An ill wind: a house burns near Lake Conjola, New South Wales, on New Year’s Eve 2019
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t It was once home to a large and varied mammal fauna, including rat-kangaroos, bandicoots and native rodents. Almost all medium-sized mammals are now extinct or restricted to offshore islands, and it is thought that changes in fire regime between around 1930 and 1960 played a key role in their extinctions.
Aboriginal people had long burned the inland in a mosaic to create patches of freshly burned, regrowing areas that provided the medium-sized mammals with food, adjacent to long, unburned patches that provided shelter. When the Aboriginal people were dispossessed, huge wildfires raged through the inland, some large enough to burn through three states – Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland.
In the vast, charred landscape that resulted, the medium-sized mammals could neither find sufficient shelter nor migrate outside the burned zone. Food and cover were hard to find, and predators such as the fox and cat, introduced by British settlers in the 19th century, cleaned up any survivors. The result was the extinction of around 10 per cent of Australia’s total mammal fauna.
In the late 20th century the Top End of Australia’s Northern Territory endured a similar experience. Surveys by zoologists of Kakadu National Park reveal that over the past few decades its medium-sized mammals such as tree-rats and quolls have vanished. Again, changes in fire regime and feral cats are suspected.
Today, as bushfires of unprecedented scale burn through the great forests of Australia’s south-east, biologists are trying to assess the likely damage. By some estimates, around a billion animals have been impacted by the fires. As many areas will remain inaccessible until trails are cleared and made safe, we will not know the full extent of the damage for many months. But already indications of the impact on the more obvious species are coming through. Around Port Macquarie, as many as a third of the koalas have probably perished, and on Kangaroo Island has likely lost more than half its population of koalas.
Much can be done, even at this stage, to prevent extinctions
Among the species I’m most concerned about is the Wollemi Pine, which can grow to 40m and which has an ancient lineage that has led it to be described as a living vegetable dinosaur. Four tiny groves exist deep in the Wollemi wilderness, which has been burning for months; there are fears that three of its four groves may be at risk. With months still to go in this fire season, the pine and the dozens of other plant species around Sydney that exist in tiny patches will be in danger of extinction until the weather changes.
The impact of the 2019-20 bushfires will be with Australians for many years. As ash from the fires washes away, waterways can become poisoned, threatening aquatic life. And as feral cats and foxes discover the bonanza awaiting them on the fire grounds – in the form of native species left without food and shelter – already stressed species will be pushed closer to the brink.
There is much that can be done, even at this stage, to prevent extinctions. Affected individuals need to be cared for, and large efforts must be made to eliminate cats and foxes, and to protect remnant, unburned habitat. Looking forward, it is clear that as greenhouse gases increase, so will fire danger. Australia ranks at the bottom of the ladder in terms of its climate policy, according to the Climate Change Performance Index, with greenhouse gas emissions from the burning of fossil fuels rising year after year. I find it inexcusable that sun- and wind-rich Australia still relies on coal burning for 60 per cent of its electricity, while Britain has cut its dependence on coal to 3 per cent.
There is no sign that the Australian government is willing to introduce new policies to cut emissions drastically. Too many politicians are too close to the fossil fuel industries, and there’s too much money to be made. As Australians realise that today’s greenhouse gas emissions are fuelling tomorrow’s fires, I hope that a government pledging to take aggressive action will finally be elected. l Tim Flannery is an Australian zoologist and environmentalist. His books include “The Weather Makers: Our Changing Climate and What it Means for Life on Earth” (Penguin)
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