THE KOALAS OF KANGAROO
Lens Magazine|December 2020
It's been almost a year since I walked down Church Road on Kangaroo Island, where the smell of death could not be escaped.
MARK EDWARD HARRIS

As an American, the carnage before my eyes was reminiscent of Timothy H. O'Sullivan's Harvest of Death photograph of the battlefield at Gettysburg. For the Australians on Kangaroo Island, perhaps Gallipoli would come to mind. But the enemy was not an opposing army, and the bodies were not those of soldiers but countless animals unable to escape the onslaught of the bushfires that consumed half their island.

While the country as a whole lost an estimated one billion animals in the bushfires, the impact on the fauna of Kangaroo Island was particularly devastating. For those that did survive the flames and smoke, starvation due to habitat loss has led to countless more deaths.

The koalas were particularly hard hit. At the time lighting ignited the fires on December 20, 2019, the koala population was estimated at approximately 50,000. Their numbers might be down to only 5,000 to 10,000.

Ninety percent of the koala's habitat was in the fire zone on Kangaroo Island's western side. This area includes Flinders Chase National Park and Ravine Des Casoars Wilderness Protection Area.

Ironically, koalas and not indigenous to the island, which has been separated from the mainland for the last 10,000 years. In the 1920s, a 20th century Noah's Ark of sorts carrying 18 koalas arrived on the shores of Kangaroo Island in one of Australia's earliest conservation efforts. The off-loaded marsupials entered a new world, one that was free of knife-wielding mainland men eager to relieve them of their pelts. These particular koalas were also free of chlamydia, a disease that has since devastated mainland populations.

In the century since, the koalas of Kangaroo Island have not only survived but prospered, perhaps too much, and were in danger of outgrowing their favorite food source, a type of Eucalyptus called a manna gum. As one of Australia's most important natural wildlife habitats, renowned for its biodiversity, culling the koala's numbers on the island through euthanasia was contemplated but emphatically rejected by the public.

A more palatable sterilization, contraception, and translocation program was adopted, which included moving 3,800 koalas to their historic range in the southeast of South Australia, making it one of the world's largest fertility control projects.

Then in late December 2019, the fires came.

Indigenous species including kangaroos, pademelons, pygmy possums, southern brown bandicoots, and dunnarts have fared little better than the immigrant koalas on the island often referred to as both Australia's Galapagos and Australia's Ark.

The already endangered dunnart, a tiny mouse-like marsupial, can only be found on Kangaroo Island. Its existence is now even more in question. Thousands of livestock were also killed. The Ligurian honeybee, originally from Italy and produces the purest strain of honey in the world, has seen its numbers greatly diminished. Humans were also part of the grim statistics. Two men, a father, and son died when the fire overtook their vehicle on Playford Highway after an attempt to help friends save their property.

While the fire is a natural part of the lifecycle of many environments, the frequency and severity seen in Australia is unprecedented in recorded history.

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