The helicopter known as the Squirrel is typically used to douse fires and shoot pests. These days, it has a new mission: scattering tons of carrots and sweet potatoes in New South Wales for threatened wallabies on the brink of starvation.
A long-running drought had already drastically reduced the marsupials’ food supply. Then came the bush fires that devastated southeastern Australia in recent months.
“There was absolutely nothing left,” said Michaela Jones, a senior project officer at the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales.
Some ecologists have estimated that more than 1 billion wild animals were lost in the fires that began burning in July and eventually blackened millions of acres. For threatened species like brush-tailed rock wallabies, conservationists have rushed to figure out ways to support local populations.
Feeding wildlife runs against the usual advice, said Trent Forge, threatened species project officer at the Parks and Wildlife Service. But after the fires robbed the wallabies of their natural foraging grounds, wildlife officials began a mission in January to drop food every 10 to 14 days in two valleys of Wollemi National Park.
“These are unique circumstances,” Forge said, adding that about 80% of the brush-tailed rock wallaby’s habitat had been affected by the fires. “We need to give those survivors a helping hand if we are to conserve the species as a whole.”
Jones has looked after the wallabies since 1999. Over those years, the population grew from eight to 110. When the fires first tore through the Jenolan area, she went to see the survivors as soon as possible, which she was able to do by foot. On the first day, she and other park officers found no life among the ashes — only dead possums.
“I sort of felt that my whole life’s work was going up in smoke,” she said. “You could smell dead animals everywhere.”
Later, though, the officials found 16 rock wallabies sheltering at a waterfall. Some of the wallabies had not eaten in days.
“I think at least a third has survived,” Jones said of the wallaby population in the Jenolan area, “but we don’t know how many we have lost.”
The Parks and Wildlife Service staff began considering how it could get food to the survivors. Helicopters that could be employed to drop sustenance were being used to fight fires in other parts of the country.
Pressure mounted to help the animals after an advocacy group, the Friends of the Brush-Tailed Rock-Wallaby, wrote a letter to Matt Kean, the state environment minister. Three weeks after the fires, the food drops began.
In addition to carrots and sweet potatoes, the helicopter is dropping water. The first time Jones visited the area, she brought about 50 gallons. In one night, the animals drank almost all of it.
There was almost no land untouched by fire for 25 miles, Jones said. “You always think that the animals will just move to the nearest bit of unburned bush land,” she said, “but where is it?”