NEW SOUTH WALES, Australia (WAFB) - Gabe Ligon, owner of Barn Hill Preserve in Ethel, Louisiana, has been on the ground in Australia for about a week now. In that time, he’s traveled over 1,000 miles between Victoria and New South Wales offering volunteer work, as well as financial and emotional support to wildlife carers who are in desperate need of help they aren’t getting elsewhere.
“When I arrived, the air was filled with smoke,” Ligon recalled as he landed in Australia last Wednesday. “It’s just a really eerie thing to see. I’ve been to Australia three times before this. Usually, it was green and beautiful. Most of what I’m seeing now is brown.”
Australia is experiencing the worst fire season in its history. Deadly fires have been raging across the southeast of the continent for months. At least 28 people have died and 2,600 homes have gone up in flames. Entire towns have been evacuated.
“The forests here, if they haven’t burned, they’re primed for burning in the areas I’ve been in,” he says.
“It is not very pretty,” says Tanya Jones, who works with Bushfire Wildlife Rescue and Support, based out of Queensland, Australia, about 1,000 miles north from the hardest-hit areas. “Normally our Australian bush is nothing short of spectacular and our wildlife is everywhere - it’s normally quite abundant. But, that’s all changed.”
It is estimated that over 1 billion animals have been killed since the fires began in November of 2019. Over 6 million hectares of land have been turned to ash. The landscape of the outback is being forever altered.
"This has been catastrophic," Jones says. "There is no going back from this. We need to save every single animal we can."
Experts are currently working on drafting a preliminary list of highly threatened animals, plants, and ecosystems. Some species likely to end up on the list are the Kangaroo Island dunnart, the glossy black cockatoo, the Hastings River mouse, the eastern bristlebird, and the greater glider.
"We are going to lose species," Jones says. "We're talking extinction on a mass level."
And it’s not just burns that are killing the animals. Trying to escape the blaze, animals have been struck by cars crossing the road. Jones says they spend hours scouring the highway en route to their next destination, stopping for roadkill. One dead animal could lead them to its family, which is usually nearby. Jones says family is everything to animals like kangaroos and koalas. For them to lose mothers and siblings is traumatizing.
Another common ailment among the animals they’ve rescued is stress cardiomyopathy, a heart condition brought on by stress that causes an excruciatingly slow death as the heart and other vital organs shut down.
“These animals are experiencing something they’ve never seen before, and hopefully never see again,” Jones says. “This leads to a great deal of stress, which can kill the animals.”
Carers administer vitamin E to the animals to combat the symptoms of cardiomyopathy, but it is an expensive compound.
“The more money we have, the more lives we can save,” Jones says. “We need to try to save every single life we can. Every life is important.”
Sometimes, the animals are near death before the flames even get to them. The rise in temperatures from a nearby bushfire can begin and speed up the process of heat exhaustion and dehydration.
Some of the affected areas are difficult to get to due to road closures, but the team says they’re doing their best to get to every area they can.
“I don’t think it’s going to be normal for a very long time,” she says. “This is going to take years to recover from. I’ve actually never been so frightened for our wildlife in all of my years. It is almost beyond comprehension.”
Jones says she’s heard rumors of facilities harvesting and preserving sperm and eggs from Koalas in an attempt to save a species threatened by extinction due to habitats, populations, and food sources being completely ravaged by the fires. A rumor that terrifies her.
Koalas only reproduce during the summer and autumn months, which, in Australia, runs from October to May, with a high reproduction rate from December to March. Female koalas are only able to produce one young each year. Trying to reverse the devastating hit the koala population has taken during the peak of their reproductive cycle will take decades. It may be altogether impossible, which is why this team is doing everything they can to save as many animals as possible.
The team is currently operating out of a Jeep towing a box trailer. Most nights they sleep in the Jeep or in tents. We were fortunate enough to catch up with them on one of the rare nights they found rest in a hotel room in Newcastle, New South Wales.
"It's eerie because you go to the big cities, of course, where things are perfectly normal, and other than the smoke in the air, you would not know there's a problem," Ligon says.
That apparent lack of awareness in larger cities may be contributing negatively to the efforts of those trying to save and protect the animals that are still in the fight of their lives.
"Honestly, I don't think enough people are doing their part to help the wildlife here," Ligon says.
Ligon and Jones say despite a global push to donate money for much-needed medical supplies, carers on the ground and on the frontlines of the fight against mass extinction haven’t seen a dime. The money is moving too slowly.
“What I was hearing, and I was hoping it was actually rumors, is that all of this money that’s being donated to these major organizations by lovely people that want to help hasn’t actually gone to where it’s really needed. So, we took it upon ourselves,” Jones says. “We thought, ‘we can’t wait, they need help immediately.’”
"I have not met one facility yet that has received money from some of these big fundraisers you see in the U.S. right now that are really popular," Ligon says. "I've not met one that has received a dime from that, which is really disheartening in this time of crisis."
Wildlife carers are very much “do it yourself” volunteer organizations. Some of these animal-lovers who have been caring for Australia’s wildlife have opened their homes to furry guests. Jones says one of the facilities they plan to assist is over 350 miles deep into a remote sector of the outback. A woman reportedly lives there with a “pile of kangaroos” in her living room, desperate for supplies and support. Because carers are not supported by or receive money from the government, Jones believes they are the only chance to get the medicine and the shelter she and those kangaroos need.
Ligon says he hasn’t met another group of people caring for the carers like they are.
The government isn’t completely sitting on their hands, however. Earlier this month, Australian crews conducted the largest food drop ever for brush-tailed rock-wallabies affected by bushfires. The mission, named “Operation Rock Wallaby,” called for dropping 2,000 pounds of carrots and sweet potatoes across various colonies.
Ligon says the effort, while crucially important, was a few weeks too late.
“After weeks of burning, the government just agreed that they’re going to actually drop food,” Ligon says. “I really don’t think that wildlife is a priority for everyone here.”
Donating money online can be tricky, but Ligon wanted to stress that buying and shipping supplies to Australia can be costly and time-consuming. If you’re interested in spending your money on supplies instead of donating, Ligon recommends calling Barn Hill Preserve and getting in touch with the rest of his team. He says there are opportunities for you to purchase supplies directly from Australian warehouses, which cuts down shipping costs and allows for same-day pickup in some cases.