Animal breakdown of catastrophic bushfires quantified

Estimates some 3 billion animals were killed or misplaced by the 2019-20 mega-fires in Australia have been confirmed – with a breakdown by animal type forthe first time – in a conclusive Sydney-led report commissioned by WWF.

More than 60,000 koalas were among the animals impacted by last summer’swildfire crisis, according to the University of Sydney-led report commissionedby the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.

Impacts include death, injury, trauma, smoke inhalation, heat stress,dehydration, loss of habitat, reduced food supply, increased predation risk,and conflict with other animals after fleeing to unburnt forest.

In July, WWF published an interim version of the study which revealed thatnearly 3 billion animals – mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs – were in thepath of the devastating bushfires.

That overall estimate is unchanged in the final report, released today,entitled “ Impacts of the unprecedented 2019-2020 bushfires on Australiananimals”.

About 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 181 million birds, and 51million frogs occupied areas hit by the fires.

The completed research contains new information including estimates of theimpacts on some individual animal species and groupings of species.

It’s estimated that 50 million native rats and mice; nearly 40 million possumsand gliders; more than 36 million antechinuses, dunnarts, and otherinsectivorous marsupials; 5.5 million bettongs, bandicoots, quokkas, andpotoroos; 5 million kangaroos and wallabies; 5 million bats; 1.1 millionwombats; 114,000 echidnas; 61,000 koalas; 19,000 quolls and Tasmanian devils;and 5,000 dingoes were in the path of the flames.

The fires impacted more than 41,000 koalas on South Australia’s KangarooIsland, more than 11,000 in Victoria, nearly 8,000 in NSW, and nearly 900 inQueensland.

The research into how many animals were impacted by the fires was managed byDr Lily van Eeden and overseen by Professor Chris Dickman, both from theUniversity of Sydney’s School of Life and Environmental Sciences.

Their recommendations include implementing mapping and monitoring of plantsand animals in bioregions most at risk in future fires, and developingstrategies to protect these areas during fires.

Dr van Eeden said: “We didn’t have a lot of data for some animals. Moreresearch is needed on how many animals are out there and their ability tosurvive different levels of fire intensity. We need to understand this toprotect species more effectively.”

Chris Dickman, a Professor in Terrestrial Ecology and WWF-Australia boardmember, said with long-term monitoring, scientists would be in a much betterposition to know where and when to act and what resources were needed to saveat-risk species.

“People have been shocked by our research and have said to me, ‘we can’t allowcatastrophes of this magnitude to continue into the future,” Professor Dickmansaid.

WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman said koalas in NSW and Queensland were inrapid decline before the fires.

“Sixty thousand koalas impacted is a deeply disturbing number for a speciesalready in trouble. That’s why WWF has just announced Koalas Forever – a boldvision to double the number of koalas in eastern Australia by 2050,” he said.

“Koalas Forever includes a trial of seed dispersing drones to create koalacorridors and the establishment of a fund to encourage landowners to createkoala safe havens.

Image: Echidna in a burnt-out forest. Credit: WWF-Australia/Douglas Thron.

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