Scientists warn bushfires push species to extinction

Scientists warn that increasing numbers of Australia’s unique animal and plant species are being pushed towards extinction as the unprecedented bushfires continue to destroy millions of acres of grasslands and forested areas.

Ecologist Chris Dickman from the University of Sydney estimates that more than a billion animals have been killed in the fires that have burned more than 10.7 million hectares (26 million acres) across the country.

Dickman says a third of all koalas in New South Wales are likely to have died and at least a third of their habitat has been destroyed.

But the fires have also pushed back conservation efforts by decades and, as the land continues to heat and fires spread, many species may never recover.

Yet state and federal governments have for years ignored scientists’ warnings that rising greenhouse gases would ignite the nation and create a wave of extinctions.

Unprecedented ferocity

The spread and the unprecedented ferocity of the latest bushfires, however, have forced governments to respond.

As the fires jumped state borders and turned tens of thousands of acres of productive areas into smouldering wastelands, while wiping out millions of native flora and fauna, the nation’s leaders have belatedly taken action.

The federal government under Prime Minister Scott Morrison – a known climate change sceptic – has pledged an immediate AU$50 million (US$34 million) to help rescue and protect wildlife affected by the bushfire crisis.

Morrison was forced by a public outcry to cut short a family holiday in Hawaii and return to Australia.

He has now promised more money to follow the initial AU$50 million allocation, while environmental groups warned many species may have already been driven to extinction.

Government ministers said the commitment, drawn from the government’s AU$2 billion bushfire recovery fund, was a down payment to be spent immediately on priorities in burned areas, along with planning for longer-term protection and restoration of habitat.

Bleak future

Ecologists, however, believe the bushfires are harbingers of a catastrophic beginning and they see a bleak future for the country’s native flora and fauna.

“These fires are homogenising the landscape. They benefit no species,” says renowned biologist Professor John Woinarski from Charles Darwin University in the Northern Territory.

“It’s reasonable to infer that there will be dramatic consequences to very many species,” Woinarski says.

“The fires are of such scale and extent that high proportions of many species, including threatened species, will have been killed off immediately.”

Film footage of kangaroos and flocks of birds fleeing fires was no evidence of their survival. With fires extending so widely, they run out of places to escape, he says.

“We know that the species that can’t fly away – like koalas and greater gliders – have gone in burnt areas. Wombats may survive as they’re underground but, even if they do escape the immediate fire front, there’s essentially no food for them in a burnt landscape.”

A widely reported estimate of the destructive effect on Australian wildlife of the bushfires is that at least 480 million animals have been killed.

Conservation groups warn

A group of conservation organisations wrote to federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley and her state counterparts expressing concern for at least 13 animal species.

They urged the government to use a review of national environment laws launched last year to boost wildlife protection.

Headed “Silent Death: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction”, the letter sets out a recommended emergency wildlife recovery plan.

This includes sending scientists and conservationists to fire-struck regions immediately to identify and help at-risk animal populations as part of a coordinated national response.

The government, however, says its immediate priorities would be caring for and rehabilitating injured wildlife, securing viable populations of threatened species while controlling feral predators and other pests that were a major threat to vulnerable species.

AU$50 million wildlife fund

As part of the federal AU$50 million allocation, federal Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced that AU$25 million would go to an emergency intervention fund to be spent based on advice from a panel of experts, led by Sally Box, the nation’s threatened species commissioner.

Frydenberg said the other AU$25million would be available to support wildlife rescue at a local level by zoos, natural resource management groups, Greening Australia and Conservation Volunteers Australia.

“This initial investment of AU$50 million into the protection and restoration of our wildlife and habitat is a critical step in creating a viable future for the animals that have survived,” he said.

Minister Ley said it was too early to know the severity of the fire damage, but it was clear it was an ecological tragedy.

She said the recovery effort would require collaboration between governments, environment groups, scientists, farmers, communities, business, philanthropists and industry.

“Koala populations have taken an extraordinary hit, to the extent that it may be necessary to see whether the species should be considered endangered in parts of the country,” Ley said. “Koalas are currently listed as vulnerable.”

One government report estimated that fires in the state of Victoria alone had burned 31% of its rainforests, 24% of wet or damp forests and 34% of lowland forests.

Among the worst affected species was the eastern ground parrot, which is believed to have lost all its Victorian habitat.

In a letter to Minister Ley, conservation groups raised specific concerns for species that have had all or key parts of their entire habitat burned.

They list 13 animals, including three critically endangered species: the southern corroboree frog in the Australian Alps, the regent honeyeater in the Blue Mountains and the western ground parrot on Cape Arid in Western Australia.

The letter says it is likely other species will have been catastrophically affected, particularly poorly studied amphibian, reptile and invertebrate species.

“The devastating impact of these bushfires highlights the need for an effective and responsive national environmental law framework to safeguard and recover our imperilled wildlife and heritage places,” the letter says.

Whether a formerly moribund government on conservation issues will act promptly and forcefully to tackle the massive problem of beginning restoration of Australia’s unique landscape and its animals remains to be seen.

Geoff Maslen, a founding editor of University World News, is author of Too Late: How we lost the battle with climate change, published by Hardie Grant Books (2017)