfires.
While Kangaroo Island koalas were not an endangered species, they were the only populations of the iconic marsupial that were chlamydia-free.
Adelaide University, South Australia’s Department for Environment and Water and the University of the Sunshine Coast have been working to rejuvenate koala populations across mainland Australia.
Researcher Dr Natasha Speight said Flinders Chase National Park was a hub for koalas.
“The western end of the island is known to support a large proportion of the koala population over there,” she said.
“The impact on the koala population of the entire island is likely to be significant.”
Even without a bushfire wiping out its habitat, the Kangaroo Island dunnart was at real risk of becoming extinct within the next decade.
The Federal Government named the dunnart as one of the top 10 priority species under threat.
It is unknown exactly how many tailed dunnarts — which are the size of a mouse — were on the island.
But Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife fauna ecologist Pat Hodgens said the death of 20 of the marsupials would be very significant.
“They’re pretty small … and they just wouldn’t be able to escape the intense heat of the fire,” he said.
“Now that they don’t have that habitat, they’re very vulnerable to predators that might be around, things like feral cats.
“Looking at some aerial imagery, it doesn’t bode well at this stage, unfortunately.”
Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife has been doing significant research to try and determine the “ecology of the species”.
“In the last two years, we’ve located 13 pockets of dunnarts on public and private land but the species are in pretty low abundance. There’s certainly not a lot of them around,” Mr Hodgens said.
Glossy black cockatoo
The Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo is a “sub-species” which was completely confined to the island.
Queensland University researcher Daniella Teixeira — who specialises in the rare bird — said glossy black cockatoos lived on mainland Australia decades ago but became extinct following habitat loss.
“The actual extent of the damage from these particular fires are probably quite severe,” she said.
“We know that the important, critical habitat along the north coast has burnt and that probably includes some key nesting areas, which will be really devastating.”
But she said other habitat areas for the glossy black cockatoo had escaped the inferno and could be providing “some reprieve for them”.
There are three sub-species of the glossy black cockatoo: one on Kangaroo Island and two on the eastern coast of Australia.
Ms Teixeira said each sub-species was “a little bit different from each other”.
She said the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoos only eat from the drooping she-oak trees.
“They’re really specialised and have a very low reproductive rate — about one chick a year if they’re lucky,” she said.
“In terms of the future, we’re concerned, we have studies which have predicted the impact of climate change on glossy black cockatoos specifically, we know that their food is reduced during drought and breeding success is consequently reduced as well.”
Kangaroo Island business Bush Organics posted on social media today that a small flock of glossy black cockatoos was spotted flying along the roadside, which had provided “some hope” for its future.
Ligurian honey bees
The Ligurian bees on Kangaroo Island are believed to be the last remaining pure stock of this insect found anywhere in the world.
They have been thriving on the island for the past 135 years after the South Australian Government declared the island a bee sanctuary.
Kangaroo Island Ligurian Queen Bees owner Stephen Heatley lost 40 of his hives in the fires but “guessed” up to 500 hives could have succumbed to the flames.
“That part of the island that was burnt was the main drawcard for keepers to put their hives,” he said.
He said the Ligurian honey bees were introduced from Italy and arrived in Australia via the United States in 1885, before making their way to Kangaroo Island.
“They’ve stayed here ever since,” he said.
The production of Ligurian honey has boomed on the island and it is now used to make a range of products, including beauty products and skincare.
How will the Australian bush recover?
Bushfires have ravaged about 5.8 million hectares of bush, known for its unique flora and fauna, across Australia.
It is estimated that wildlife loss across Australia through this bushfire season will exceed 500 million.
Professor Woinarski said recovery could take decades.
“It may take many years for the resources that those plants and animals need after the fire to come back again — so things like tree hollows, dense layers of vegetation and leaf litter,” he said.
“They’re not going to come back now for decades.
“Many Australians feel a natural affinity for the bush in which we live and these fires are now changing that tie with the land and the environment.
“I think increasingly, many people will see the forest, woodlands and nature as a menace to human life and that’s going to have bad consequences.
“We need to appreciate the forests and woodlands in which we live and we can’t treat it like the enemy.”
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