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Drought sparks desperate and extreme behaviour for native animals

Lucas Forbes, Saturday October 5, 2019 - 08:46 EST
Audience submitted image
Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary are using watering points like this one to keep wildlife alive in the hotter months. - Audience submitted

Ecologists say kangaroos have resorted to eating the stomachs and intestines of dead kangaroos in a desperate attempt to find plant matter, due to the drought.

The severity of the drought has some ecologists worried that, while some smaller native species may struggle through, overabundant species such as larger kangaroos are dying in their millions.

Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary is bracing for a hot summer and is even providing watering points for native animals such as yellow-footed rock wallabies, which are classified as near threatened.

Manager Vicki-Lee Wilson said some of their watering points have dried up for the first time since records began.

"We've got several waterholes that we thought were permanent, which have now been dry for a year and a half," she said.

"What water is left in waterholes is really putrid, so it's just terrible."

Ecologist Harald Eaman helped Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary establish the watering points.

He said larger kangaroo species, such as the eastern grey, had benefitted from colonisation because it meant more watering points, like agricultural dams, were available in good years combined with fewer natural predators.

However, he said that also meant that in drought years large numbers of kangaroos starved to death.

While Mr Eaman was confident large kangaroo species would still have enough numbers to bounce back once the drought is over, he was worried smaller native species might not fare so well.

"What I can say is that there are a number of wildlife species, particularly frogs in the Flinders Ranges, for instance, that look like they've gone down an enormous amount," he said.

"It's not out of the ordinary for species to reduce in number, and it's probably not out of the ordinary for them to disappear from some locations where they lived before.

"But it's when they can no longer be found over vast tracts of land where they lived before, that's when it becomes an issue."

'Millions of roos starving to death'

Independent ecologist John Read said the prolonged drought was causing death on an epic scale.

"We have seen a huge die-off of kangaroos over the past 12 months," Dr Read said.

"So throughout central Australia, millions of kangaroos basically starved to death and people would have seen them dying on the roads and off the roads."

University of New South Wales ecologist Katherine Moseby said she had seen kangaroos becoming desperate for food across the country.

"Last summer, we had a massive die-off of kangaroos in all the areas where I worked in the arid zones but, in particular, some of the areas in the Flinders Ranges," Dr Moseby said.

"We were seeing them going into the public toilets and eating toilet paper.

"We're even witnessing them eating the stomachs of dead kangaroos on the side of the road, trying to get some nutrition out of the corpses. It was really quite upsetting and quite horrible to watch."

Mr Eaman said prior to colonisation kangaroo numbers would be kept under control in non-drought years by dingoes and hunting from first Australians.

However, without either of those two pressures, and an abundance of stock watering points due to pastoralism, he said some larger species of kangaroo were overabundant, resulting in large die-offs in drought years.

Centuries-old plants also dying

It's not just animals that are suffering, but plants as well.

Dr Read said he had seen centuries-old acacia, pine and sandalwood trees dying in South Australia during a heatwave.

"Some of them live for hundreds and hundreds years and at the beginning of this year a lot of them died, which is really quite shocking," Dr Read said.

Dr Read said while plants dying due to heat stress in drought was nothing new, he and other scientists were worried about how climate change was affecting the drought and Australia's landscape.

"A lot of people, including myself, are really quite concerned that what we're seeing in recent years is out of the ordinary," he said.

"Some of these trees have been around for 500, 600 years and they should live for a lot longer too.

"When they're dying it indicates conditions are as extreme as they have been for the past several hundred years.

"It really does reinforce the fact that we're sort of in uncharted waters now."

Drought and flood

While kangaroos are struggling with the drought in the eastern states, .

Mr Eaman said this was simply due to Western Australia being less drought affected than some of the other states.

"This is such a simple thing, Australia is 5,000km across. What would you expect on two opposite ends?" he said.

"Ecologically, kangaroos in Western Australia and eastern Australia are not connected."

West Australian farmers recently .

But now good growing conditions and plenty of food on the ground has meant kangaroo numbers can increase, while millions starve in the eastern states, according to Mr Eaman.

He said Australia's climate was cyclical but it was becoming harder for some smaller species to survive, while some species like larger kangaroos were thriving.

"The general background for Australia's ecological cycles, particularly the less climatically stable areas, there are booms and busts," he said.

"But the problem now is that the depths of the busts are getting deeper, so the droughts are deepening and lengthening.

"There are about 230 species of frog and about 25 to 30 per cent of them are really in trouble with the climate crisis.

"In fact, I would say that's probably an understatement."

Growing up in drought

Despite the tough conditions, one yellow-footed rock wallaby is going strong.

Cato was picked up and dropped by an eagle early in life, and was nursed back to health by Vicki-Lee Wilson and her partner and Arkaroola Wilderness Sanctuary director Doug Sprigg.

Since then, the yellow-footed rock wallaby had been visiting the couple for extra food.

However, Ms Wilson said she had noticed Cato seemed to be "leaving the nest" and growing more independent.

"He's maturing now, so he's definitely finding some girls and disappearing with those," she said.

"He actually went missing for two weeks and we were a little bit worried, but he turned up with a female so he's definitely getting out there and turning into the wild boy that he should be.

"But then he will still come in and visit for a while. He comes up and sits on our laps, but he gets a little bit more nervous than he used to be."


© ABC 2019

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