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The Australian Wildfires' Devastating Impact On Wildlife


In Australia, catastrophic wildfires continue to burn across the country and are showing no signs of slowing down. The destruction has been both terrifying and devastating for humans and animals alike.


ANNA HEUSLER: Poor little thing.

MCCAMMON: In this widely shared video, a compassionate biker shares her water bottle with a koala.


HEUSLER: Has anyone got any more? He's so thirsty.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Gundi Rhoades is a veterinarian from Inverell, New South Wales, wrote about her experiences for the Sydney Morning Herald.

Welcome to the program.

GUNDI RHOADES: Yes. Hello. How are you?

MCCAMMON: Good. Thanks for talking with us. So people are bringing in wild animals for you to treat?

RHOADES: Yes, they do. People just find animals somewhere, either on their properties or just alongside the road. Lately we had a lot of koalas being brought in, which we have never had before. Just the fact that you can get close to a koala, which you can never get close to, that's new. They come down to look for water, and the creeks are dry. Our local river here is dry. So there's not a drop in the landscape. So I think most of them we don't even see. Most of them are just dead. The estimate is that 500 million animals died. They just can't get away. The kangaroos, the platypuses - you know, we had platypuses in this area. I think they're all gone because their habitat is gone. There's no water.

MCCAMMON: Those are just staggering numbers and devastating impact on the wild animals. But I understand there's also a broader impact on domestic animals, right? Farm animals, animals that people keep on their property.

RHOADES: Yes, there is. Most of the farmers here have destocked. So there's hardly any cattle left now because there's no feed. And most farmers have just completely destocked. But the ones that have remained here - we used to do a lot of fertility work, especially in horses. And we could have a mare. We would ultrasound them and say yes, everything is ready. And they still wouldn't get pregnant. The mare, they know when to shut down. And they just do not breed. And bulls, I've tested quite a number of bulls. They were fertile, you know, by semen tests. And then suddenly they become infertile. This just makes it really clear, you know, how there is a limit to where biology can actually exist.

MCCAMMON: So you're seeing both wild and domestic animals dying, becoming infertile...


MCCAMMON: ...Not being able to thrive. How much of this is directly because of the wildfires and how much of it is more broadly due to the longer term impacts of climate change, drought, extreme heat?

RHOADES: Yes, the wildfires create immediate disasters and immediate death. And the firefighters - you know, one poor lady, one of my clients, you know, she was so devastated when she came in because her son had been in the fire, you know, fighting in the fires. And she said after about six weeks he just had to come home. He could not do it anymore. And what got him was the screaming and the screeching of the koalas burning alive. You can't even fathom that. And then, you know, after the fire has gone, he would find, you know, all the little - all the koalas just burned to ashes, you know, curled up like babies. So the - the wildfires immediately kill. But this drought here has been going on for two years and that is killing things very slowly. It is unprecedented. The old farmers say they've never seen anything like it.

MCCAMMON: You said in your op-ed that you would like to invite Prime Minister Scott Morrison to see what life is like there in Inverell. What would you want to show him?

RHOADES: I would like to show him the desperation that the farmers here have, to have the direct experience like I have where I'm driving out to a farm and there is a hot wind going around me; and the topsoil is lifted up around me by another storm. And the hot wind in your face, you know? It's 40 degrees plus, so 100 degrees Fahrenheit roughly, you know? And you're standing in a hot storm in a parched landscape that is barren and absolutely void of animals, to have these animals come into the clinic and they die in front of your eyes and you can't do anything about it.

You know, I would like him to experience this because you cannot understand when you are sitting in an office to smell the dust and to see the soil that has turned from black to white because it's so parched. Once you experience it and you experience the desperation of the people here, I think then you start thinking, you know, maybe you open up your mind again and you think are we really want to be responsible for this. So yeah, I invite anybody, you know, any politician, anybody in higher positions, you know, to come and experience this.

MCCAMMON: Dr. Gundi Rhoades, veterinarian from New South Wales, thank you so much.

RHOADES: Thank you, Sarah. Thank you for talking to me.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAUL KELLY SONG, "PETRICHOR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.