‘1 Billion Animals Killed’ in Australia’s Wildfires May Be Only the Beginning
Experts worry ecosystems devastated by this climate disaster may never recover
In Australia, bushfires have torched more than 21 million acres of land in the past four months. Fire officials regard it as the worst bushfire season ever seen on the continent: A combination of record-breaking heat and drought, lightning strikes, and potentially a few cases of arson have led to more than 100 fires, mostly in the southeastern state of New South Wales, destroying 2,500 buildings and killing 27 people.
But perhaps the most striking consequence of the fires has been the massive loss of animal life. On January 3, University of Sydney ecologist Christopher Dickman estimated that the fires have killed 480 million animals, but he has since revised that estimate to 1 billion. Harrowing footage of charred kangaroo and koala remains have become emblems of the catastrophe.
Now, though the blazes continue to burn — there are still four months left in the fire season in some parts of southeastern Australia — ecologists are bracing for the secondary effects of the fires. Entire ecosystems and the animals that live in them have already been decimated, but when fire season is over, the resulting destruction of key habitats, starvation, exposure to predators, and loss of genetic diversity are expected to lead to even more animal deaths.
“A lot of these animals occur nowhere else on the planet.”
“Billions of animals will have died during the fire or will likely die soon after,” says Euan Ritchie, a professor of wildlife ecology at Deakin University in Victoria.
Dickman and other ecologists who spoke to OneZero predicted what might happen in the near- and long-term future of Australia, noting that it could take decades for these ecosystems to regenerate, if they do at all. Even if the ecosystems succeed, it’s possible that this single fire season will have caused the extinction of entire animal species.
“It’s pretty awful,” Dickman says. “A lot of these animals occur nowhere else on the planet.”