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Sydney -- Nearly three billion animals – mammals, reptiles, birds, and frogs – were killed or displaced by Australia’s devastating 2019-20 bushfires. It’s almost three times an earlier estimate released in January.
The breakdown is 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds, and 51 million frogs.
Those figures are revealed in an interim report entitled Australia’s 2019-2020 Bushfires: The Wildlife Toll, commissioned by WWF and believed to be world-first research.
Ten scientists from the University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, Charles Sturt University, and BirdLife Australia contributed the majority of the work.
The project is being led by Dr. Lily Van Eeden and overseen by Professor Chris Dickman, both from the University of Sydney.
While results are still being finalized, the headline figure of nearly three billion animals impacted is unlikely to change.
“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. This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman.
“When you think about nearly three billion native animals being in the path of the fires it is absolutely huge, it’s a difficult number to comprehend,” said Professor Dickman.
While the scientists cannot say how many animals died, Professor Dickman said the prospects for animals which escaped the flames were “probably not that great” because of a lack of food and shelter or being forced into habitat already occupied.
In January, Professor Dickman, working with WWF scientists, produced an early estimate that 1.25 billion animals were impacted. However, that calculation focused only on the states of New South Wales and Victoria.
Dr. Van Eeden said for this project the team examined a fire impact area of 11.46 million hectares.
“We believe a continent-wide assessment of the number of animals that might be impacted has never been done in Australia before or anywhere else in the world. Other nations can build upon this research to improve understanding of bushfire impacts everywhere,” Dr. Van Eeden said.
Mr. O’Gorman said with extreme fires becoming more frequent because of climate change the interim findings “give other countries a window into the future of mega fires and their devastating impact on wildlife”.
He said the research had also been released in time to be considered by the review of Australia’s flagship environment law – the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act.
“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,” Mr. O’Gorman said.
Professor Dickman said the research shows people that mega fires are changing the environment and depleting native biodiversity and change is necessary.
“How quickly can we decarbonize? How quickly can we stop our manic land clearing? We land clear at a rate that’s one of the highest in the world,” Professor Dickman said.
The recommendations in the interim report call for addressing knowledge gaps on wildlife densities and responses to fire, improving habitat connectivity to help mobile species escape fire, identifying and protecting unburnt habitat crucial to threatened species, improving fire prevention and management, and establishing rapid response teams to help species impacted by fire.
It's anticipated that the final report will be completed by the end of August 2020.