Nearly 3 Billion Animals Killed Or Displaced In Australia’s Fires, Scientists Say

Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the catastrophic bushfire season that scorched tens of millions of acres across Australia in 2019 and 2020, according to experts who hope the research will demonstrate the urgent need for action to prevent future disasters.

This finding, revealed Tuesday in an interim report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, is nearly three times higher than an estimate in January. It’s based on a fire impact area of 28.3 million acres and is broken down into a staggering 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs.

“It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman in a media release. “This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.”

Ten scientists from Australian universities and wildlife groups contributed to the bulk of the work. This included Chris Dickman, an ecology professor at the University of Sydney, who, alongside WWF-Australia in January, produced an early estimate of 1.25 billion animals affected by the blazes. 

The devastating fires that surged across Australia in 2019 and 2020 scorched millions of acres of habitat and left billions of animals dead, injured or displaced. Those that survived battled other forms of stress, such as habitat loss, increased predation and lack of food.

Scientists can’t determine exactly how many animals were killed. However, prospects for those that fled the blazes were fairly bleak, Dickman said. Animals that escaped and did not die from factors such as heat stress and smoke inhalation could still face lack of food and shelter, increased competition for resources, and other forms of stress and deprivation.

Dickman said the research demonstrates how mega-fires are changing the environment and draining native biodiversity. He called for urgent change.

“How quickly can we decarbonise? How quickly can we stop our manic land clearing?” he asked in the news release.

Animal rescuer Marcus Fillinger carries a burned kangaroo on Feb. 4 in Peak View, Australia. The tranquilized animal was dest

Animal rescuer Marcus Fillinger carries a burned kangaroo on Feb. 4 in Peak View, Australia. The tranquilized animal was destined for a wildlife recovery center. Many animals that survived suffered from near-starvation due to widespread habitat destruction.

With extreme wildfires becoming more prevalent and increasingly severe due to climate change, WWF-Australia hopes this research can serve as a basis for other countries to examine how these fires affect wildlife, O’Gorman said.

Other recommendations included increasing protections for unburnt habitat, establishing rapid response teams to rescue species that may be impacted in future blazes, and strengthening legislation that protects the environment and conserves biodiversity.

“Following such a heavy toll on Australia’s wildlife, strengthening this law has never been more important,” O’Gorman said. “WWF will continue to advocate for policies that benefit both people and nature, restore what has been lost and ensure we build back a more resilient Australia.”

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