Australia is on verge of natural disaster (or is it already there?)
14 January 14:20
In a grim video posted on Twitter, a man drives into the fire-ravaged town of Batlow in the Australian state of New South Wales. Both sides of the road are covered with ash and smoke. They are also littered with the charred remains of animals that died in the fires.
The blaze that has been raging across the continent for months, has damaged homes and entire towns. It has destroyed more than 7 million hectares of land, most of which is bushland, forests and national parks where unique animals live.
Scientists from the University of Sydney say the fires in New South Wales alone have affected about half a billion creatures, including birds, reptiles, and mammals (except bats). The figure does not include insects and frogs.
According to ecologist Christopher Dickman, the total number of affected animals could reach a billion.
Australia is no stranger to wildfires, but they have been more intense and destructive in recent years. The problem is exacerbated by climate change. Animals are at the forefront: Australia has the highest rate of species loss among all areas of the world, and researchers fear that it may get worse as the fires continue.
Some animals, like koalas and kangaroos, are mostly killed by fire (due to burns and suffocation). Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said in December that almost a third of all koalas in New South Wales had died, and about a third of their habitat had been destroyed. Even if koalas are rescued and treated, sometimes their injuries are simply too serious to survive.
Wombats have also been affected, they do not cope well with heat and stress, and panic because of the smoke. The small marsupials cannot run very fast or far.
Other species die from the effects of the fire rather than from flames and smoke. Smaller mammals and reptiles can escape the flames by hiding underground or in rocks, but after a fire, there is no food or shelter for them.
Kangaroos and koalas live all over the continent, so they are not threatened with extinction from the flames. But other animals that live in certain locations and have a smaller populations may be destroyed completely. These include the eastern bristlebird, mountain pygmy possum, and corroboree frog.
Extinction does not happen all at once. Each species on Earth has an average of 220 populations, so a healthy species can survive if only a few of them disappear.
Recovery of animals depends not only on their number, but also on their living conditions. For example, plants grow slower in high-altitude Alpine regions, which means that it can take a very long time before species can return.
Sometimes, even if the habitat is restored, the animals do not return. In 1993, a fire in the Royal National Park in New South Wales destroyed the greater gliders that lived there (a type of lemur-like gliding marsupial).
It’s not that animals are unprepared for natural disasters. They have been dealing with fires for thousands of years. But human intervention has changed everything. People have fragmented natural environment with cities and residential areas, cleared land for agriculture, and brought invasive species, making it difficult for native species to repopulate after fires.
Perhaps the most devastating human factor has been the climate crisis, which experts say has made natural disasters worse. Australia is experiencing one of the worst droughts in decades. In December, the country broke the highest average temperature record, with some places experiencing over 40 degree Celsius temperatures.
Animal hospitals, zoos and rescue teams on the ground are doing everything they can to respond to the fire crisis, and local residents and volunteers are taking care of injured animals.
Federal Environment Minister Ley said in December that the government was working with koala experts. $6 million Australian dollars has been allocated to create habitat corridors and a plan for releasing animals from hospitals.
Australia has more than three hundred native species, and about 81 percent of them live only there. If the animals are destroyed, the rare species may disappear forever.