Over 1 billion animals have perished in the Australian bushfires in 2019 and 2020.
The staggering, heartbreaking figures are estimates by ecologists in Sydney just released today.
Previously, the team at the University of Sydney had said half a billion had perished.
Reporter Josephine Harvey writes ecologists at the University of Sydney and the WWF Australia say that the 1 billion animals figure is a conservative one.
In late 2019, the ecologists had said up to 480 million animals may have perished. However, that was before huge fires ripped across large parts of Victoria, South Australia and New South Wales.
“The original figure – the 480 million – was based on mammals, birds and reptiles for which we don’t have densities, so that figure now is a little bit out of date,” Chris Dickman told Huffpo.
Since the earlier report, a huge area of Australian bush has burnt.
These figures do not include farm livestock, bats, frogs, insects and invertebrates – so the loss is much, much greater than 1 billion.
“It’s over 800 million given the extent of the fires now ― in New South Wales alone,” he said.
The fires have been almost as big in Victoria and South Australia. Other areas to experience bushfires this summer include Tasmania, Western Australia and earlier, southeast Queensland. A map below shows all the fires in recent weeks.
Every State and Territory of Australia has been impacted.
There are also a number of plant and animal species that could have been lost forever in these fires alone.
Dozens of other species are now pushed to the brink after these fires.
“Estimates of animals lost are based on density obtained from published studies of mammals in NSW and from studies carried out in other parts of Australia in similar habitats to those present in NSW.”
“The authors deliberately employ highly conservative estimates in making their calculations. The true mortality is likely to be substantially higher than those estimated,” the University of Sydney said.
Australia’s agriculture minister Bridget McKenzie expects livestock losses will exceed 100,000 animals.
105,000 square kilometres of land has been scorched so far. That’s just about the size of the US State of Virgina.
30% of koalas have been lost in parts of New South Wales, while 50% have been lost on South Australia’s Kangaroo Island. Many thousands have been lost in Victoria’s Gippsland region and teams are still establishing how many.
There were as few as 80,000 left in the wild. The population is likely wiped out by tens of thousands in just a few weeks.
According to Mark Graham, an ecologist with the Nature Conservation Council, koalas “have no capacity to move fast enough to get away” from fires that spread from treetop to treetop.
“The fires have burnt so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies,” Mr Graham told a New South Wales parliamentary inquiry earlier this month.
Ancient Forrests Lost
In the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, 50% of heritage reserves have been lost in November and December alone. The UNESCO World Heritage Listed region is home to highly endangered species, including a shrub called the Kowmung hakea, a lizard known as the Blue Mountains water skink, the Wollemi pine, a “living fossil” discovered in 1994.
48% of the iconic Gondwana reserves, which include rainforests that have existed since the time of the dinosaurs, have now burned.
The Royoal Botanic Gardens in Sydney estimate that in some areas, up to 30 rare plant species and 30 rare animal species may have been lost.
“Many of these trees have thin bark that does not provide protection against fire,” Maurizio Rossetto, an evolutionary ecologist told Science Mag.
Rossetti is particularly concerned about three species, each of which has just a few hundred remaining trees “tightly grouped in a single population.”
Species Previously immune to fire now under threat.
Even species that may have previously survived in bushfire season are now under threat.
Animals and insects that exist in wetlands are exposed to burning bush thanks to the long drought in Australia.
Ecologist Phillip Gibbons was worried about a highly biodiverse area, the Tallaganda National Park.
“The issue is a lot of species can survive wildfire because they can retreat to unburnt refugia in the landscape, and the worry is that after a long period of dry that the moist gullies in Tallaganda have dried sufficiently that now they can be burnt in the wildfire,” Professor Gibbons told ABC.
The park is home to 13 threatened species, including the scarlet robin, the olive whistler, the spotted tail quoll and the Tallaganda velvet worm.
The velvet worm, which has existed for millennia, has gradually been eliminated from the rest of Australia.
“That’s the only place in the world that you can find this species,” he said.
“The worm … actually evolved half a billion years ago.”
Rare bird species may be gone
Ross Crates, an ecologist at the Australian National University in Canberra, notes the Blue mountains are also the “final stronghold” of a critically endangered bird, the regent honeyeater.
Just 250 to 400 of these striking black-and-yellow nectar feeders remain, and an estimated 80% of breeding pairs nest in the Greater Blue Mountains.
Potoroos under threat
The northern long-nosed potoroo, a hare-size wallaby that feeds on truffles that grow around the roots of gum trees may also be nearly gone.
Norther long-nosed Potoroos may be lost forever.
Found in the Ngunya Jargoon Indigenous Protected Area, rangers have returned after fires ripped through the area, to find no sign of the critically endangered marsupial.
While bushfires have always been part of the Australian environment, it’s clear climate change is making things far worse.
Rare plants and animals, already under pressure from human activity, are now facing extinction thanks to the intensity and now frequency of bushfires.
Australian, prime minister Scott Morrison, has consistently said it was “no credible scientific evidence” linking climate change with the fires. This has been rejected by climate scientists, who have said politicians are “burying their heads in the sand while the world is literally burning around them”.
In a press conference in the first week on January 2020, the Prime Minister changed his tune, saying the fires were linked to climate change.
According to Climate Scientist Ed Hawkins, in 2019 Australia experienced temperatures which would be normal if global temperatures increased by 2.5C above today’s averages.
This means that the bushfire disaster of 2019/2020 would be just an early sign of things to come indeed.
Surely the world needs to act fast to stop the spread of global warming. If this doesn’t push action, perhaps nothing will?
Since September 2019, Australia has been experiencing its worst bushfire crisis ever.
28 people have died, including firefighters. Thousands of homes, businesses and civic buildings have been lost.
The latest on the crisis visit Sydney News
Related: Sydney Fires – Images show scope of bushfire disaster.
Ryan is Contributing Editor