Why South Australia is in desperate need for a native wildlife hospital

30 Aug 2022

The Ngurunderi people have a special word for Kangaroo Island, “Karta” the island of the dead, a Dreamtime name that would carry itself into tragic relevance during the 2020 Black Summer fires. Never in its history has the island experienced destruction on such a scale, with over 200,000 hectares of land burnt to a cinder.

Within six weeks, Kangaroo Island’s koala population would go from one of the biggest colonies in Australia to the species being listed as endangered, with an estimated 40,000 koalas having perished.

RSPCA South Australia, along with a number of other wildlife organisations, had been activated by PIRSA (Department of Primary Industries and Regions) to form a Wildlife Recovery Task Force. The quickly assembled groups of vets, animal care workers and volunteers were tasked with treating hundreds of injured koalas, flooding in from eucalyptus plantations and from farmland abutting the Flinders Chase National Park.

One of Australia’s most unique habitats was transformed into a fiery hellscape

As her team drove through the Hanson Bay Wildlife Sanctuary on KI’s badly hit western side, RSPCA Veterinarian Gayle Kothari recalled the shock of what they saw.

“This was such a difficult day. We were confronted by scenes of utter devastation;

kilometres of land were left blackened and charred. The sanctuary itself had also been destroyed by fire and so many animals lost their lives.

Others were simply beyond help, and the kindest thing we could do for them was to end their lives and end their suffering.

My heart breaks just thinking about those moments,” she said.

Without adequate infrastructure, Gayle’s team had no choice but to set up a makeshift triage and treatment space inside one of the few surviving sheds, rigging up a saline drip by throwing a rope over a roof beam.

At the main triage centre in Parndana, vets from several organisations debated the best methods for treating burns as they collaborated to save as many animals as possible, while members of the Australian Defence Force shovelled the charred remains of animals into mass graves.

Never had South Australia witnessed an ecological disaster of this severity and scale.

The disaster highlighted an urgent need for a wildlife hospital in South Australia

The report from the SA Wildlife and Habitat Bushfire Recovery Taskforce, established soon after Black Summer fires, noted that,

“Forty state and nationally threatened species (27 plants and 13 animals) had more than half of their known habitat destroyed on Kangaroo Island, and dozens of other listed species were affected by the fires at Cudlee Creek, Secret Rocks, Bunbury and Keilira.

“The koala population on Kangaroo Island (where it is an introduced species) is estimated to have been reduced from 50,000 to between 5000 and 10,000.”

Despite being so rich in native wildlife, South Australia is the only state in Australia that does not have a sizeable, purpose-built wildlife hospital, which is why a key recommendation of the report was to deliver a comprehensive wildlife hospital and emergency refuge for the state in order to mitigate the loss of native animals in future natural disasters.

Now two years on, as the state’s leading organisation in animal welfare, RSPCA South Australia has stepped forward to plan, build and equip a facility that will ensure an adequate response to disasters like the Black Summer fires.

Next time we will be prepared for the worst

The $27 million RSPCA South Australia Animal Care Campus will house the state’s first purpose-built, 24/7 wildlife hospital, along with domestic animal care facilities and animal welfare education facilities.

Leaning on the robust veterinary and animal care knowledge across the 38 facilities operated by RSPCA across the country, and in particular the highly successful RSPCA Wildlife Hospital in Wacol Queensland, RSPCA South Australia will implement best-practice design, facilities, and infrastructure to deliver the wildlife hospital on behalf of the state of South Australia.

Not only will the wildlife hospital revolutionise the care of native animals across South Australia, but it will also provide free, specialized 24/7 veterinary care to native wildlife and dozens of local wildlife rescue organisations across the state.

“If they stop operating, then wildlife is in trouble. So it’s very much about providing support to those groups where we can, recognising the important contribution they currently make to our native wildlife,” RSPCA SA Chief Executive Officer Paul Stevenson said.

In addition, the facility will provide veterinary students and practising vets the opportunity to build skills and experience in treating native animals.

Until South Australia’s very first wildlife hospital is established, RSPCA South Australia will proudly continue working with the state’s generous, skilled and kind-hearted wildlife rescue organisations, who dedicate their time and resources to saving and protecting our native wildlife.

Construction of the RSPCA South Australia Wildlife Hospital is expected to begin in October, with the opening scheduled for early 2024 – in time for RSPCA South Australia’s 150th anniversary in 2025.

To learn more or donate visit carecampus.rspcasa.org.au 

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