It started with a tweet from Barack Obama.
As the Black Summer bushfires raged across Australia, and with reports of a terrible wildlife death toll, the former US president highlighted the work of aid agencies including animal rescue group WIRES.
Warning: this story contains an image that readers may find distressing.
An electronic billboard promoting WIRES appeared in Times Square, while a group in the UK produced koala buttons urging people to donate.
Television host Ellen DeGeneres, Formula 1 world champion Lewis Hamilton, and Australian Formula 1 star Daniel Ricciardo were among those who backed the fundraising campaigns, while British food critic Tom Parker Bowles raised nearly half a million dollars.
An early estimate suggested a billion animals were killed.
Will the donations flooding in for animal rescue groups save Australia’s wildlife from the next megafire?
Donations came from everywhere
As the cash rolled in from the US, Japan, Europe and China, WIRES volunteers were dealing with an unprecedented number of calls for help.
Eighty-seven thousand came through in the weeks after the fires and many wildlife carers were overwhelmed with the enormity of the job.
WIRES CEO Leanne Taylor said it was a chaotic period because the fires burnt over a vast area, all at the same time.
As the emergency passed, rescue groups had time to reflect on what had happened.
The environmental toll from the fires was enormous.
Twenty per cent of Australian forests were lost.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) estimated the number of animals killed or displaced at close to 3 billion: 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs.
But as the death toll went up so did the fundraising tally.
WIRES received $90 million and the WWF $45 million; $18 million went to the Wildlife Victoria Bushfire Appeal and $15 million to the RSPCA.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital received $8 million while several smaller groups raised more than a million dollars each.
Ms Taylor said it was a huge increase in funding for the sector.
A national approach
Up until now, animal rescue has been handled by a variety of state-based, mostly volunteer organisations, but WIRES is spreading its wings and working with other organisations to improve their capacity to rescue and care for wildlife.
Now the largest wildlife rescue organisation in Australia, WIRES has just announced it will spend $35 million on rescue, rehabilitation and recovery.
Ms Taylor said WIRES would team up with other organisations to support volunteer carers around the country.
“We’re working with various agencies, vets, governments and local councils to improve those relationships, so we can provide better resources through the funding we received, and provide resources to licensed carers and rehabilitation groups nationally.”
That includes the Animal Rescue Cooperative (ARC), which is setting up 23 hubs for volunteers and other agencies that are working with threatened species.
Race to save growing number of threatened species
Hundreds of species, even some that were once common, were pushed closer to extinction as a result of the devastating bushfires.
That includes four birds, three reptile species and one mammal.
Among a raft of grants WIRES has handed out is $1.6 million to the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) for a project to save the Kangaroo Island dunnart from extinction.
The creature was already on the precipice when fires devastated 95 per cent of its habitat.
AWC CEO Tim Allard said action was needed now.
The project will initially secure a small section of the remaining habitat from predators and then rapidly expand the area.
It is hoped the project will also help populations of other threatened species like the southern brown bandicoot, the glossy black cockatoo, the southern emu wren, the Kangaroo Island short-beaked echidna, the heath goanna and the Bassian thrush.
In Queensland, WIRES is contributing to projects aimed at saving another of Australia’s most endangered mammals — the rare northern bettong.
There are fewer than 1,000 of the macropods left in the world and they are important because they distribute plants and fungi in the environment.
AWC will put a fence around the Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary in north Queensland in an effort to provide a safe haven.
“The Mount Zero-Taravale Wildlife Sanctuary is known to have supported a population of northern bettongs that sadly went extinct [there] before we purchased the property,” Mr Allard said.
New wildlife hospitals
With so many animals injured in the Black Summer fires, building new and better wildlife hospitals is a priority.
WIRES provided more that $300,000 for an extension to the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital in southern Queensland.
That money will provide increased capacity for triage, examination and treatment, and to treat animals for extended periods of time.
More than 1,500 native animals were admitted there from November to January — about 100 animals a day at the peak of the bushfires.
Wildlife volunteer Amy Wregg was working with a trauma care group at the showgrounds at Canungra during that period.
A lot of animals were euthanased on the fireground as most would not have recovered from their injuries, even with hospital care, and there were often long delays for carers to get into burnt areas.
“It took a few days to access the fireground as we had to get clearance from the Queensland fire service to do our ‘black walks,'” Ms Wregg said.
Despite the challenges, she wants to focus on the successes and is hopeful she can make a difference.
“We ended up rescuing 19 koalas just from from one ridge,” Ms Wregg said.
“We have to be hopeful; if you’re not, you’ve got nothing else to go for.”
WIRES also funded a new animal ambulance that will respond to animal emergencies in the region.
Michael Pyne, senior vet at the Currumbin Wildlife Hospital, believes the task of saving Australia’s unique wildlife is achievable.
“I think the will is there … the know-how is there. It’s really about finding the dollars to be able to make it happen,” he said.
Enormous support for saving koalas
Another animal hospital on the east coast got a tremendous injection of funds.
The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital launched a Go-Fund Me campaign during the fires, hoping to raise $25,000, but in the end that climbed to $8 million.
Sue Ashton, president of Koala Conservation Australia, said they were amazed by the response.
But like the Celeste Barber campaign that raised $51 million for the NSW Rural Fire Service, there are strict Go-Fund Me limitations on how that money can be spent.
The hospital has launched a major partnership with the Taronga Conservation Society Australia, the Australian Museum and the University of Sydney to start breeding and replacing koalas in areas devastated by the fires.
It is also funding 140 drinking stations in critical habitat across several states, something other groups like WIRES are also funding.
A daunting task ahead
Ms Taylor said that despite the tragic impact of the fires, there had never been this much money available to support wildlife carers.
“So those outcomes for hundreds of thousands of animals that come into care each year will be vastly improved.”
The task of saving Australia’s unique wildlife has never been so big.
The WWF has launched an even more ambitious plan to raise $300 million over 10 years to protect wildlife and restore habitat.
But WWF’s Darren Grover said the task was getting more difficult, not less.