Thousands of pounds of sweet potatoes and carrots rained down from the sky over New South Wales last week in an effort to feed endangered species like the brush-tailed rock-wallaby whose food sources have been destroyed in Australia’s historic wildfire season.
The helicopter-aided effort was the most widespread food drop ever conducted for the endangered wallabies, NSW Environment Minister Matt Kean said in a statement Sunday.
“The wallabies typically survive the fire itself, but are then left stranded with limited natural food as the fire takes out the vegetation around their rocky habitat,” Kean said. “The wallabies were already under stress from the ongoing drought, making survival challenging for the wallabies without assistance.”
The aid for the brush-tailed rock-wallaby is the latest effort by Australian officials and conservationists to save what they can in one of the most diverse — and now devastated — biodiverse habitats in the world. An estimated 1 billion animals have been lost in the fires as scientists warn that species of mammals, birds, insects, fungi and plants may have been wiped out before they were even discovered.
Even animals that survive the fires are still at risk. If their habitat is gone, “it doesn’t matter,” Manu Saunders, a research fellow and insect ecologist at the University of New England in Armidale told The Washington Post. “They’ll die anyway.”
Amid scenes that aid workers have described as “apocalyptic,” burned landscapes are littered with animal carcasses. The toll the fires have taken on Australia’s wildlife remains unknown. The crisis, however, has pushed Prime Minister Scott Morrison to shift ever-so-slightly on his government’s approach to climate policy as the fires have killed 27 people and torched millions of acres of land equivalent to the size of South Carolina.
In a weekend interview with the Australian Broadcasting Company, Morrison acknowledged climate change’s impact on the bush fires, which have exacerbated the country’s hot, dry summers that lead to the tinderbox conditions.
“Climate change, it is the government’s policy — [it] has obviously impacted on the longer, hotter, drier, summer seasons. That’s the advice we’ve received. That is not contested. That is the position of the government, OK. Let there be no dispute about that; this is the point,” Morrison said.
Morrison, however, stopped short of calling for significant cuts to carbon emissions or taking action that some say could have a negative economic impact on the country’s energy sector. He tried to distance the government’s position on climate change from the climate skeptic, pro-coal stance held by both the center-right coalition of his Liberal Party and members of his own cabinet. His deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said in November that the only people linking the bush fires to climate change were “inner-city raving lunatics.”
The prime minister sought to defend the government’s handling of wildfire season preparedness, pushing back against concerns that he didn’t take enough initiative considering the dire warnings from local fire chiefs and Home Affairs, the federal agency that deals in disaster and emergency preparedness, that this would be an unprecedented fire season.
In a news conference later that day, Morrison said of Australian’s carbon emissions that “the government has set its targets, and we’re going to look to meet and beat those targets,” though he stressed in his ABC interview that he did not want to compromise jobs in the coal sector or seek to hike energy rates for consumers.
The prime minister said that he would call for a royal commission — a high-level government inquiry — into the wildfires.
Morrison did acknowledge his early, dismissive reactions to the fires. He was widely criticized for taking a vacation to Hawaii in December as wildfires raged at home and admitted to the ABC that was a mistake.
“In hindsight, I would not have taken that trip knowing what I know now,” he said.