The planet has had its fair share of wildfires in recent years that it is impossible to keep track of them. Wildfires are caused by three main things; a dry climate, lightning, and volcanic eruptions. Human hands do play a role at times, but most of the biggest wildfires ever seen are of natural causes. In Australia, wildfires pop up every year starting in June, a period that has come to be known as the Black Summer. In June of 2019, what started as the usual wildfires went on to grow into an unprecedented disaster that dragged on for months and is still ongoing. As of January 14th, 2020, the Australian wildfire had scorched around 72,000 square miles of land, razed down 5,900 buildings, among them 2,800 homes, and has claimed the lives of 34 people. Air quality in the burnt areas has dropped significantly, and the damages so far have hit $4.4 billion and are still rising. The biggest casualty of this calamity has been the wild animals. With no means to effectively outrun the fires, an estimated 1 billion animals have perished, and more worrying is that most of the animals were already listed as endangered. The animals that have been hit the hardest include the following.
Found on Kangaroo Island, which is home to unique animals, the glossy black-cockatoo is feared to be in great danger after two-thirds of the island was severely hit by the fires. Kangaroo Island has been a critical habitat for the cockatoo, acting as a conservation for the bird for the past two decades. The cockatoo population on the island had steadily risen from 150 in the 1990s to a high of 400 in 2019. The exact numbers of the glossy black-cockatoo that have perished in the fire are yet to be determined. However, going by the devastation on the island, up to 60% of the cockatoo habitat has been destroyed.
Kangaroo Island Dunnart
Another Kangaroo Island inhabitant, the dunnart is a small marsupial native only to Australia that had already been listed as endangered. The park had been rigged with cameras monitoring the little animals, cameras that have since been melted by the fires. There is widespread fear among the conservation community that the dunnart may have been wiped out from the island. However, it is yet to be confirmed.
Footage of koalas unsuccessfully attempting to find a way out of a circle of fire broke the hearts of many on social media platforms. Koalas are slow by nature, and this has worked against them in the disaster. The fires hit their crucial habitat in New South Wales in November as well as East Gippsland, and bushlands loved by the koalas. Another population that had been introduced on Kangaroo Island also feared to have been heavily hit. Luckily for the koalas, other surviving populations exist in other parts of Australia that have not been affected by the wildfires.
Hastings River Mouse
The endangered rodent had its habitat in New South Wales before the fire tore through the area in early October. The Hastings river mouse is a delicate animal, and the fires may prove to be too much for them to handle. There are other sizable populations outside New South Wales, and conservationists are holding on to the hope that they have not been wiped out in NSW.
Before the fires, the wallaby was listed as vulnerable and was mostly found in New South Wales. The fire has not only razed down their natural habitats but also the vegetation, which they depend on food, and this makes it hard for them to bounce back if they survive the fires. National parks in New South Wales have been making carrot and sweet potato drops in Curracubundi national park, Yengo national park, kangaroo Valley, Oxley Wild Rivers, and Jenolan for the surviving brush-tailed rock-wallabies. These are temporary measures as they wait for the fires to subside before accurately assessing the situation.
Before the fires rocked south-eastern Queensland, their primary habitat, there were only 50 bristle birds in the area that have seen their habitat reduced by 50% since 1980. The recent destruction of the little they had left is widely feared to be the final nail in their coffin. The critically endangered bird still has some few members in New South Wales, but it is yet to be determined how many have been able to survive the fires so far.
Another critically endangered species that reside in Kosciuszko National Park in New South Wales that is at the center of the fierce fires. The area is home to the southern corroboree frog. The fires are also showing signs of spreading towards Namadgi National Park that is the stronghold of the northern corroboree frog. It will be a massive loss to the ecosystem if the two are wiped out in one sweep by the fires.
The regent honeyeater is a bird found in New South Wales that numbered about 400 individuals before the start of the fires. The worst-hit area was Capertee Valley, which is their breeding ground. Another critical site is the Burragorang, which the bird sometimes uses as nesting grounds. Experts are holding on to hope that the birds were able to evacuate in time and are safe. If regent honeyeaters go extinct, it would be a big blow to conservation efforts that have tried to revive their numbers in the past two decades.
Western Ground Parrot
The western ground parrot is a critically endangered and extremely rare bird. About 150 birds existed in Cape Arid National Park before the fires started. Most of the national park is still untouched by the fire, but the risk of it spreading there is high as winds keep picking up speed. A loss of their crucial habitat could drive the bird into extinction.
The Greater Glider
The marsupial whose habitat is in New South Wales and Victoria is now under immense pressure as it was already listed as vulnerable. Greater gliders depend on trees for food and mobility, and once these are taken away by the fires, then they will be exposed to starvation and predators alike.
Saving the Animals
Australia is home to unique animal species not found anywhere on earth, and for this reason, Australia has strict regulations that protect the animals. Wildfires, however, are beyond the control of such regulations. The best that people can do is using all the available tools to save as many animals as they can as the fires continue to blaze. Makeshift animal hospitals have been set up in the worst-hit areas where injured animals are treated before they are transferred to nearby sanctuaries to recuperate. With food gone and drinking water scarce, residents have been leaving fruits, fresh vegetables, and freshwater outside their homes for animals running away from the fire to eat as they move along.
Efforts to put out the fires using helicopters have also started to bear fruits as the intensity of the fires reduces with time. Social media has also come in support of the ongoing rescue efforts in Australia by donating cash towards the many rescue missions that have been initiated by the government and private institutions. Clearing the land of dead carcasses is also an important mission as they pose a new threat in the form of diseases if they are left to rot in the open. The biggest challenge in the rescue mission has been the smaller animals. Locating them has been a hard task, and most of them were caught up in the fire. All people can do is play the waiting game until the fire subsides.
Facts about Australia
Australian animals are so unique that four out of five animals cannot be found anywhere else on earth. Australia is also home to more than 140 species of marsupial mammals and the only place on earth with monotremes, egg-laying mammals. Most of Australia is made of an inhabitable desert, and for this reason, 90% of humans there live along the coasts.
The Future of the Survivors
It is hard to put an exact number of the animals that have been lost, all that has been available so far are just rough estimates. The situation will become clear once the fires die down, and a proper assessment is done. Expectations are low, though. The fires have already taken too long, and as another hot summer season of wildfires fast approaching, there are fears that there will be no enough time for the animals to recover or the burnt forests to revert to their original state. The best course of action would be to relocate most of the survivors to parks in areas untouched by the fires until the next wildfire season is analyzed in full. To handle increased animal populations, the sanctuaries and national parks tasked with receiving the animals will have to increase their staff to handle the transition. This would take effort and time for the animals to get over the trauma as well as get used to their new environment.
About the Author
Benjamin Elisha Sawe holds a Bachelor of Arts in Economics and Statistics and an MBA in Strategic Management. He is a frequent World Atlas contributor.
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