The blazes, which have been burning across Australia for months, have razed homes and wiped out entire towns. Across Australia, nearly 18 million acres of land have been burned — much of it bushland, forests and national parks, home to the country’s beloved and unique wildlife.
Nearly half a billion animals have been impacted by the fires in NSW alone, with millions potentially dead, according to ecologists at the University of Sydney. That figure includes birds, reptiles, and mammals, except bats. It also excludes insects and frogs — meaning the true number is likely much higher.
The total number of animals affected nationwide could be as high as a billion, according to Christopher Dickman, the University of Sydney ecologist who led the report.
Flames, food, and predators
It’s a pretty good estimate, Hochuli said — but until the fires stop, they have no way of surveying exactly how many animals have died. And since the density figures excluded some species of bats and frogs, “the true loss of animal life is likely to be much higher than 480 million,” said a statement from the university.
Climate crisis and recovery in a changing landscape
Perhaps the most devastating human factor has been the climate crisis, which experts say has made natural disasters go from bad to worse. Australia is experiencing one of its most severe droughts in decades, and a heatwave in December broke the record for highest nationwide average temperature, with some places sweltering under temperatures well above 40 degrees Celsius (about 113-120 degrees Fahrenheit).
The depletion of animals and their homes is a vicious cycle; just as animals need habitats to survive, so too do habitats need their animals.
For instance, a type of rat kangaroo called the potoroo is crucial to keeping forest soil healthy. If potoroos are hit by fire, some plant species might be unable to regenerate, which could then kill off other species that feed on vegetation. Ecosystems are built on balance — once one element is thrown off, everything is affected.
But some fear that unless authorities take decisive long-term action on climate change and animal conservation, the country’s wildlife and environment could face a dire future. Australia has more than 300 native species — and about 81% of them are only found in the country. If they are wiped out here, these rare animals could be gone for good.