Australia on fire: can its endemic wildlife recover?

Adelaide based photographer Brad Fleet‘s image of a charred kangaroo, caught in a fence as it fled the bushfires destroying the east of the continent, went viral this week. It seemed for a moment to shift the focus away from human catastrophe to the impact the fires are having on wildlife and the vast loss of irreplaceable bush and forest habitat.

Fire has already burned through more than 12 million acres, an area larger than Wales is still on fire, and it’s now thought that nearly half a billion animals have died in just New South Wales alone, though ecologists at Sydney University think the figure will be much higher. (No estimates exist for the number of plants destroyed as well.)

It’s an enormous, shocking number, but the figures don’t immediately make clear that the fires are probably causing extinctions. Wiping out species that exist nowhere else on the planet and were already teetering on the edge of disappearance.

While some Australian politicians, heads buried firmly in the sand, claim that Australia has always had bushfires and the country will recover (deputy prime minister, Michael McCormack, said Australia had endured fires “since time began” and victims did not need the “ravings” of “woke capital city greenies”), that is almost certainly far from the truth. In fact, Australia’s unique ecosystems, evolved in the absence of humanity, were already under huge pressure. Many of its endemic species survive only in pockets of remnant habitat, threatened by development, intensive agriculture, invasive species, and – now – climate change.

From the outside, Australia seems perhaps to be wild and almost untouched. Most development appears to be around its coasts, and visitors to major conurbations like Sydney or Melbourne are usually struck by the proximity of major National Parks and the seemingly abundant wildlife that lives within the cities themselves. Cockatoos and Brush-tailed Possums don’t tell the whole story though. Across the world what are known as generalist species have been able to adapt to living alongside us (think House Sparrows and Starlings for example). But many, many more species – from large mammals to invertebrates and plants often dependent on limited habitats or intricate, often fragile, relationships – haven’t.

Long before these devastating fires, Australia’s biodiversity had been crashing. The country already had “the dubious honour of the highest extinction rate of any nation“, and it’s estimated that more than 1,800 plant and animal species and ecological communities are at risk of extinction. The Conversation stated recently that 100 endemic Australian species living in 1788 are now validly listed as extinct (and speculated that, taking into account data-deficient species, the actual figure was probably ten times higher). In the last decade the extinction of three Australian species – the Christmas Island forest skink, Christmas Island pipistrelle and Bramble Cay Melomys (the latter the first mammalian extinction in the world to be caused by climate change) – have been documented, and two others became extinct in the wild.

How has this happened? Through almost unimaginably enormous changes to ecosystems by humans.

Australia is not alone in destroying its natural environment (western Europe has removed huge areas of forest and wetland, and North America’s forests and unique grasslands have mostly gone or been impacted of course) but despite what slick advertising promoting ‘wild Australia’ might suggest, widescale clearance of Australia’s native vegetation has been taking place since Europeans arrived in the the ‘Land of Plenty’ in 1788. In the 19th century, Australian states actually began passing laws that forced landholders to clear land, and direct government incentives for clearing land continued through to the 1980s. Now less than 50% of Australia’s original wilderness still exists.

The scale of change is impossible for someone used to, say, the far smaller scales of UK geography to imagine.

On the largest island continent in the world (Australia is the same size as the contiguous 48 States of the USA and far larger than Europe), some 25% of rainforest, 45% of open forest, 32% woodland forest and 30% of mallee forest has been destroyed in just 200 years.

According to the Wilderness Society, Australia has one of the highest rates of tree clearing of any developed country historically. They say, “In the past, we’ve bulldozed more bush each year than poverty-stricken countries like Burma, Mexico, Zimbabwe, Nigeri and the Congo“.

Putting out the bushfires requires enormous amounts of water. Alongside habitat clearance, Australia’s vast river systems have been diverted and exploited too. Again, the scale of the changes is hard to imagine.

The Murray-Darling basin, for instance, is slightly larger than Egypt and covers most of New South Wales, Victoria and the Australian Capital Territory, as well as parts of Queensland and South Australia. It has been dramatically altered by a huge expansion of irrigated crops, such as cotton, citrus and almonds. Massive extractions of water have left sensitive river wetlands and river red gum forests under stress from lack of water and increased salinity. Depleted, despoiled, often poisonous and since 2001 frequently dry, a 2018 article in the Sydney Morning Herald stated that “the Darling River is an emblem of poor government, mismanagement, greed and anti-democratic activity“.

Land clearance, dry, stressed forests, lack of groundwater, unprecedented bushfires, invasive animals and plants, and the sudden loss of half a billion animals. Little wonder that a lengthy Guardian article today was headlined “Silent death’: Australia’s bushfires push countless species to extinction”.

Running through the expected fate of a number of species few outside Australia will have ever heard of (and given the general lack of wildlife knowledge around the world, probably inside of it too), the author lists endemic marsupials like the Kangaroo Island Dunnart, Long-footed Potoroo, and Silver-headed Antechinus, unique animals found entirely within the area that has just been burnt to the ground.

He could have perhaps also included the endemic Rockwarbler, a small bird currently listed as Least Concern by the IUCN but whose entire range lies within the sandstone formations that surround Sydney (see map) and which are currently burning or are under threat.

Much of the media’s attention has been focussed on local towns and communities, as well as the region’s importance for tourism, but this is a globally-important area for wildlife too. In 2011, the Forests of East Australia region were identified as the 35th biodiversity hotspot by a team of researchers working with Conservation International. The area was determined to be a hotspot because it has more than 2,100 endemic vascular plant species. A huge array of wildlife depends on them.

Can the forests – and the widlife – recover? It’s far too early too say of course, but even before the fires 77% of the original habitat of the Forests of East Australia region had been destroyed. Huge swathes of what remained – pockets of original habitat native wildlife depend on – have now been lost too.

Forests and wildlife are inter-dependent. Forests need wildlife to rebuild themselves as much as wildlife needs forests.

Given the scale of these fires it’s possible that the very system, the interconnected web of life of everything from fungi and small plants to invertebrates and larger animals and birds that spreads forest seeds, pollinates their flowers, irrigates and feeds the trees, has been ripped apart. And as has been widely reported in recent years, experts think that climate change and changes in rainfall patterns will make mass destruction events like this more frequent in the future.

The scale of the destruction of wildlife and irreplaceable habitats by the bushfires raging in eastern Australia is literally almost impossible to grasp, but it will have a huge and lasting impact. And of course the fires are not even close to being out yet. A slew of species dependent on the region’s remaining wild areas may never recover. 

As Prof John Woinarski, of Charles Darwin University, says, “These fires are homogenising the landscape. They benefit no species…They have set back conservation in Australia for a very long period.”