Cuddly Australian icons such as kangaroos and koalas have been “devastated” by the bushfires that have razed swathes of native habitat and destroyed animal shelters, wildlife experts said Tuesday.
As the human toll climbed above 170, animal rescue workers said the cost to the region’s unique wildlife may never be known.
“We’re not seeing a lot of injured animals yet because the fires were so hot the animals were just killed on the spot,” Wildlife Protection Association of Australia president Pat O’Brien told AFP.
“We do know that a lot of the wildlife carers in that area have lost their homes and facilities and in some cases they have lost their lives.”
He said rare and endangered animals unique to the region northeast of the city of Melbourne, such as the ground-dwelling lyrebird, which is famous for its vocal mimicry, had little chance of escape from the flames.
“It’s just absolutely horrific. A lot of the wildlife that is endemic to that area is endangered, like the lyrebirds. There’s no way they could have escaped because the fires were just too fast,” he said.
Fanned by strong winds and fed by a highly combustible fuel of tinder-dry ground litter and eucalyptus trees oozing flammable natural oils, the fires leapt gullies and creeks and climbed hillsides at terrifying speeds.
“The koalas in those trees will be dead. Normally they would climb higher to escape a fire but with this fire whole trees were going at once,” O’Brien said.
Native animal care group Wildlife Victoria said on its website that at least two of its animal shelters had been destroyed in the fires which have burned out an area larger than Luxembourg since Saturday.
“Wildlife rescuers are preparing for one of the largest operations in our history once we can safely enter the fire grounds,” it said.
The Royal Society for the Protection of Animals (RSPCA) said it was bracing for an influx of burnt and wounded animals.
RSPCA chief executive Maria Mercurio said that as the areas razed by bushfire open up, the full brunt of the impact on native animals will become clearer.
She said RSPCA shelters and inspectors have been working around the clock to be ready to provide emergency assistance.
“Some of our regional shelters have been assisting with emergency accommodation since Saturday,” she said.
Many animals which managed to survive the fires have been without food or water since the weekend.
“Wombats would have survived the fire in their burrows but when they come out there’ll be nothing to eat, so they’ll just die a slow death,” O’Brien said.
“It will be ages before we can get into some of these affected areas and by the time we do that any of the injured animals will be dead anyway.”
Firefighters and survivors said the blaze moved with frightening speed and many of the victims were burned alive in their cars as they tried to flee.
“I don’t think you can compare it to other fires. The sheer intensity and speed it travelled was amazing,” volunteer firefighter Tim Bennett said.