The 2019/2020 bushfires were catastrophic for Australia’s already fragile and under-protected wildlife. Recent reports indicate that more than three billion native animals were killed or harmed by the fires.
Scientists have identified 119 species that require immediate help and the ongoing fallout of the fires is threatening Australian biodiversity. In addition to ongoing recovery efforts, we need better policies, environmental laws, and climate action to ensure the survival of Australia’s unique wildlife.
Counteracting the long-term fallout for survivors
The 2019/2020 fires were worse than usual because of the occurrence of megafires in dense forests. These megafires did not leave as many unburnt areas as is the case with smaller bushfires. This means that those animals that did manage to escape the blaze have lost critical habitat and food sources. While supplementing food and water can provide some relief, re-introducing native plants will be necessary to ensure animals can survive.
The burning of dense forest and bushland also exposes surviving wildlife to predators like foxes and cats. These introduced animals are more mobile than small and medium-sized native animals and are equally on the hunt for food after the fire. Artificial shelters can help with the protection of native wildlife. However, it must go hand in hand with controlling introduced predators. The aftermath of the fire is a unique opportunity for better pest control as predator numbers are also lower now than before the fires.
Even native species that did not die in the fires suffered considerable losses. For instance, critically endangered smoky mice in a breeding lab in Canberra died after breathing in smoke. At Mannus Creek near the NSW Snowy Mountains, ash and rain turned the once pristine home of the endangered Macquarie perch, into a suffocating mud trap.
Fortunately for the Macquarie perch, researchers were able to rescue ten fish from Mannus Creek to start an insurance population. Translocation and the establishment of insurance population do hold some promise for the protection of Australian biodiversity and should be part of comprehensive long-term conservation programs.
Protecting Australian biodiversity requires climate action
The Australian government does fund many recovery efforts. Yet, the general response to the fires with regards to biodiversity remains tactical and reactive. Environmental laws and a governance structure that would enable more proactive and strategic conservation efforts are still missing. And there are no improvements in sight. To the contrary, the Coalition government recently proposed changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act that could further weaken environmental oversight at a time when strengthened protection is most urgently needed.
A lack of funding for monitoring and data gathering is also standing in the way of researchers and conservationists. Good data can help to better understand how effective individual recovery efforts are. It can also provide insights to improve how we respond similar catastrophic fire events in the future. Without this deeper level of insight, the current recovery programs are likely to remain band aid solutions.
Additionally, better data gathering on threatened ecological communities can prevent similar tragic losses. If we know about the importance of a region in relation to biodiversity, conservationist can work with fire authorities to continue firefighting beyond the protection of life and infrastructure. This approach made it possible to save the Wollemi Pines in the Blue Mountains.
However, ultimately any of these measures are just mitigation strategies. They can buy time, but they cannot prevent catastrophic fires from happening. Given that climate change is expected to increase the frequency and severity of fires, species will have less time to recover between events.
To ensure the survival of Australia’s native wildlife for future generations, the Australian government must therefore take climate action. This needs to include a commitment to significantly reduce carbon emissions and increase carbon capture efforts. Otherwise, even the most audacious fight against biodiversity loss will ultimately be a losing battle.
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