The hundreds of fires racing across Australia have captured the world’s attention and left an indelible scar on the continent, with at least 27 human lives lost, 15 million acres consumed and nearly 2,000 homes destroyed. And then, of course, there are the animals, shown dead or scarred in unforgettable photos. The exact number of wild creatures killed in the blazes won’t be known for a while, but one estimate, from University of Sydney ecologist Chris Dickman, puts it at a staggering 1 billion animals.
With record droughts and high temperatures fueling the bushfires, experts warn that Australia’s present horror could be a harbinger of climate-amplified disasters to come for the rest of the world.
And while this could inspire a wake-up call for climate action, it should also ring alarm bells about the extinction crisis — and shine a light on the historical factors that have made the conflagration and resulting biodiversity loss so devastating.
Biodiversity up in Flames
Globally the planet is experiencing an unparalleled biodiversity crisis, with as many as a million species facing extinction. The problem is perhaps most acutely felt in Australia, where more than 1,800 plant and animal species are federally listed as threatened. The island nation is one of the world’s most important biodiversity hotspots, with upwards of 80% of its plant and animal species found nowhere else.
The wildfires could wipe out some species directly or, in the aftermath, through loss of food, habitat and shelter.
It’s an extreme situation for a country that normally experiences some level of recurring natural fire.
“Many Australian plants and animals are fire-adapted, but this fire event occurred at a scale and intensity that is unprecedented,” says wildlife ecologist Sarah Legge, a professor at the Australian National University and principal research fellow with the University of Queensland.
“When fires are smaller in area and of lower intensity, relatively smaller proportions of populations are affected and species are able to recover between fire events,” she says. “Now, in this event, such large areas have been simultaneously affected so severely that populations will struggle to recover.”
Climate change is making Australia’s fire seasons longer and more severe. And fire frequency is also increasing in many areas of the country, making it harder for even fire-adapted species to bounce back from each successive event.
“We’re already seeing ecosystem collapse in some areas,” Legge says. “For example, the alpine ash forests of the high country are being transformed from biodiverse wet eucalyptus to an attenuated, scrubbier and more flammable forest.”
The scale and intensity of fires are bad news for a lot of wildlife, and experts estimate that around 200 threatened species have already been affected.
Some could be brought to the brink of extinction. The Kangaroo Island dunnart, a mouse-sized endangered marsupial, may have already lost as much as 95% of its habitat.
A similar fate could await the long-footed potoroo, a small marsupial found in east Gippsland, Victoria, and the spring midge orchid near Batemans Bay on the coast of New South Wales, says Legge. Species with the smallest distributions are at the greatest risk, even those few with protective measures in place.
“For some species, many years of conservation effort have been obliterated in the space of a few weeks,” she says. “We face a future where these events will recur at increasing frequency.”
Although the current news is grim, Australia’s wildlife crisis actually predates the most recent fires and can be traced back to the beginning of European colonization.
At least 90 species have gone extinct in Australia over the past two centuries, and the country now has the inglorious honor of holding the record for the most mammalian extinctions in the world, including the first mammal declared extinct from climate change — the Bramble Cay melomys.
In fact, in the past 200 years the country has lost more biodiversity than any other developed nation, according to a November 2019 study published in Conservation Letters, which Legge co-authored. The biggest drivers of these losses include invasive species and rampant habitat destruction.
And all these historical problems are compounded by a lack of modern political will.
Recent research by The Guardian found that under 40% of Australia’s federally listed threatened species have accompanying recovery plans. The paper also found that no new critical habitat for threatened species has been listed since 2005.
The inaction has come with a cost. Australia has lost a third of its native vegetation since European colonization, according to a study published last year in Conservation Science and Practice. Researchers also found that the majority of the species listed as threatened are seriously affected by habitat loss, which comes from clearing land for agriculture, mining and other development.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In 1999 Australia passed the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (EPBC Act) to help protect the country’s biodiversity and ecological communities. But since then the Act has done little to stop habitat destruction. The study estimated that 19 million acres (7.7 million hectares) of potential forest and woodland habitat for threatened species were destroyed between 2000 and 2017, much of it to create livestock pasture.
Shockingly 93% of that lost land was never referred to the federal government to be evaluated for the development’s potential impact on nearby species — a requirement under the guidelines of the EPBC Act.
This was more than a policy failure.
“It’s hard for any reasonable person to see how 7 million hectares of unassessed, unapproved destruction of threatened species habitat can be other than unlawful,” Martin Taylor, one of the report’s co-authors and a conservation science manager at the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia, said when the report was released in September. “The government is failing to enforce a law designed to halt Australia’s extinction crisis.”
The Mount Cooper striped skink lost 25% of its potential habitat to development during this period, making it one of the biggest losers in the enforcement failure. The Keighery’s macarthuria, a small flowing shrub, lost 23% and the southern black‐throated finch 10%.
Even more well-known species suffered. The beloved koala — perhaps the poster child for the current fires — lost around 2.5 million acres (1 million hectares), 2% of its potential habitat.
Photo: University of Sydney
The study’s authors concluded that “Australia’s flagship environmental legislation is almost completely ineffective at limiting the ongoing loss of potential habitat for listed terrestrial species and communities… As habitat loss is the primary cause of species extinction, we urge mechanisms that protect habitat be embedded within the federal legislation.”
The federal government does not appear to have responded to the study about the EPBC Act, but the month after the study was published it appointed a review of the law with the goal of reducing what it called “green tape” and making things even easier for businesses and farmers. The move was praised by the National Farmers’ Federation in an Oct. 29 press release that called the Act “convoluted.”
Political Will and Public Pressure
Weak enforcement of legislation isn’t the only problem. Protective efforts also suffer from a lack of funding.
The Conservation Letters study revealed that Australia is spending just 15% of what’s needed to avoid extinctions and recover its threatened species. And it spends far less than many other countries, such as the United States, which has a high success rate for saving species listed as endangered — though it should be noted that the Trump administration has taken steps to weaken the Endangered Species Act, which has been responsible for those accomplishments.
Australia would likely need an estimated $1.27 billion (U.S.) a year to recover its listed threatened species. If that seems like a big price tag, the study’s authors point out that the government gave out $735 million in tax credits to coal companies alone in 2018. Australian citizens, meanwhile, spend twice the needed amount every year caring for their pet cats (which are another major driver of native species loss).
“Funding for conservation — and conservation actions — tends to be short-term and ephemeral, and thus doesn’t support long-lasting change or improvements,” says Legge. “Responsibility for the environment is shared between states/territories and the commonwealth, which can lead to buck-passing.”
The environment clearly hasn’t been a priority for the Coalition government that won power in 2013. Since then it has slashed the federal budget for environmental programs by 40%.
At the helm now is Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who has been criticized for his cozy relationship with the coal industry and for not doing enough to tackle the climate crisis — something he’s been increasingly called out on amid the current wildfires.
Today organizers held #ClimateAction rallies all around Australia. 30,000 people showed up in Sydney calling for climate justice and the resignation of the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison.#Australia #AustraliaFirespic.twitter.com/FkYBDUNBJL— Dr. Lucky Tran (@luckytran) January 10, 2020
His inaction on climate change has earned him comparisons to President Trump, who continues to roll back environmental regulations in the United States. As California firefighters arrived last week in Australia to help fight blazes fueled by the hottest and driest year on record, Trump moved to weaken his country’s landmark National Environmental Policy Act and exclude climate change from analyses of the potential impact of infrastructure projects.
Will Australia take a different course and galvanize the public and politicians around action to strengthen environmental regulations to fight climate change and protect wildlife?
Legge says she already sees the events pulling communities together and inspiring an urge to “do something.” She hopes it results in researchers and governments working together in a more coordinated way to tackle the crisis.
“Still, there will have to be a seismic shift in our approach, given the potential for fires to wipe out previous efforts so quickly and thoroughly,” she says. “I think most conservationists are feeling shell-shocked right now — how do we respond to this event, and to this future?”
These are questions the whole world will need to answer.