The Current·Q&A

Australia's wildfires killed or displaced more than 3 billion animals, report says

Nearly three billion koalas, kangaroos and other native species are estimated to have been killed or displaced during Australia's devastating wildfires. The University of Sydney's Chris Dickman explains the findings of a new study on the loss of biodiversity.

Some species may never recover after the wildfires of 2019 and 2020, according to ecology researcher

An injured koala sits at the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park, at the Wildlife Emergency Response Centre in Parndana, Kangaroo Island, Australia, on Jan. 19, 2020. (Tracey Nearmy/Reuters)

Nearly three billion koalas, kangaroos and other native species are estimated to have been killed or displaced during Australia's devastating wildfires this year and last, according to a new report funded by WWF-Australia.

The number is three times higher than a previous estimate. Researchers said the destruction will see some species become extinct before they were ever recorded.

Chris Dickman, a professor of ecology at the University of Sydney who oversaw the research, spoke to The Current guest host Mark Kelley about the profound impact of the wildfires on Australia's biodiversity. Here is part of their conversation.

Chris, I'm trying to wrap my head around this figure. Three billion animals dead or displaced. Can you put that into perspective for us?

It's almost incomprehensible. Three thousand million native vertebrates. It was over an area of nearly 12 million hectares of forest woodland that burned, and a shockingly huge number of animals that were in the path of the flames.

There was the estimate of one billion. It goes to three billion. The impact on you when you realized the amount of the devastation that had occurred during these fires — tell me about that.

It's pretty shocking. I think the koala was probably, in some ways, the poster animal for the effects of the fires, because there was so much harrowing footage that was captured at the time of koalas fleeing the flames and some animals, being caught and moved into care.

But behind the koala, it's pretty clear that if you spend any time in the forests, that there is an enormous number of other species and populations of different things that occur there as well.

And if the koala is being affected, then almost certainly, very large numbers of other species that are less well-known will be affected as well.

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I was curious about the ripple effect, because you may be looking at one species, but then you realize the interconnectedness of this. What does this do to Australia's biodiversity?

In terms of the biodiversity, there are species' populations across that vast 12 million hectare area that will probably take decades — in some cases, perhaps a century — to rebuild. And that's in the situation where they've actually escaped extinction. 

There has been a little bit of work subsequently by the government-established expert panel that has suggested that there are something like 119 species of vertebrates that are going to be at further risk because of the fires, 191 invertebrates and 470 species of plants.

Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services volunteer and carer Tracy Burgess holds a severely burnt brushtail possum rescued from fires near Australia’s Blue Mountains, on Dec. 29, 2019. (Jill Gralow/Reuters)

Now, we don't know how many of these are likely to have disappeared, but these are the species that are considered most at risk, because when the fires started, they already had small populations or geographical distributions.

I read that a cross-party committee in New South Wales state government found last month that koalas could become extinct in that state by 2050. What's your feeling about that? Is this a species that is on the brink now?

I think that there's no doubt it's at substantial risk in New South Wales. It may not go extinct, but there's no doubt that as a consequence of the most recent fires — and I think as a consequence of broad scale land clearing and removal of forest habitat for development — it will become increasingly scarce in New South Wales.

It will exist in other parts of its range in Queensland, Victoria, South Australia. New South Wales is in many ways the stronghold, especially northern New South Wales, and that's where some of the fiercest fires took place. So its numbers will be reduced, and it will become a much scarcer animal than at present.

In this Dec. 31, 2019, photo, fire and thick smoke remains the village of Nerrigundah, Australia. The tiny village was among the hardest hit by Australia's devastating wildfires, which ravaged nearly 12 million hectares. (Siobhan Threlfall/The Associated Press)

Chris, the fires are a function of climate change. Has this carpet bombing of wildlife nbeen a real wake-up call for people in Australia to realize the problem that they're dealing with right now with the environment?

There's no doubt that it has. And there have been various responses at different levels in the community and different levels of government.

There are various inquiries and reviews that are being held at the moment into the causes of the bushfires and what can be done to mitigate the effects in the future.

So we'll have a better idea, probably by later in the year, when the various inquiries report back and we begin to see some policy changes by the government.

Written by Mary Vallis. Interview produced by Lindsay Rempel. Q&A edited for length and clarity. 

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