Australian bushfires : The true scope of the disaster is emerging, with ecologists reporting a heartbreaking mass loss of animals.
Sydney, NSW – The true cost of the bushfires on the Australian environment and ecology is only just coming to light.
Ecologists from the University of Sydney now estimate some 480 million mammals, birds & reptiles have been lost by the devastating bushfires in 2019.
There are now fears entire species of animals and plant life may be lost forever, with scientists moving to understand the full scope of destruction.
The estimates include some 8,000 koalas lost in the flames. About 30% of the entire koala population of NSW’s mid-north coast region has perished. There were only 28,000 koalas in the entire region before the fires began.
The mortality rate of koalas from these fires has been particularly high.
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.
The fires, across much of NSW, as well as SE Queensland and parts of South Australia, have burned an area the size of Belgium in just a few months.
Large areas of bush land surrounding Sydney, including beloved national parks and areas containing rare and endangered species, have also been lost.
In the Blue Mountains, 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.
Ancient Forrests Lost
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.
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”.
Related: Sydney Fires – Images show scope of bushfire disaster.
Ryan is Contributing Editor