Australian bushfires impacted nearly 3 billion animals

Posted on 28 July 2020

An interim report of the 2019-2020 Australian bushfires commissioned by the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF) found that nearly 3 billion animals – mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs – were killed or displaced.

In January 2020, it was estimated only a billion animals would have been affected. The WWF explained the breakdown as follows:

  • 143 million mammals,
  • 2.46 billion reptiles,
  • 180 million birds and
  • 51 million frogs.

The report, titled Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll, is believed to be the first research based on this topic. Ten scientists from Australian universities worked on the report. University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, Charles Sturt University, and BirdLife Australia contributed the majority of the work. They are aiming to complete the final report by the end of August 2020.

The project is spearheaded by the University of Sydney’s Dr Lily Van Eeden and overseen by Professor Chris Dickman. These results still need to be finalised but it is unlikely that the number is going to change, according to WWF. Dickman was the man who, along with WWF scientists, made the prediction that 1.25 billion animals would be affected. This calculation only focused on New South Wales and Victoria.

‘The interim findings are shocking. It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals. This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history,’ said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.

‘When you think about nearly three billion native animals being in the path of the fires it is absolutely huge, it’s a difficult number to comprehend,’ said Dickman.

The scientists cannot say for certain the exact number of animals that perished. Dickman believes that the animals that did manage to escape the flames wouldn’t have had a great chance of surviving, regardless. This is based on a lack of food and shelter or being forced into an area already inhabited by another animal.

Van Eeden said for this project the team examined a fire impact area of 11.46 million hectares: ‘We believe a continent-wide assessment of the number of animals that might be impacted has never been done in Australia before or anywhere else in the world. Other nations can build upon this research to improve understanding of bushfire impacts everywhere.’ O’Gorman said with extreme fires becoming more frequent because of climate change the interim findings ‘give other countries a window into the future of mega fires and their devastating impact on wildlife’.

He said the research had also been released in time to be considered by the review of Australia’s flagship environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act. ‘Following such a heavy toll on Australia’s wildlife, strengthening this law has never been more important. WWF will continue to advocate for policies that benefit both people and nature, restore what has been lost, and ensure we build back a more resilient Australia,’ said O’Gorman.

Dickman said the research shows people that mega fires are changing the environment and depleting native biodiversity, and that change is necessary: ‘How quickly can we decarbonise? How quickly can we stop our manic land clearing? We land clear at a rate that’s one of the highest in the world.’

The recommendations in the interim report call for:

  • Addressing knowledge gaps on wildlife densities and responses to fire,
  • Improving habitat connectivity to help mobile species escape fire,
  • Identifying and protecting unburnt habitat crucial to threatened species,
  • Improving fire prevention and management, and
  • Establishing rapid response teams to help species impacted by fire.

Image credit: Unsplash

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