Extreme heat has a taste.
Its an earthy blend of sweat and dirt. It is tasted with a thick tongue of dehydration, that stays swollen no matter how much water you drink. I can still taste it three hours after the heat has passed.
Its been over 40 for two days now in Melbourne. Extreme heat for most people means a day spent inside with the air-con on full. It means something different to wildlife tour operators, wildlife carers and everyone who works with wild animals.
It means wildlife in distress, and bloody hard work.
Yesterday, Koala Researchers Bart, Harry and Hannah started early before the heat. They were on a mission to find koalas in trees while they were still visible – once it gets over 37C koalas hide on the ground, or in thick vegetation and can be nearly impossible to find. And you can’t help animals you can’t find.
They found Pat and Imvula then Wildlife Guide Michael found Kiki, Kozo and Ngardang. I found an unnamed young male later.
On extreme hot days koalas can overheat and die. Most koalas are already dehydrated due to climate change drying out the eucalyptus leaves which provide them with their ‘drinking water’. A dehydrated koala can’t cool itself. So their poor little heads cook.
We have found a way to cool them down and hydrate them, but they need to be less than 5metres up a tree.
Michael’s observations showed Ngardang low in her tree, so I went straight to her. She is one of our breeding females, so she is very important. She is young and healthy, but she’s just weaned a joey and could be pregnant again or feeding a tiny new pouch joey.
I hoisted the 15kg backpack sprayer on my back and walked in to her.
She was still low, and in a perfect position. But I’ve tried spraying her before, with no luck. She is a very cautious wild koala, and it takes them a while to learn that this new experience is good.
I crept up, very quietly – if I make noise she might move up the tree out of sprayer reach. I set the spray nozzle on mist and starting spraying her so that it hit the branch in front of her, gently. She looked up, but then closed her eyes, enjoying the cool spray.
Over the next ten minutes I sprayed 8 litres of water on her. Her fur was damp, she had licked some off the tree trunk, and she looked much brighter than when I found her. Watch:
Of course, the whole time I was standing in the full sun with a heavy backpack, hand-operating a slide mechanism that takes a bit of strength. I was knackered, and she was just the first of five koalas that day.
Each koala is different. KiKi loved the spray, and made no effort to move away even when it was hitting her hard on her legs and body. At the end she looked like a teddy bear that had fallen into the bath.
Imvula was the worst/best. He was so flat that he barely raised his poor hot head from the ground when he heard me. He took 10 litres of water spray even though he’d never been sprayed before. At the end he climbed up, off the ground into the tree, wet and dripping with life in his beautiful brown eyes.
Every half hour or so I checked the weather site – I knew there was no respite, but you can’t help but hope. The temperature guage just stayed up. Over 40 for six and a half hours in the You Yangs.
Between spraying koalas I filled water in troughs and trays all around the You Yangs. At every water source I disturbed Swamp Wallabies, Eastern Grey Kangaroos, Grey Fantails, Magpies, White-winged Choughs, Brown-headed, Yellow-faced, New Holland and Scarlet Honeyeaters, Silvereyes, Red-browed Finches, Spotted and Striated Pardalotes, all drinking from my little trays. They were all open-mouthed and desperate. I hate to disturb them, so I only approach when the water is empty.
The birds don’t sing when its that hot. All you hear is the wind. Its like all life has ceased to be.
Finally, at 6.30pm the temperature started to drop and I went home to 8 hours of sleep, blissful, untroubled sleep.
Then it all started again today.
Our Koala Researchers and Wildlife Guides found Winberry, Clancy, Kiki, Kozo, the unnamed young male again, and Pat and Lluvia.
I went first to Winberry, as he hasn’t been sprayed this season. Wildlife Guide Brett and his tour guests were there too. I showed them what I was about to do, and told them why. Then I sprayed him, and got each of Brett’s guests, one by one, to spray him a little.
After all, tour guests are paying for this.
The tours pay the Koala Researchers and me. Without the tours we wouldn’t be in the You Yangs 310 days a year watching and learning about these koalas so that we can find them on hot days.
Spraying a hot, thirsty koala should not be a spectacle and we are careful not to present it that way. But it is a powerful message about climate change and what its doing to our wildlife. Sometimes, experiencing a thing makes it real.
For years I was terrified of summer. I saw my beloved koalas dying from heat and climate change. I read scientific papers and learned that it would get worse. I worried and had trouble sleeping.
The only cure for worry is action.
It wasn’t easy – it took years of trying different ideas & equipment, many little failures and lots of input from our whole amazing team, and our Koala Clancy Foundation Members. But we’ve finally come up with something that works.
I’m home now, really tired. My tongue is swollen and I can still taste the heat. I know Koala Researchers and Wildlife Guides are feeling the same.
But I will sleep tonight. And nine koalas feel a little bit better.