The true extent of damage to wildlife populations following fires around the region may never really be known, according to an expert in wildlife health.
Dr Andrew Peters from the Wagga campus of Charles Sturt University is spearheading an operation to restore habitats in the Snowy Valleys that have been lost or impacted by bushfires.
"The main issues is this has been unprecedented, in scale and in intensity," Dr Peters said.
"We just don't know what the long term effects will be and it's hard for us to know what's actually been lost."
Given the size and length of the bushfire season across the state and the nation, Dr Peters believes it is justified to expect the worst for many species.
"In an intense burn like we've seen, most animals will die," he said.
"Some get away and some find refuge in whatever small, unburned vegetation there is - so that might be wet gullies or rocky outcrops.
"There would be large populations that have died out, the area burnt occupies most of their range."
With the persistence of the drought leading into the fire season though, Dr Peters is not optimistic for a quick recovery of either flora or fauna.
"2019 was the hottest and direst year on record, so those normal refuges don't exist any more," he said.
While images circulate online of native animals being rescued from the firezones, Dr Peters said his concern continues to be for the less visible animals.
"There are animals that have survived, echidnas for example are good survivors," he said.
"The little bush birds, the small mammals, gliders, and marsupials that get around on the ground, the reptiles and frogs, we just don't know how many have been lost and they all play a very important role in the ecosystem.
"Glossy black cockatoos, spotted tail quolls, koalas, the impact is enormous.
"The ones people are seeing are the survivors, they're the ones that have made it out."
Dr Peters estimates that at least 20 types of birds will have copped the brunt of the fire damage, given the size and range of the fires.
As part of the recovery effort, Dr Peters has been working with landholders and fellow scientists to set up wildlife recovery zones in the fire-affected areas.
Over the next few weeks, Dr Peters is aiming to secure upwards of $4000 in funding that will be used to create predator exclusion areas, an entice vulnerable species back to the land.
"Bushfires are not the only challenges these animals are facing, they're experiencing [hardships] from cats and foxes, the changing climate is causing food insecurity and habitat loss, and a lot of them are being hit by diseases," Dr Peters said.
"We still don't know the best approach, but we do know we need to support them. Can you imagine Australia without these animals? It's what we love about the country, is that what we really want? Perhaps this will help us to wake up and care for what we have."
But even as the preservation and recovery efforts begin, Dr Peters fears the scale will prove far too enormous.
"Over the next few months, surveys will be done of the areas that have been affected," he said.
"But the vast majority of NSW has been hit, it's just so huge the resources aren't there to get a full survey of everything and everywhere.
Amid the excruciating stories of species decline, however, Dr Peters said there had been a number of heartwarming stories to emerge from the bushfires.
With regard to the number of stories circulating online about animals helping each other, during the crisis, he admitted there was some validity.
"It might not be that wombats have herded other animals to safety, we don't have evidence for that, but we do know that the burrows are important refuges for all sorts of animals," he said.
"They have been known to tolerate their neighbours more during crisis times. With insects, prey and predators have been known to behave differently toward each other when they are under threat together."
As residents return to their fire-affected communities, Dr Peters said there is a chance they may come across injured wildlife.
In that event, he recommends people follow several steps to help them:
- Take care of your own safety: injured wild animals are afraid and sometimes in a lot of pain and this means they can act unpredictably and with aggression. Never handle bats unless you are vaccinated recently against rabies.
- Get the animal checked by a vet (many local vets will do this for you) or an experienced wildlife carer. Burn injuries are very hard to assess and expertise and experience is critical to making the right decision.
- If you feel comfortable to transport the animal to a vet or carer, pick it up using a thick towel and place it in a box, cat carry cage (covered with a towel), pillow case or doona cover, then place it in a dark place at room temperature (e.g. your boot) and transport it to a vet or carer as soon as possible.
- Avoid over-handling or inspecting the animal as it can cause life-threatening stress and risks injury to the animal and yourself. Animals that look calm are often in extreme pain and can still become very stressed by the presence of people or other animals.
- Contact your local vet or WIRES to organise to drop off the animal or to get it checked. Make sure your provide accurate details as to where the animal was found because if it survives it will need to be returned as close as possible to that site.
- Be realistic about the prospects for injured wildlife. Burn injuries are extremely serious and often take several weeks to fully develop. Very few wild animals with burns will survive in the wild, even after treatment, and because of the extreme chronic pain associated with burns it is almost always more humane to euthanise these animals to end their suffering.
More information provided at the Wildlife Support - Dunns Road Fires facebook page.