Kangaroo Island, Gippsland on road to recovery - but need your help

A koala spotted in East Gippsland, where tourists can help with a koala
management project. Pictures: Supplied

A koala spotted in East Gippsland, where tourists can help with a koala management project. Pictures: Supplied

When the bushfires tore through Kangaroo Island over the summer, there were fears the flames might have wiped out one of Australia's most endangered species. The western part of the island is the only place in the world the Kangaroo Island dunnart is found and it was estimated that before the fires, there were just several hundred of them. But miraculously, a new monitoring program has found the tiny mouse-sized marsupials are not extinct - and tourists are now helping to protect them!

As part of a trip to Flinders Chase National Park, local tour company Exceptional Kangaroo Island takes travellers to see the project it developed with environmental group Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife to offer a hands-on chance to help regenerate the island's vast wilderness. The dunnarts are nocturnal and extremely hard to see in the wild, but low barriers have been set up that force them to scurry past one of the cameras at either end, which is triggered to take a photo. The next day, tourists check the barriers, reset the equipment, and review the photos to see what animals were found overnight.

"We're trying to find things which we're able to showcase and educate people year-round and really give them an insight to what's going on and keep them motivated," says Craig Wickham from Exceptional Kangaroo Island.

With Australia's state borders beginning to reopen (again), there's understandably a lot of attention on the domestic tourism industry hit so hard by the COVID-19 lockdowns. But, as we know, it was a double whammy for some parts of the country, which were preparing to begin their recovery from the summer bushfires when the pandemic reached our shores. Visitors had just begun to arrive with empty eskies, and accommodation was filling up again, when suddenly those regional communities had to shut up shop again.

Craig Wickham (right) with a group at a tunnel built to protect the Kangaroo Island dunnart.

Craig Wickham (right) with a group at a tunnel built to protect the Kangaroo Island dunnart.

As we come into the summer holiday season, you're going to hear calls to visit bushfire-devastated regions to help their economic recovery - but they will be competing with other parts of the country that have now also missed their peak tourism seasons. What tours like the one on Kangaroo Island are trying to do is not appear as charity, but offer the usual excellent experience with an addition of a practical element assisting with the natural recovery from last summer's bushfires, in which it's estimated about a billion animals were killed.

One of the most immersive tours is in Victoria, where Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours will incorporate several activities to help with bushfire recovery during its four-day East Gippsland Wildlife Journey. Aside from the usual hikes to see native animals and stunning landscapes, guests will take a flora and fauna survey as part of a citizen science project on the edge of the burn zone, where bushfires charred more than 320,000 hectares.

"It's still a fantastic place for wildlife in East Gippsland but they need our help more than they ever have," Janine Duffy from Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours says.

Janine Duffy (right) leads a group with Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours.

Janine Duffy (right) leads a group with Echidna Walkabout Nature Tours.

Guests on the tour will also help set up a koala management project on Raymond Island, to help repopulate the mainland. The Gippsland tours have been running for several years and the extra bushfire-related activities only take about half an hour a day. It's not 'voluntourism', it's just an opportunity to give something back to the environment.

"It's almost like COVID's given us this window of travelling in our own country and the fires also gave us a tremendous connection to wildlife and a realisation that if it's lost, we've lost so much, and now's the time to get out and do something," Janine says.

For those who can't commit to multi-day tours, there are quite a few animal sanctuaries across the country that have continued during the pandemic to treat bushfire-affected wildlife and are now looking forward to welcoming tourists. You can support the work being done to help injured animals at the Port Macquarie Koala Hospital in NSW, the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in South Australia, and the Healesville Sanctuary in Victoria, for example.

Signs of recovery in the bushfire-affected Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island.

Signs of recovery in the bushfire-affected Flinders Chase National Park on Kangaroo Island.

There are also ways to use some time on a holiday to learn more about bushfires and how they affect the environment. The NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service runs a Blue Mountains bushfire recovery tour, where rangers take guests on a three-kilometre guided walk through a section of the World Heritage Site that was hit by the summer's bushfires to show how the landscape has changed. The NPWS also has dozens of volunteer projects in bushfire-affected areas across the state, focusing on activities like bush regeneration, tree planting, and animal surveys.

A holiday should feel like a holiday. You don't want to dedicate your whole trip to being knee-deep in mud or lugging around equipment (unless television shows about the SAS have made that kind of thing seem more glamourous to you). But there are a lot of people who would like to do something meaningful with a little of their time away. Spending money in communities that rely on tourism will always be welcomed, but spending time to rejuvenate the environment that brings the tourists to those regions will also have a big impact - and, I suspect, make your travels even more rewarding.

WHAT TO DO:

Michael Turtle will be bringing you new ideas each week for travel within Australia. You can see more details on his Travel Australia Today website.

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This story Tourists key to rebuilding areas ravaged by bushfires first appeared on The Canberra Times.