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French sewing fans to the rescue of Australia's kangaroos

Catherine BOITARD
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French sewing enthusiasts have responded to an appeal for cloth pouches for baby kangaroos and koalas in fire-ravaged regions in Australia

French sewing enthusiasts have responded to an appeal for cloth pouches for baby kangaroos and koalas in fire-ravaged regions in Australia (AFP Photo/ERIC CABANIS)

The plight of baby kangaroos and koalas orphaned by Australia's bushfires has prompted a sewing frenzy in France, where an appeal for cloth pouches for the animals has reaped thousands of contributions.

The call for international help was first issued by Australia's Animal Rescue Collective Craft Guild and promptly shared by the Australian Park, a wildlife reserve in the southwestern French town of Carcassonne.

Within a few days, schools, retirement homes and sewing enthusiasts had begun churning out small bags in which to swaddle the stranded creatures.

"We were completely surprised and overwhelmed by the outpouring of generosity that came from all parts of France," Carole Masson, the park's director, told AFP.

The apocalyptic wildfires that ravaged vast tracts of southern and eastern Australia over the past five months have killed an estimated one billion animals, an ecological disaster unprecedented in the country's history.

Rescue workers have been searching forests strewn with charred animal corpses for creatures that survived.

Baby marsupials that lost their mothers to the fires or fell out of the pouches in which they were carried while fleeing the flames are seen as particularly vulnerable.

To continue developing they need to be bottle-fed and placed in a surrogate pouch, which needs to be regularly changed because it collects the baby's urine and feces.

"You need thirty per baby kangaroo," said Masson, a biologist who is herself rearing a six-month-old kangaroo joey that fell out of its mother's pouch in the park in Carcassonne.

On the day AFP visited the reserve, her assistant Annia Aubry was giving sewing instructions over the phone to a volunteer.

"No, you can't use synthetic fabric," she says, adding that a so-called French seam that folds in all extraneous fabric is required to avoid the young marsupials snagging their claws on the stitching.

Size also matters, with koalas, possums, wallabies and other marsupials all requiring pouches of different proportions.

- Outpouring of donations -

Such has been the reaction to the appeal, which was widely covered by local media, that the park has stopped accepting pouches and is now recruiting volunteers to sort all the donations.

Masson attributed the massive public response to a desire by people to act in the face of disaster and "be part of the solution, at their own level."

In the northern coastal town of Boulogne-sur-Mer last week, a group of women armed with sewing machines gathered in the social centre to do their bit for Australia's biodiversity.

Over the course of five days, they stitched a hundred pouches, using fabric donated by local residents.

Francine, a volunteer in her sixties, told AFP that the initiative had "restored my faith in human nature."

"We're living in an individualistic world where everyone is focused on their phone. This was a nice project that brought people together," she said.

In Carcassonne, ten women aged 30 to 60 took part in a pouch-making workshop.

The French have also dug deep to help ship the wraps to Australia in February, with a crowd-funding campaign raising nearly 13,000 euros ($14,400) towards the cost.