On 23 January 2020, the world changed for James Fitzgerald when a megafire tore through his wildlife haven on Ngarigo country in southern New South Wales (NSW). He lost his home and life’s work.
In a double tragedy, the water bomber fighting to protect Two Thumbs Wildlife Trust Sanctuary crashed, killing all three US crew, Captain Ian McBeth, First Officer Paul Hudson, and flight engineer Rick DeMorgan Junior.
The scale of devastation and enormity of loss was overwhelming.
Most native animals perished and those that survived were struggling with no food or shelter. An estimated 80% of koalas were lost from this important population—one of only two that is recovering in the state.
In the immediate aftermath, we deployed IFAW x UniSC koala detection dog Bear to help find koala survivors.
IFAW shares James’ vision to restore this once thriving wildlife sanctuary back to its former glory and to leave a legacy for the brave firefighters who lost their lives.
The road to recovery—from the ground up
Two Thumbs was a ghost forest after the fires—a blackened and eerily silent wasteland.
Since then, IFAW and our friends Habitat Innovation and Management have been bringing the sanctuary back to life. We’ve been providing new homes for wildlife, planting native grasses and trees, and undertaking soil erosion control and fencing to aid landscape recovery.
A hollow housing crisis
Thousands of old hollow-bearing trees that many animals rely on were destroyed. Many Australian mammals, birds, reptiles, and frogs are reliant on these natural formations for nests, roosts, den sites, and predation protection.
As a result, surviving hollow-dependent animals were left homeless. The forest floor was charred and ground-dwelling animals like dunnarts, antechinuses, echidnas, and reptiles also lost their homes.
Small hollows for feathertail gliders and pygmy possums take over 100 years to form naturally. Larger hollows for glossy black cockatoos, forest owls, and greater gliders can take up to 400 years or more to form.
Without hollows, many Australian species cannot raise their young and repopulate.
The animals of Two Thumbs can’t wait for nature to take its course. This is why IFAW is giving nature a helping hand by installing innovative, ready-to-move-in Habitat modular nest boxes.
These aren’t run-of-the-mill timber nest boxes. They have been cleverly designed to mimic natural hollows. They are forever homes for wildlife. They come in different sizes, uniquely designed for creatures great and small. Some can even house different non-competing species such as birds and microbats who would naturally co-habit in the same tree.
We prioritised installing boxes in areas where we sighted gliders and birds. An endangered greater glider was spotted on the first night of our initial survey, which was a promising sign.
The team also carved out natural hollows to provide homes for smaller animals. This is done by cutting dead branches and utilising internal hollows rather than cutting into the tree trunk, retaining its integrity.
They are already providing a much-needed lifeline for many animals including three species of glider, crimson rosellas, and possums. Within weeks, families of Krefft’s gliders had set up home. Proof that if you build, they will come.
Innovative wildlife dens
We’ve also set up homes for ground-dwelling animals such as echidnas and small marsupials including dunnarts, antechinus, and even spotted-tail quolls, which have been sighted in the region.
In a world-first innovation, we installed 20 of these Habitat marsupial dens. The bespoke dens look like up-turned mini-submarines with fin-shaped air vents. They even have a ‘mezzanine’ level for smaller critters to take refuge off the ground from predators. We covered them with rocks, sticks, and branches for camouflage and insulation.
Within days, a host of different animals came to inspect the new digs, including echidnas, a Cunningham’s skink, brushtail possums, antechinuses, and a common dunnart. —An eastern pygmy possum, which is a threatened species —also showed interest.
Wombats even wanted to join the house party, but sadly their butts were too big to fit—though that didn’t stop one particularly persistent wombat from returning night after night in the hope of squeezing in!
Raptor platforms in the sky
Every raptor nesting site was also destroyed by the blazes.
In a bid to attract these important apex predator birds, we constructed five raptor nesting platforms. Mimicking how raptors like wedge-tailed eagles, little eagles, and brown falcons build their nests in nature, we took the time to pick the right tree in the right location and used dead branches to construct a large platform with easy fly-in access (and a priceless view).
The work doesn’t stop here
As we approach the fourth anniversary of that dark day, we are buoyed by the positive progress already made to recover the landscape and promote the return of native wildlife. While there is still much to be done, the recovery efforts give us hope as we look to further restore and protect this very special sanctuary and the people and animals that call it home.
The hollow deficit at Two Thumbs is indicative of the larger housing crisis Australian wildlife is facing. The Black Summer dealt a deadly blow to the already dwindling number of suitable trees left for animals to live in. Millions of old-growth trees were burned, along with their inhabitants.
When old hollow-bearing trees are burned or cut down, they won’t regrow in our lifetimes. Many animals depend on these trees, including about 40 threatened species like the glossy black cockatoo and greater glider.
We cannot continue on this path, particularly with climate change fueling more frequent and intense fires. We need to stop cutting down native old-growth trees and do everything we can to protect our forests and the animals that call them home.
Quick facts about our recovery work
- 125 nest boxes installed, including 20 multi-species boxes
- 20 natural hollows carved
- 20 marsupial dens installed
- 5 raptor platforms constructed
- 2,000 native grasses and trees planted
- 16 different species have checked out new digs so far
Up to 10,000 hollow-bearing trees on Two Thumbs were burned. Our goal is to replace as many as we can to fill the void left by the fires while the bush takes time to naturally recover. We have so far installed 125 nest boxes and have many more to go. Can you help?
Koala Habitat Protection with Detection Dogs - AustraliaIn Australia, detection dogs are koalas’ best friend
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