Bushfires and a Warming Planet Are Putting Australia’s Biodiversity at Risk

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Oceania | Environment | Oceania

Bushfires and a Warming Planet Are Putting Australia’s Biodiversity at Risk

Ecologists estimate that more than a billion animals and hundreds of millions of insects perished in the fires.

Bushfires and a Warming Planet Are Putting Australia’s Biodiversity at Risk

Sheep graze in a field shrouded with smoke haze near at Burragate, Australia, Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Rick Rycroft

Since September, Australian bushfires have burned through more than 11 million hectares, killing at least 33 people and destroying almost 3,000 homes. In just four months, the fires raged through an area the size of England, resulting in an influx of donations amounting to more than $500 million and weeks of international media coverage. The Australian military was deployed to assist with evacuations, while the government recently committed $2 billion to a new bushfire recovery agency. 

Yet to be recognized on a significant scale, however, is the long-term impact the fires will have on native fauna and species in one of the world’s greatest biodiversity hotspots. Australia and a few other countries are home to around 70 percent of the world’s biological diversity but make up just 10 percent of Earth’s surface. Australia alone harbors a quarter of a million species, of which only about one-third have been named. Despite this, in recent years alone, the government has cut 37 percent of its investment in biodiversity conservation.

Ecologists estimate that more than a billion animals and hundreds of millions of insects perished in the fires, while millions more will likely die in the coming months as a result of lost habitats and scarce food sources. 

Kangaroo Island, just eight miles off the coast of South Australia, has long been one of the country’s most important wildlife sanctuaries, renowned for its biodiversity. In 2017, it was likened to “Noah’s Ark” in a glowing review of the destination published in the Guardian. Today, however, after two separate fires wreaked havoc in early January, almost half of the island has been scorched, with NASA calling it “an ecological tragedy.”

Humane Society International, an animal welfare charity that has been rescuing injured wildlife on the island since the fires began, described the scenes as apocalyptic. 

“The land we’re searching is utterly scorched with charred animal bodies everywhere. It is very confronting to see the extent of the loss of wildlife,” Erica Martin, the charity’s CEO said in a statement.

It’s estimated that around 25,000 koalas died in the fires, accounting for half of the island’s population. Prior to the fires, the island was seen as a safe haven for the marsupials, as they were free from chlamydia, a disease which causes blindness, infertility and death, and is widespread in the koala population across mainland Australia. 

Ecologists also say that around 30 percent of the subspecies of the glossy black cockatoo, which is almost extinct on the mainland and numbered around 500 on the island, are gone. Thirty to 40 percent of the island’s kangaroos are also believed to have died, while a possum-like marsupial, the dunnart, which is found only on the island, is feared extinct.

For those who have survived, the threat continues long after the fires have passed. The glossy black cockatoo, for example, eats nothing but the seeds of she-oak trees, which were severely damaged during the fires. 

Banksia plants, which are native to Kangaroo Island and can take up to 30 years to grow and are used as nests by the endemic green carpenter bees, also burned in the fires. The bee species has already been driven to extinction in both Victoria and on mainland South Australia, and it is now feared that with the loss of their habitat on the island that they too, might be on the brink. The survival of the short-beaked echidna is also a concern. 

The fires also wreaked havoc for the island’s farmers. In one particular case, reported by the New York Times, a farmer said he buried more than half of his 9,000 sheep in mass graves.

“They were the best sheep, the best lambs. It was a good season,” he said. “The whole farm was the best it’d ever been. And we’re going to have to start all over again.”

Nationwide, the losses are staggering.

With the impact of the fires still raw and as some blazes continued to rage, reports emerged of a koala “massacre”on a farm in Victoria. Keith Troeth, whose family owns the land, told The Age that he had approved the trees being bulldozed.

“There may have been one or two koalas killed and I’ll wear the responsibility,” he said. But the Department of Environment, Land and Planning, which is conducting an investigation on-site, said at least 10 koalas were found dead, 30 had to be euthanized due to injuries suffered and that numbers were likely to rise as felled timber is still being cleared.

A few days later, a leaked letter addressed to New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian warned that logging is a threat to three of the most significant koala populations on the state’s north coast.

The letter, written last October by Greens MLC Cate Faehrmann, stressed that 60-70 percent of the koala population could have already been killed in fires. But since the letter was written more fires have swept through these areas, leading the North East Forest Alliance to predict that the up to date number could be as high as 90 percent. 

Across Australia, animals whose habitats were destroyed in the fires and now have nowhere to hide, have been left vulnerable to deadly invasive predators, particularly cats and red foxes. According to the Wildlife Research journal, feral cats kill as many as 650 million reptiles in Australian every year. 

Ecologists will now look to removing invasive predators and possibly captive breeding some at risk species. Tanya Latty, an associate professor at the University of Sydney recently told the New York Times that she may use specimens of the endemic velvet worm to begin a captive breeding program to save the species, after one of their only known habitats, a national park in the Australian Capital Territory, was badly affected by the fires.

Other at risk species include a range of small rodents, birds, reptiles, small marsupials, and even some species of fish and other freshwater animals. 

During bushfire season, rain would often be welcomed, but in some cases, it can signal further challenges. In the Kosciuszko National Park, ecologists estimated before the fires that there were only a few thousand stocky galaxias fish left in just a three-kilometer stretch, but heavy rain then washed ash into the water there, where particles were then lodged in the gills of fish and also disrupted their food sources, their breeding habitats, and ultimately, likely killed many. 

According to James Trezise, a policy analyst at the Australian Conservation Foundation, the fires have impacted on the populations of at least 327 nationally threatened animal species. He also stressed that danger to some species remains once the fires have passed.

“The risk is really a perfect storm for these species,” he said. “Lack of habitat, food, and limited places to hide from invasive predators, compounded by a big push by industry to go in and log some of these remaining forests and a political drive to increase land clearing.”

While the link between bushfires and climate change has become a polarized conversation in Australia, another natural result of climate change, extreme heat, has also left many species at risk. A period of prolonged extreme heat last week resulted in the death of as many as 3,000 flying foxes in Victoria. A month earlier, in far north Queensland, heatwaves killed about 23,000 spectacled flying foxes, which is about one-third of the species in Australia. 

A severe drought, brought on by climate change, has also become a major environmental disaster in Australia. Last year a scientific panel investigated the causes of three mass fish deaths in the Murray-Darling river system and concluded that it was caused by a combination of drought and over-extraction of water from the system. Up to 1 million native fish were killed in just three events. 

Unless urgent steps are taken to restore flows in the river “the Darling will die,” warned, Professor Craig Moritz, who chaired the panel.

Fire is a natural part of many Australian habitats and “so many Australian plants and animals are adapted to cope with fire,” said Trezise. “They are not, however, adapted to cope with fire of this scale and this intensity, and so the overall ecological impact of the fires may not be known for some time.”

 “These fires have been unprecedented in both their duration and size and have burnt through sensitive alpine ecosystems and rainforests that are not known to burn,” he said. “In some cases, we know the fires have burned out almost all the ranges of some species, so how those species of plants and animals have coped is a key question.”

The Australian government has long been criticized for its lack of action of climate change, but since the bushfires, which led to international condemnation toward the government and its policies, there has been a slight reprieve in the way the government talks about climate change and its effects.

But Trezise said that in addition to investing in the protection and recovery of ecosystems we also need to put in place national environmental laws that ensure we protect and recover Australian ecosystems and threatened species to avoid the worst of the extinction crises. 

“The biggest drivers of biodiversity decline in Australia are habitat destruction, invasive species and fire,” he said. “Clearly climate change sits across all of those risks.”

“Australia is one of only 17 mega-diverse countries in the word, meaning our biodiversity is incredibly important,” he said. “Despite this we lead the world on mammal extinction and are ranked second for overall biodiversity loss, primarily driven by habitat destruction and invasive species.”

“The sad reality is our federal government is still permitting the destruction of habitat critical for the survival of iconic species like the Koala through outdated environmental laws. Now if that is what’s happening with our best known and arguably most loved native animal, you can imagine the rest don’t really stand a chance.”