Like so many Australians the past few weeks have been emotional ones. Seeing from afar the Australian landscape on fire, with so many people losing their precious homes, the loss of innocent human life and over one billion animals who have perished. It’s been a lot to take in and somehow accept.
After the initial shock and a couple of teary days in disbelief I decided to start a GoFundMe campaign for the koalas, looking to raise $8000 for WIRES ( Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Service). I had never done anything like this before, however seeing so many photographs and footage of injured koalas with severe burns really pushed me to help and I put it out on my instagram.
Within 2 hours the goal of $8000 was reached. Watching each donation come in and the campaign tally climb was so emotional. There was a complete outpouring of emotion worldwide, as we were all feeling the same way and wanting to help.
The koala campaign just climbed and climbed and climbed, ….. and hit $100 000 in 24 hours! But it kept soaring, and the generosity kept pouring in…. currently the tally is $211 000 and still going.
I have never experienced anything like this and was reminded of the ‘power’ and ‘good’ of social media. People from all over the world who had never even visited Australia yet alone seen a koala in real life were generously giving.
Children asking their parents to empty their piggy banks of tooth fairy money and recent Christmas money to help the koalas. People donating $2, people donating $5000, so many people banding together to help the innocent wildlife in a drastic time of need.
If you were one of these people who donated, shared the information, commented or sent me a message of encouragement I would like to thank you. You made this happen!
I was so moved by the generosity of so many out there I decided that it was really important to be able to show you where your donations go. To use my ability as a photographer and gain access to see where the money ends up.
So, about 2 weeks ago I put my own work on hold and decided to hit the road and document the incredible volunteers who tirelessly help care for injured bushfire affected wildlife… and this is what I came across….
I flew to Sydney and then drove to a few different fire affected areas in New South Wales. I really didn’t know what to expect, though the kind people at WIRES put me in touch with volunteer animal carers who were nursing fire affected wildlife in their homes.
First up was visiting the small town of Bilpin in the Hawkesberry area of NSW. Fire swept through Bilpin and neighbouring areas just before Christmas and this fire earnt the reputation as the ‘Megablaze’. A fire so angry and so huge, there was no stopping it.
The megablaze was a ‘full canopy’ blaze, meaning the flames reached the canopy of the trees. You can tell a ‘full canopy blaze’ by looking at the canopy of the trees, if there are no leaves up top, then it was a high intensity canopy blaze, like the shot above. Nothing survives.
When I walked through here it was was completely silent, not even an insect or a bird call. The shutter of my camera lens sounded painfully loud.
Koalas and much of the bush wildlife are accustom to bushfires, their fur protects them from the fire and the koalas instincts tell them to climb to the top of the trees to escape the heat, however this fire was very different.
No animals can survive this kind of blaze. The heat is too extreme and there is nowhere to hide.
This is Morgan, he is an animal carer who had 3 koala in care when I visited. Above is a shot from the megablaze. Fireballs of evaporated eucalyptus oil from the trees were exploding in the air of the megablaze. The eucalyptus oil mixed with air makes for a heat which is so intense and all oxygen is sucked by the flames, killing everything in its path.
This is ‘Black Betty’, she is one of the koalas in Morgans care in his backyard near Bilpin. She is nine months old and even though she looks heathy and adorable, she is very unwell.
What makes caring for koalas so difficult is that their gut flora is very complicated. Their gut has to break down the eucalyptus leaves they eat – as the leaves are practically poisonous.
However when you treat a koala with antibiotics the very nature of antibiotics alters the gut flora. Making it difficult and precarious to bring a koala back to full health.
My next stop was Batemans Bay on the south coast of New South Wales. I drove over the Clyde Mountain while it was still smouldering and I really took in the vast devastation of the loss of habitat.
There were still fires blazing nearby and the smoke was heavy in the air and the smell so strong.
The sky was a hive of activity while I was in this region, with old sea planes and crop dusters frantically buzzing across the sky.
It felt like something from war time 1940s. Farmers volunteering to fight fires using their small planes and crop dusters, usually used for seeds and spraying land, instead filled with water to drop loads on to nearby fires to protect homes.
I was put in touch with these two remarkable people, Shelley and Dave, who I spent a couple of days with. I was really inspired by their dedication to the animals. They work full time, then volunteer for WIRES and help rescue injured wildlife. Dave is also a firefighter. They converted their 4WD into an animal ambulance of sorts, and when they receive text messages alerting them of animals in need they go to them to assist immediately.
If the world was ending, you would want these two by your side.
Dave and Shelley introduced me to Lorita and we went to her house for morning tea. Lorita is a volunteer kangaroo mum to orphan kangaroo joeys. Currently she is looking after 9 little ones who lost their mums in the bushfires and have been burnt themselves (that’s the blue bandages).
When mother kangaroos feel threatened in terms for their life, they will flee and toss their joeys out of their pouches in hope another mum with different circumstances will take their baby in. And that’s exactly what happened for these joeys when Lorita found them.
From what I observed being in Loritas company is that caring for orphan joeys is the equivalent to having 9 little human babies. Lots of bottles of milk, lots of cuddles, lots of emotional demands and lots of worry… not that she would ever complain.
Along with her husband Kevin, they converted their stables into a kangaroo nursery and care for injured baby kangaroos.
Then, when the fires hit in December their own house and the nursery became impacted by the fires and they had to evacuate, piling each joey into their car and fleeing.
Meeting people like Lorita is such a privilege. I felt so lucky to be able to come into her home and tell her story. An incredible selfless person with such a heart.
Then it was off to the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, north of Sydney. Here I was able to witness the care and rehabilitation of the koalas. I was a bit nervous about this visit and what I might see, however the atmosphere was filled with positivity and love for the koalas. It was so uplifting.
Hearing stories about koalas who had been caught in the fires and had been rescued by kind souls. Many of the burn victims who we all saw on the news were brought to this hospital for urgent medical care.
Everywhere I went on this trip there were similar conversations about the koalas – How devastating the loss of habitat is, how crucial it is to find fresh leaves for them to eat and how important it is to keep them wild while they are in care.
The carers try hard not to handle them too much, as it is so important to keep them wild. The orphan baby koalas need touch and cuddles, as they crave this from their mothers, however older koalas don’t actually like being held or touched, it stresses them out.
If there is anything to take away from this it is to remember when you visit koalas in the future, perhaps opt out of the photo nursing a koala.
The koala hospital has a treatment room, intensive care units which are both indoors and outdoors, and rehabilitation yards with trees for the koala to heal.
It is also open to the public. You can also adopt a koala here.
Then lastly as I drove up the east coast I visited ‘Friends of the Koala’ in Lismore, who have been actively involved with the aim to enhance and protect koala habitat for the past 30 years.
Habitat is vital for the survival of the koala population. Without trees they really won’t survive, it’s that simple.
I will continue to bring you more information about the koalas as time goes by. I’m very committed to this topic now and to them.
Thank you so much to all at WIRES and all the volunteers involved in caring for our wildlife.
P.S. – If you would like to donate to WIRES here is the link to my koala fund here, alternatively here are some other koala charities you may like to look into: