Wildlife & Biodiversity

Nearly 3 bln animals perished in Australian bushfires: WWF study

An estimated 143 million mammals, 180 million birds, 51 million frogs and 2.5 billion reptiles affected

 
By DTE Staff
Last Updated: Tuesday 28 July 2020
The impact on animals other than koalas — a species native to Australia that became the face of the bushfires — was much more. Photo: Needpix

Nearly three billion animals died or were displaced because of Australia’s bushfire season between 2019 and 2020, said an interim study by international non-profit World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) July 2020.

An estimated 143 million mammals, 180 million birds, 51 million frogs and 2.5 billion reptiles were affected by the fires, said a report by The Guardian.

The report was based on the work carried out by 10 scientists from five institutions: University of Sydney, University of New South Wales, University of Newcastle, Charles Sturt University and Birdlife Australia.

The toll detailed by the study was much more than an earlier estimate that said a billion animals were killed by the bushfires.

The new estimate studied a larger area than the earlier one. Nearly 11.46 million hectares — an area around the size of the United Kingdom — was assessed, said the study.

This included 8.5 million hectares of forest land, mostly in the southeast and southwest and 120,000 hectares of the northern rainforest.

Researchers pointed out the extent to which biodiversity in Australia was affected.

“It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals,” Dermot O’Gorman, WWF-Australia’s chief executive, was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

This ranked as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history, O’Gorman said.

Chris Dickman — an ecology professor at the University of Sydney and fellow of the Australian Academy of Science who oversaw the project — compared the loss to that of losing half the humans in the planet.

“Three thousand million native vertebrates is just huge. It’s a number so big that you can’t comprehend it,” Dickman was quoted as saying by The Guardian.

Scientists, however, said this number was conservative because of the limitations of the methodologies used for the study.

The impact on animals other than koalas — a species native to Australia that became the face of the bushfires — was much more, said Dickman.

Several reptiles were affected, including skinks, who live in densities of more than 1,500 individuals per hectare.

Several techniques were used to prepare the study. Mammal numbers were collated on published data on densities of each species in different areas, while reptile estimates were calculated on the basis of environmental conditions and a global database.

The number of birds lost were estimated from BirdLife Australia data based on nearly 104,000 standardised surveys, The Guardian report pointed out, citing the study.

Australian scientists — since the 1980s — have warned against the addition of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, which they said increased the risk of bushfires.

The risk of dry conditions that drove the fires increased by a factor of more than four since 1900, according to an analysis conducted in March cited by The Guardian. This could increase to eight times more if global heating above pre-industry levels reached 2 degrees Celsius.

Australia has begun a royal commission inquiry into the bushfires, the findings of which are expected by October, reported the British Broadcasting Corporation.

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