Critically endangered animal facing 'horrible' new threat as Australia heats up

Wildlife carers are desperate for a solution to the rising temperatures which are contributing to the issue.

A critically endangered animal native to Australia is facing a significant threat as this summer brings rising temperatures across large parts of the country.

Western ringtail possums, unique to WA's South West, are dwindling in numbers thanks to hot tin roofs and solar panels burning the animals' paws which, in many cases, causes them to pass away or be euthanised.

Suzanne Strapp from animal welfare group FAWNA told Yahoo News Australia they're facing a "horrible situation" this year with parts of the state experiencing drier conditions, and are desperate to help save the endangered marsupials before it's too late. In 2021, the Busselton-based organisation, 220 kilometres from Perth, cared for "maybe two to three possums with burnt feet" throughout the entire year, but in 2022 that number jumped to an "unacceptable" 54.

western ringtail possum
The Western ringtail possum is a critically endangered species. Source: Supplied/FAWNA

"We're looking at a much hotter summer than last year. And weirdly enough, in Western Australia, summer started a month early," Strapp said, explaining FAWNA has already cared for 19 possums suffering from burnt hands and feet this summer.

"It's an emerging issue because of the popularity of solar panels and the fact that modern solar panels are pretty close to the roof," Strapp explained. She said the space under solar panels makes a "nice little hiding hole" for possums to nest and so it's "extremely common" to find a possum there.

Habitat loss forces possums onto roofs

The injuries are in part due to urbanisation and the destruction of their natural habitat which only exists between Dawesville in Mandurah and south of the state in Albany — an area that's "becoming increasingly hot".

"Old towns like Busselton used to have one house on a quarter acre, and now they have three or four houses. They've just taken down all the trees and put houses there," Strapp explained. "So these possums, who aren't that clever, worked out that you can make a nest under solar panel".

While the animals are safe from dogs and other backyard animals, the roof is "not a happy place to be once it hits 32 degrees when they become so hot," she said. When the animals become thirsty, they leave their nest in search of water.

western ringtail possum with burnt feet getting care
The possums are burning their feet on hot tin rooves causing many of them to pass away. Source: Supplied/FAWNA

"They venture out onto the roof, burn their paws, roll off the roof, and they might get picked up by the dog in the backyard, or they just sit in the backyard and become more dehydrated because they can't walk," Strapp explained, saying there's not much they can do.

Last year, the organisation couldn't keep up with the number of possums needing care, mostly due to lack of resources. In many cases, carers were forced to treat the animals in their backyard sheds or inside their homes. Carers at FAWNA were "feeding around the clock".

"Most of us are extremely exhausted," she said. "It was highly stressful".

What is the solution?

FAWNA is hoping to raise funds for a specialised air-conditioned intensive care ward which would be a permanent structure designed to "provide these injured possums with the critical care they need to recover and thrive".

"We've got enough money in our kitty for about a month of veterinary bills and medical bills but that's it," she said.

Once the possums have recovered from their burns and are in a healthier condition they can learn to regain their strength before being released back into the wild. However, Strapp says a solution was still needed to stop possums from nesting under solar panels to begin with.

"We really need the help of the solar panel installers and companies to come up with a solution that will help prevent these terrible injuries to the western ringtail possums," she said. "But we're heavily relying on the community to help us, and our established volunteers".

To donate, you can visit FAWNA's GoFundMe page.

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