Up To 3 Billion Animals Were Affected By Australia's Recent Megafires, New Figures Show

Iluka, New South Wales / Australia - NOVEMBER 27, 2019: up to 143 million mammals were affected by Australia's seasonal mega-fires in 2019/2020. Anna LoFi/Shutterstock

It might seem like a long time ago now, but you'll no doubt remember this "eventful" year started off with a devastating bushfire season in Australia. A new report has studied the impact of the catastrophic bushfire season on the ecosystem Down Under and found that the damage could be up to three times higher than early estimates suggested. 

Almost 3 billion animals were killed, harmed, or displaced by Australia’s devastating 2019-20 bushfires, according to a new report by the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF). This includes up to 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs.

“This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history,” Dermot O’Gorman, CEO of WWF-Australia, said in a statement.

“The interim findings are shocking. It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals.”

Titled Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll, the new report looks at the fire impact across 11.46 million hectares of land, primarily in the southeast and southwest of Australia along with the rainforests of northern Australia. Within this area of forests and woodlands that burned down, there would have been almost 3 billion native vertebrates. 

Burnt eucalyptus trees lay in the aftermath of the Australian bushfires. Daria Nipot/Shutterstock

Back in January, while many of the fires were still raging, scientists at the WWF estimated that around 1.25 billion animals may have been killed directly or indirectly from the ongoing fires. Now it looks like this preliminary estimation was far too conservative. 

Not all of the animals will have perished in the blaze, says the report. However, given the scale of the devastation, the research concludes that most of these 3 billion animals would have been deeply affected by the flames, whether that’s through injury, loss of habitat, or lack of food. 

Reptiles were the hardest hit of all the animal taxa, with approximately 2.46 billion individual animals affected by the fire. Per the report, reptiles were so severely hit because they tend to live in much higher densities. For example, some species of small lizards such as skinks can reach densities of over 1,500 individuals per hectare.

It’s not possible to gauge a definitive death toll due to the lack of hard data on animal densities and the complexity of how various factors influence different animals. It’s also unclear how some indirect factors, such as smoke inhalation and sediment runoff into waterways, might have affected different species. But regardless of the finer details, the report still paints a grim picture of how widely the Australian ecosystems were affected by the bushfire season of 2019/2020. 

Although this summer’s “mega-fires” were an exceptional destructive event, the report stresses it’s unlikely to be a one-off occurrence. Previous estimates suggest human-induced climate change increased the risk of hot and dry weather that drove the bushfires by up to 30 percent. As climate change continues to foster warmer air temperatures and dry weather in this part of the world and beyond, similar bushfire seasons are set to become all the more likely in the near future.

As such, the report highlights a number of recommendations for how the world can help to lessen the severity of future bushfires through forest management, such as improving habitat connectivity to help species escape from fires. 

“Following such a heavy toll on Australia’s wildlife, strengthening this law has never been more important. 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,” added O’Gorman.

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