March 24, 2006

Cyclone Spooks Creatures in Australia

INNISFAIL, Australia -- Since Cyclone Larry hit early Monday, Joey the wallaby hasn't been seen. And the whereabouts of nearly 50 other kangaroos and related species at Margaret Tabone's crocodile farm are unknown.

"We can't find them yet - hopefully they're going to be somewhere and hopefully they're going to be alive," Tabone said Thursday.

Tabone, 64, reared the small kangaroo-like creature on her farm since Joey was just a hairless baby, after the wallaby's mother died.

Even the crocodiles on Tabone's farm were so spooked by the strong winds that battered this town they've refused to eat since the cyclone. That could mean more losses in the days ahead for the farm, which sells the crocodiles for their skins and meat.

"They're petrified like you and I would be due to the volume of the wind that we had, I can understand that because I was petrified myself," Tabone said. "Whether I lose them or not I don't know yet, we won't know for another week whether they'll get stressed out and they just die on you."

There are nearly 5,000 crocodiles on the farm, but Tabone was confident not a single one was on the loose since the cyclone sent trees tumbling down across her land.

In their pens Thursday, young crocodiles sat mostly immobile piled on top of each other until a noise sent some slithering into a shallow pond of water.

Nearby, a cassowary - a large flightless emu-like bird with a brilliant blue head - wandered inside its pen.

Cassowaries are already endangered in Queensland, and considered a critical species because of their role spreading seeds of rain forest plants from the fruits they eat, said Lee Curtis, an official at Far North Queensland Wildlife Rescue, which finds homes for injured and orphaned animals.

Only about 1,000 remain in the region, she said, expressing concerns about the species since the latest disaster. After past cyclones, the birds had required special feeding.

"If we lose the cassowary, we will lose a great part of the biodiversity in our rain forest," Curtis said.

A key problem facing wild animals is a lack of food from the destroyed plants they eat. The hundreds of acres of devastated banana fields means creatures like flying foxes, a type of bat that feeds on the fruit, will also need help to survive, said Curtis.

The area affected by the cyclone isn't home to many of Australia's other trademark fauna: koalas, said Fred Howles, who runs Wildlife Rescue's center in Cairns. And although some birds were blown way away from their normal homes - with sea birds discovered as far as 60 miles inland - he said most of the migratory birds had already moved on as the Australian summer was ending.

"Luckily the cyclone hit at a good time for wildlife - if there is any good time for a cyclone," Howles said.

At the crocodile farm, Tabone cradles her sole remaining known surviving wallaby - Zoe, one of Joey's offspring whom she sheltered inside her home during the cyclone.

Her farm used to draw more than 7,000 visitors a year to feed and photograph the animals. Now, the sounds of birds chirping are drowned out by the din of chain saws cutting up fallen trees.

"Everyone that came through our farm said what a beautiful farm it was," Tabone said. "It's a big cleanup job, but I don't give up that easy - I'll start again."

But her thoughts stay with Joey, who was so tame that Tabone could still hold her as a grown animal and not suffer a single scratch.

Of the more than 30 raised at the farm, "This one was my idol," Tabone said.