Autumn 2002
Fires Devastate Park Fauna,


but “not the ultimate disaster”

say NPWS

National Park’s rangers, veterinarians and volunteers from both WIRES and Sydney Metropolitan wildlife services braced themselves in vain for an onslaught of injured fauna in the wake of the New South Wales bushfires. Major fires burned in the Hawkesbury region, the Blue Mountains National Park, Wollondilly, Shoalhaven, Illawarra, Wingecarribee, Yengo National Park, the Royal National Park and Heathcote Reserve. The mere handful of animals rescued dashed the hopes of many, with WIRES taking in only 200 casualties during the fires – from Christmas Day until the crisis was officially declared over on January 14. At the time of going to press, 30 fires continue to burn in NSW.


Please click on thumbnails to enlarge

In good hands: this rescued Pygmy Possum was found in Helensburgh, in Sydney’s south, after the fires.

After the 1994 bushfires, from which many National Parks were still recovering, it was feared that the outlook for native fauna was bleak. Apart from fire waves, fauna had to contend with competition from livestock as many fences were destroyed during the fires, as well as competition from feral animals.


“We don’t know how animal life will cope with repeated fires,” said Debbie Andrew, a Project Officer for National Parks and Wildlife Services. The risk of a high fire frequency is that seed stock in natural habitats can be depleted, causing a change in plant species to an area.


In spite of the destruction of habitat and potential devastation of populations, National Parks and Wildlife Services are not as alarmed as initial media reports suggested, as the parks have already begun to regenerate. Andrew was involved in a fauna survey conducted two years after the 1994 bushfire crisis. “After ’94 we were seeing some good recovery,” she said, adding that most recorded species of the Royal National Park had been found after the fires, and those that had not “were species that are difficult to find anyway”.


“After bushfires, small mammal fauna tend to recover well, whereas possum fauna take a bit longer. The canopy tends to be very badly affected. We had a population of Greater Gliders but none have been found since the fires,” she said.


Ms Andrew admits that we are not in a position to fully understand the impact of the recent fires yet. “Australian fauna has evolved with fire for thousands of years,” she says. “The question is; are we changing the frequency of those fires? It’s amazing that animals live through it at all. That’s the mystery we’re working out.”


A Ringtail Possum, found at the side of a road, also in Helensburgh region.
Photos courtesy of WIRES.

Dr Rob Close, a lecturer in biology at the University of Western Sydney, is involved in a study of a population of over 60 koalas in the Campbelltown area in western Sydney. He initially expected devastation, but found that even animals in badly burned areas survived the blaze. “They’re not in very good shape, but that is because of a lack of available food, rather than a direct effect of the fires,” said Dr Close. In addition to tagged study animals, Dr Close has sited several untagged animals that have moved into the area after the fires.


“We had one animal in a very badly burned area,” he said. “To our surprise, she and her very large cub survived.” In fact she was found in the single tree with green upper leaves in the area, making the koala research team consider the possibility that the selected home ranges of females incorporate less fire prone areas.


Vulnerable or endangered populations are the main concern after these fires. Koala populations in the Blue Mountains were “just beginning to build up again”, said Dr Close, but would have suffered considerably. “Yengo National Park and the Avon Dam area are also very badly affected, though we just don’t know if animals have survived by taking shelter in gorges and wet valleys,” said Dr Close.


National Parks and Wildlife have come under fire over recent plans to cull the feral deer population in the Royal National Park in the wake of the fires, in order to reduce competition between native and introduced fauna over surviving food sources. The park’s Rusa deer population, introduced from Indonesia over 100 years ago, has grown to almost 3,000.


The Director-General of National Parks and Wildlife Services, Mr. Brian Gilligan, called for submissions about the proposed deer control program earlier this year. “We have an obligation to the native animals that are going to be struggling for food to do something about the competition from the deer,” Mr. Gilligan told The Sydney Morning Herald. If approved, hundreds of feral deer will be destroyed by ground shooters in the park. Submissions closed on January 31.



This article is reprinted from the February Issue of “The Veterinarian” and is done so with their kind permission and that of the author.


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