FOOD from the heavens for the survivors in the bush:

The helicopter known as the Squirrel is typically used to douse fires and shoot pests. But these days it has a new mission : scattering tons of carrots and sweet potatoes in the Australian state of New South Wales for threatened wallabies on the brink of starvation.

A long-running drought had already drastically-reduced the marsupials food supply. Then came the bush fires that devastated southeastern Australia in recent months. 

''There was absolutely nothing left,'' said Michaela Jones, a senior project officer at the National Parks and Wildlife Service in New South Wales.

Some experts have estimated that more than a billion animals were lost in the fires that began burning in July and eventually blackened millions of acres. For threatened species like bush-tailed rock-wallabies, conservationists have rushed to figure out ways to support local populations.

Feeding wildlife runs against the usual advice, said Trent Forge, threatened species project officer at the National Parks and Wild Life Service.

But after the fires robbed the wallabies of their central foraging grounds, wildlife officials began a mission in January to drop food every 10 to 14 days in two valleys of Wollemi National Park.

''Those are unique circumstances,'' Mr. Forge said, adding that about 80% of the bush-tailed rock wallaby's habitat had been affected by the fires. ''We need to give those survivors a helping hand, if we are to conserve the species as a whole.''

Mr. Jones has looked after the wallabies since 1999, and over those years, the population has grown from eight to 110.

When the fires first tore through the Jenolan Karst Conservation reserve in New South Wales, she went to see the survivors as soon as possible, where she was able to do by foot. on the first day, she and other park officers found no life among the ashes   -only dead possums.

''I sort of felt that my whole life working was going up in smoke,'' she said. ''You could smell dead animals everywhere.''

Later though, the officials found 16 rock wallabies sheltering at a waterfall. Some of the wallabies had not eaten for days.
''I think at least a third have survived, Ms. Jones said at the Wallaby population in Jenolan area, ''but we don't know how many we have lost.'' 

The parks and the wildlife staff began considering how they could get food to the survivors. Helicopters that could be used to drop supplies were being used to fight fires in other parts of the country.

Pressure mounted to help the animals after an advocacy group, the Friends of the  Brush-Tailed Rock-Wallaby, wrote a letter to Matt Kean, the state environment minister. Three weeks after the fires ended, the food drops began.

In addition to the carrots and sweet potatoes, the helicopter is dropping water. the first time Ms. Jones visited the area, she brought about 50 gallons. In one night, the animals drank almost all of it.

''You always think that the animals will just move to the nearest bot of unburned bush land - but where is it?'' she said, adding that there was almost no land untouched by fire for 25 miles.

The World Students Society thanks author Mathew Abbott.


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