Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced by the catastrophic bushfire season that scorched tens of millions of acres across Australia in 2019 and 2020, according to experts who hope the research will demonstrate the urgent need for action to prevent future disasters.
This finding, revealed Tuesday in an interim report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia, is nearly three times higher than an estimate in January. It’s based on a fire impact area of 28.3 million acres and is broken down into a staggering 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 180 million birds and 51 million frogs.
“It’s hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals,” said WWF-Australia CEO Dermot O’Gorman in a media release. “This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history.”
Ten scientists from Australian universities and wildlife groups contributed to the bulk of the work. This included Chris Dickman, an ecology professor at the University of Sydney, who, alongside WWF-Australia in January, produced an early estimate of 1.25 billion animals affected by the blazes.
That figure was produced using estimates derived from animal density data applied to the area affected by fires in the states of New South Wales and Victoria. The new findings use a similar methodology but include a larger geographic area, predominantly in Australia’s southeast and southwest.
Scientists can’t determine exactly how many animals were killed. However, prospects for those that fled the blazes were fairly bleak, Dickman said. Animals that escaped and did not die from factors such as heat stress and smoke inhalation could still face lack of food and shelter, increased competition for resources, and other forms of stress and deprivation.
Dickman said the research demonstrates how mega-fires are changing the environment and draining native biodiversity. He called for urgent change.
“How quickly can we decarbonise? How quickly can we stop our manic land clearing?” he asked in the news release.
With extreme wildfires becoming more prevalent and increasingly severe due to climate change, WWF-Australia hopes this research can serve as a basis for other countries to examine how these fires affect wildlife, O’Gorman said.
In light of the study’s limitations ― including a lack of information on animal densities, wildlife responses to fire and recovery abilities ― its contributors called for funding to support long-term monitoring research that can fill in this information.
Other recommendations included increasing protections for unburnt habitat, establishing rapid response teams to rescue species that may be impacted in future blazes, and strengthening legislation that protects the environment and conserves biodiversity.
“Following such a heavy toll on Australia’s wildlife, strengthening this law has never been more important,” O’Gorman said. “WWF will continue to advocate for policies that benefit both people and nature, restore what has been lost and ensure we build back a more resilient Australia.”