Record-breaking wildfires have ravaged millions of Australian acres for many months now. Ecologists estimate upward of 480 million mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects have died, as well as more than 8,000 koalas from New South Wales, equating to over 30% of the region’s entire koala population. Figures continue to rise as the fires rage on.
Heat from the fires has driven many animals, such as kangaroos, to flee. But not all can escape, exemplified by flightless endemic birds unable to venture far from the ground. The plight is worse for koalas, already a vulnerable species experiencing significant habitat loss. Koalas are slow-moving by nature, incapable of escaping highly flammable eucalyptus trees. The flames will need to subside further before their losses can be fully assessed.
Other species have been devastated as well. Insects, vital to pollination and nutrient cycles, have suffered massively. Many rare plants are also feared to be entirely decimated, with no chance of recovery for their species.
These staggering losses jeopardize species populations and ecosystems in Australia. Environmental activists are consequently sounding alarms on climate change, demanding halts to logging and coal use due to their exacerbation of wildfire conditions.
“The compelling issue here is climate change. Yes, Australia is burning, and national parks and our native animals are being decimated,” said Clover Moore, mayor of Sydney. “As the driest continent on Earth, we’re at the forefront of accelerating global warming. What is happening is a wake-up call for our governments to start making effective contributions to reducing global emissions.”
Various animal care facilities are struggling to help the surviving animals. Eventually, once they have healed, these animals still need to return to their natural habitats. The surviving animals may have trouble finding food and shelter in the blazes’ aftermath.
“We’re getting a lot of lessons out of this, and it’s just showing how unprepared we are,” said Kellie Leigh, executive director of Science for Wildlife, to the Australian parliament during an urgent December hearing regarding the koala population. “There’s no procedures or protocols in place — even wildlife carers don’t have protocols for when they can go in after the fire.”
Typically, wildlife authorities advise against feeding wild animals. But the ravaging wildfires have prompted a message change — people are now encouraged to provide crucial food and water to wildlife in affected areas.
Lands affected range from at least 8.9 million acres in New South Wales, 2.9 million acres in Western Australia, 1.8 million acres in Victoria, 618,000 acres in Queensland and 250,000 acres in South Australia.
Image via Simon Rumi