On The Brink

101 East investigates the impact of the Australian bushfires
on Kangaroo Island's endangered species

Kangaroo Island was once crawling, buzzing and bursting with wildlife.

Nestled off the coast of South Australia, it’s home to an extraordinary diversity of species, many of which are found nowhere else.

But as bushfires raged across the country, half the island was razed to the ground.

The blaze was brutal, killing two people and destroying more than 50 homes.

Many of the animals couldn’t escape.

Now conservationists are in a desperate race to bring endangered species back from the brink of extinction.

“I think there is a bee in there…”

There have been no sightings of the rare green carpenter bee since the fires and there are concerns it could be gone for good.

The largest of their kind in southern Australia, they're known for the unique nests they carve out of dead wood.

“Not good if you want to survive a fire,” jokes entomologist Richard Glatz.

And he’s right.

Many of the insects indigenous to this area were scorched along with the land, crippling some species and potentially wiping out others entirely.

Richard has collected tens of thousands of insects. In the past year alone, he's discovered five new species.

“We probably have lost some things that we didn’t know existed.”

He estimates that more than 80% of the carpenter bee’s natural environment has been lost.

“When I went there, there was nothing.”

Richard searches the artificial nests he built five years ago.

In a remarkable turn, he finds a bee - a positive sign for the survival of this species.

“That’s cool because they exist here and it didn’t before.”

“...the last dunnarts that we’ve really got.”

On the western side of the island, wildlife ecologist Pat Hodgens is under pressure to protect one of the world’s most vulnerable species: the Kangaroo Island dunnart.

There were thought to be fewer than 500 of the small, mouse-like marsupials before the fires.

But nearly all of their habitat has been destroyed, jeopardising their chances of survival.

“There’s many parts of the island where they would have been just totally wiped out,” Pat says.

“The trees will come back, the kangaroos will come back, the possums will come back, but those rare species... just might not.”

And now, dunnarts are facing an even bigger threat: predators.

“It’s kind of like a warzone really, like everyone is fighting for survival.”

Feral cats are now threatening the dunnarts that survived the fires.

“Initially the fire has been a big catalyst, but the cat following up, is potentially the thing to finish off the species.”

Watching hidden camera footage, Pat beams. He's captured one of the few existing videos of a Kangaroo Island dunnart.

But it's a bittersweet moment.

“That could be the last image of the species that we ever have.

“We’re just going to work bloody hard to make it not be the case.”

“Hopefully they’re not back at square one…”

Karleah Berris manages a program to boost numbers of the island’s endangered native glossy black cockatoo.

Before the fires, the team had built up a population of 400 birds.

“It was just such a successful story and we were so proud collectively of what we’d achieved.”

But after the fires, an estimated 75% of the birds’ nesting habitat was lost.

Searching for signs of life, Karleah found skeletons strewn across the ground, animals burned beyond recognition.

These losses have taken a toll on the close-knit community.

“There’s so much heartbreak on Kangaroo Island, between the farmers and the environment and the wildlife.”

The “glossies” have been at the heart of the island’s identity for years.

“People really do care about these birds, despite the personal loss they’re going through…”

But there is still hope that the cockatoo population will recover.

“If we didn’t have this recovery program, we wouldn’t have these flocks out east that could be what lead to the species surviving.”

Karleah says preserving the birds' habitat on the eastern end of the island and preventing future fires have become top priorities.

“That’s going to be absolutely critical if this species is going to survive.”