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Located just 13.5km off the South Australia coastline, Kangaroo Island suffered similar levels of destruction with 96% of the world-renowned Flinders Chase National Park burnt to the ground. Home to a wide variety of endangered species including the Kangaroo Island dunnart – a carnivorous marsupial small enough to fit in the palm of your hand – the loss of this natural habitat and the surrounding bushland properties has been a key concern for locals on the island. Having operated for the previous four years, Not-for-Profit charity "Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife" were instantly pushed to a new level of urgency armed with a pair of Nissan Navara utes.
Working on privately-owned bushland properties alongside passionate landholders to protect Australian threatened wildlife species, the outcome of the bushfires prompted their urgent action to help guard these animals from the risk of extinction as all but one of the long-term monitoring sites were decimated during the crisis.
Island resident and team leader Heidi Groffen has led the charge throughout what has been one of the most heartbreaking experiences of her life.
"It's very hard to understand what it's like when your entire island is under evacuation. When you have family and children, leaving your home to reach the fire safety zones is pretty daunting and we personally evacuated three times from our home last summer. Ours was thankfully untouched and safe, but for those who did evacuate and weren't able to go back it was a very devastating time and one of our team members unfortunately lost everything".
Heidi's despair for the outcome of the bushfires extends to the other residents of the island.
"It was incredibly tough for ecologists like us. After working in this bushland for a number of years to protect these endangered species, to look back at the western end of the island that burned and know that thousands of species had vanished was upsetting. Many of the local landholders who we'd built strong relationships with over the years had also lost everything along with the bushland that they love and have worked so hard to protect. The whole situation was very difficult".
Many other species such as the Southern brown bandicoot, Kangaroo Island echidna, Western whipbird, bassian thrush and the Southern emu wren, to name just a few, also clung on to survival in the few pockets of untouched bushland that existed, with many other key areas left without standing vegetation to provide shelter or food for survivors.
"Australian native wildlife is really born and bred to deal with bushfire crises, but these fires were perpetuated by a long dry period and windy conditions which caused it to burn bigger and more ferocious than the regular fires we've seen in the past," Groffen adds, "much of the ground vegetation has been burnt out and the earth is now open and charred, leaving feral cats able to hunt the remaining small animals who have nowhere to stay anymore".
Laying traps across the island, Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife have been working hard to remove the feline threat to these small defenceless marsupials by using a collection of cage traps.
With the support of local South Australia dealership Southern Vales, the charity have been supported by two dual-cab Nissan Navara 4WD models since March. Providing the team with the means to transport equipment including these traps, native plants for revegetation, shelter tunnels and firefighting units. Living up to their tough reputation, the vehicles have given the team the confidence to travel safely through the harsh arid environment that remains.
"A lot of the work takes place away from any accommodation. Over 90 homes were lost in our key work areas, making camping the only way to stop overnight. Our office is 100km away from the western end of the island, so having the vehicles enabled the team to be able to get out there every day to complete this essential conservation work".
While the recovery will take years and many other species have been lost forever, the passionate work of the Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife is set to continue at a ferocious pace. With the support of the federal government the team have been able to conduct a range of biodiversity surveys across 20 fauna sites within the fire grounds, focused on understanding the recovery of surviving wildlife species and to help protect the remaining unburnt terrain heading into the next bushfire season.
One of these has included an insect survey in an area which was thankfully largely unburnt. Focused on understanding the local ecosystem, the studies will provide a greater understanding of the endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart's food sources and deliver invaluable information to support the species' repopulation.
But for those considering a visit back to Kangaroo Island, Groffen adds one final comment, "the island is regenerating now and while parts will take many years to return to how it was, there is a real beauty in a recovering landscape. Despite the blackened and charred areas, there is a whole lot of plant re-growth and we're starting to see some of the native species return".
"This has definitely brought the community together. Everybody helps everyone out and we have a lot of new projects that have been created post-fire through the different conservation groups on the island. Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife is just one of those, but none of this would be possible without our close community and we look forward to welcoming you back to our incredible island in the near future".
To continue to follow the team's great work, updates and news are regularly posted to the team's social media pages.