A year on: Australian wildfires aftermath
Emma Watson takes a close look at how the Australian wildfires that took place last year have affected biodiversity
While a year ago in the UK we snuggled up around our fireplaces and sunk into the sofa to watch Christmas specials, on the other side of the globe hundreds of wildfires raged across Australia, scarring its wildlife.
Last year record-breaking temperatures and severe drought conditions fuelled a series of massive bushfires across Australia. Now, a year after the last fire was extinguished, the impact on biodiversity is becoming steadily more apparent. As many as three billion individual mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs died or were displaced during the fires. More than 20 percent of Australia’s entire forest cover was demolished by the fires according to a 2020 analysis in Nature Climate Change. Over 500 species may now be endangered or even extinct due to these natural disasters. Even in the event that the plants and animals survived the devastation of the fires, their habitats may have undergone change to such an extent that their survival is put at risk.
Over 500 species may now be endangered or even extinct due to these natural disasters.
The Australian government officially acknowledged the extinction of 13 endemic species since European colonialism, including two species lost in the last decade. The updated list means that ten percent of land mammals known to have lived in Australia since 1788 are now extinct. These additions have thrust Australia into the biodiversity hot seat as the world’s capital for mammal extinction, one race you do not want to win!
The koala, being a fan favourite, has become a focal point for international concern. A report from the WWF Australia concluded that approximately 60,000 of a population of roughly 330,000 koalas were killed in the fires. Whilst there is no denying that these beloved animals have suffered immensely, the greatest impact is expected to be found in other species that take a backseat in the media, such as invertebrates and plants.
A report from the WWF Australia concluded that approximately 60,000 of a population of roughly 330,000 koalas were killed in the fires.
February saw more than 100 biologists evaluating the addition of 234 Australian invertebrates to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List. They concluded 29 species in New South Wales had their entire habitable range burned and another 46 lost at least half of their known habitats to the fires.
It is not just the flames themselves that are dangerous to Australia’s flora and fauna, the reshaped environment following the fires provides additional stresses. Climate change has increased the frequency and intensity of these fires, meaning that even the species that rely on fire such as eucalyptus trees are at risk of being lost from the ecosystem.
It’s not all doom and gloom though; there are still glimmers of hope! Australian flora is remarkably resilient and researchers in the field are finding regeneration in unexpected places. One example is the Kangaroo Island dunnarts which have fared much better than other animals, appearing on camera traps across the island.
These events show the urgency with which climate change needs to be addressed, do we really want to be responsible for the extinction of our tree-hugging friends the koalas?