28 Jul 2020

Australia's fires 'killed or harmed three billion animals'

9:26 pm on 28 July 2020

Nearly three billion animals were killed or displaced during Australia's devastating bushfires of the past year, scientists say.

A kangaroo jumps in a field amidst smoke from a bushfire in Snowy Valley on the outskirts of Cooma

Many animals had no where to go to escape the fires. Photo: AFP

The findings meant it was one of the "worst wildlife disasters in modern history", said the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), which commissioned the report.

Mega blazes swept across every Australian state last summer, scorching bush and killing at least 33 people.

Mammals, reptiles, birds and frogs died in the flames or from loss of habitat.

During the peak of the crisis in January, scientists had estimated that 1.25 billion animals had been killed in New South Wales and Victoria alone.

But the new estimate takes in a larger area. About 11.46 million hectares - an area comparable to England - was scorched from September to February.

What was the impact?

"When you think about nearly three billion native animals being in the path of the fires, it is absolutely huge - it's a difficult number to comprehend," said Prof Chris Dickman, who oversaw the project by 10 scientists from Australian universities.

Signage in the Budgong National Park, NSW, after bushfires on 15 January, 2020.

Wildlife struggled to find food and shelter after the fires Photo: AFP

He said they could not yet state an exact death toll, but noted the chances of animals escaping the blazes and surviving were "probably not that great" due to a lack of food and shelter.

The numbers were based on population counts and estimates of animal density before the disaster.

Limitations on data meant that some groups - such as invertebrates, fish and turtles - were not included in the estimates.

In February, the Australian government identified 113 animal species which needed "urgent help" after the bushfires. LINK??

Almost all on the list had lost at least 30 percent of their habitat in temperate forests and grasslands of Australia's south and east.

Koalas and wallabies - as well as birds, fish and frog species - were among those needing the most help, said experts.

The Australian government pledged A$50m (NZ$53.6m) to wildlife and habitat recovery, but environmentalists have called on the country to strengthen its conservation laws.

Australia is holding a royal commission inquiry into the fires, which is due to report findings in October.

Smoke and haze over mountains seen from an Australian air force aircraft assessing damage in the area from bushfires, in Cooma in New South Wales on 7 January, 2020.

Smoke and haze over mountains in Cooma, New South Wales, seen from an Australian air force aircraft assessing damage on 7 January. Photo: Murray Staff / Royal Australian Air Force / AFP

It has heard overwhelming evidence from scientists who said the unprecedented frequency and severity of the blazes were a result of climate change.

Experts also said that smoke from the fires was linked to more than 445 deaths.


Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs