The Press

Bushfires enough to drive some species to extinction

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Almost three billion koalas, kangaroos, reptiles, birds and other animals were killed or displaced in the bushfires that swept through Australia from September to March, the World Wide Fund for Nature has said.

That is three times as many as previously reported, and enough to drive some species to extinction.

The fires burnt through an area more than 80 per cent the size of England, destroying 6000 buildings and killing at least 34 people.

Chris Dickman, a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science who oversaw the WWF study, said the findings had shocked the researcher­s. ‘‘Three thousand million native vertebrate­s is just huge. It’s a number so big that you can’t comprehend it. It’s almost half the human population of the planet.’’

Many of the reptiles affected were smaller species such as skinks, that can live in densities of more than 1500 individual­s per hectare.

Dickman’s team has updated an earlier piece of research to include the effects of fires outside New South Wales, the worst-hit state.

The broader investigat­ion takes in the impact of the fires in the southeaste­rn state of Victoria and in South Australia. It also includes a greater number of species, including bats and frogs.

Dickman, a professor in ecology at the University of Sydney, said that the revised figure was still a conservati­ve one, with animals such as turtles not included. ‘‘These are the lower estimates. We’ll never know exactly what the number might have been.’’

The team of 10 scientists from universiti­es across Australia examined the impact of the fires on mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs. They calculated that 143 million mammals were killed or displaced, 2.4 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs. The study did not distinguis­h deaths from displaceme­nts, as that could not be estimated reliably, but it is thought that more than 90 per cent of the animals had died.

Dickman said he had ‘‘no doubt’’ some species would have been pushed to extinction. Other studies suggest the Kangaroo Island dunnart, a mouse-sized endangered marsupial, had lost so much habitat to the fires that it has almost entirely disappeare­d. A similar fate could await the longfooted potoroo, a small marsupial found in east Gippsland, Victoria.

The dense smoke generated by the fires killed a group of the critically endangered Australian smoky mouse held in a breeding programme more than 40 kilometres away, according to researcher­s from Charles Sturt University.

Dickman said the impact on wildlife of the fires was comparable to the worst disasters to hit the natural world, such as the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska in 1989, or the Deepwater Horizon spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. He said it was ‘‘quite likely that we’re going to get more and more big fires of the kind that we saw over the last fire season’’.

‘‘I think we’ve unleashed the demon in climate change,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s very hard to see how we’re going to scale things back.’’ – The Times

 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Penny Lenehan Hawser, a ranger and keeper from Australia Zoo, releases a koala affected by bushfires and treated by the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park back into native bushland in February in Parndana.
GETTY IMAGES Penny Lenehan Hawser, a ranger and keeper from Australia Zoo, releases a koala affected by bushfires and treated by the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park back into native bushland in February in Parndana.

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