Wildfires in Australia have turned skies over the country a horrifying red, they are strangling humans and wildlife with thick smoke, and leaving millions dead in their wake.
According to CBS News, at least 12.35 million acres have so far been razed by the fires, which have prompted thousands of residents from New South Wales and Victoria to leave their homes, entire towns emptying overnight. Meanwhile unpaid firefighters battle the raging fires 24 hours a day. At least 17 human deaths have been attributed to the wildfires, but the toll on wildlife has been much worse.
Images and videos showing the charred bodies of kangaroos and koalas show only a small fraction of the devastation. An estimated half a billion mammals, birds and reptiles have been wiped off the face of the earth since the fires began worsening in September 2019. Researchers from the University of Sydney believe the actual total is much higher.
“Not all animals in the burned areas would necessarily be killed directly by the fires — some would fly off, others would go underground, others may find a small unburnt refuge under rocks,” Professor Christopher Dickman from the University of Sydney told CBS News. “Still, the numbers of animals directly affected by the fires are clearly huge, and prior research indicates that in severely burned areas, the resulting lack of shelter, lack of food, and incursions by invasive predators lead to further drastic but indirect reductions of animal numbers.”
Koala populations have already been in decline in Australia owing to habitat loss. The drought that withered Australia’s eucalyptus forests, where the koalas make their home, made them much more likely to catch fire. As a result, about a third of the world’s koala population is thought to have perished in the blazes.
“Up to 30% of their habitat has been destroyed,” Australia’s environment minister, Sussan Ley, told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Creatures from every level of the food chain have been put at risk by the fires. Many migratory animals that help cycle nutrients, and pollinating insects and birds have been killed off.
“The fires have burned so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies,” Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told parliament.
If and when the blazes subside, the continent may experience some ecological instability as life attempts to resume. According to University of Sydney Associate Professor Dieter Hochuli, the outlook is not bright for many regional species.
“Fire is a natural part of Australian ecosystems and many of our plants and animals are adapted to it,” Hochuli said. “However, changes to the frequency and intensity of fires can have a massive impact on wildlife. We know that risk of extinction increases exponentially as populations decline to low numbers so this raises significant concerns for their future.”
The following video shows the devastating effects the wildfires have had on animals in Australia. It contains graphic content that some viewers may want to avoid.
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Matthew Russell is a West Michigan native and with a background in journalism, data analysis, cartography and design thinking. He likes to learn new things and solve old problems whenever possible, and enjoys bicycling, going to the dog park, spending time with his daughter, and coffee.