• A smoldering log is pictured in the Wingello State Forest on January 6, 2020. (Getty Images )Source: Getty Images
The fires are burning so hot that some areas of bushland won't be able to fully regenerate, leaving many species at risk of losing their habitat.
Rae Johnston

7 Jan 2020 - 5:48 PM  UPDATED 7 Jan 2020 - 5:48 PM

Since September 2019, 8.2 million hectares of bushland has burned in Australia and experts say native wildlife habitat, food and protection from predators may take decades to recover.

And there are fears that in some cases, it may not recover at all.

According to the University of Sydney Professor Chris Dickman, the number of animals estimated to be impacted by the fires is over 800 million in NSW alone. That number excludes bats, frogs and invertebrates. 

Professor Dickman said the research deliberately used "conservative" estimates, with the real loss of animal life "likely to be much higher." Speaking with the Huffington Post, he said one billion is a more accurate figure.

Australia is home to over 300 native species with around 244 of those not found anywhere else in the world. Over the last 200 years, 34 species and sub-species of native animals in Australia have become extinct. This is the highest rate of any country on Earth.

Dr Jim Radford, a Professor at the La Trobe Research Centre for Future Landscapes, told NITV News nobody knows how many mammals, birds, reptiles, insects, bats and frogs have been killed in the fires so far.

"Nobody really knows the full extent of what the damage will be," said Dr Radford.

"The mood is sombre. We suspect there will be long-term population-level effects on many, many species."

The unprecedented, simultaneous burning of millions of hectares of bushland is combining with the pressures many species are under already, said Dr Radford. Pressures like habitat loss, logging, drought and increasing numbers of predators.

"It's likely to wipe out many populations of small range-restricted species like plants, invertebrates, butterflies," he said. "Normally, after a wildfire, there is ample population [of animals] to fully repopulate areas. But they may not be there."

Dr Euan Ritchie, an Associate Professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation at Deakin University, agreed that it is too early to assess the full toll of the fires.

"But given their huge size and severity -- and that they're still burning in many areas -- already threatened species may have been pushed over the edge to extinction. And once relatively common and more abundant species may now be vulnerable," he said.

Associate Professor Matthew Hayward from the School of Environmental and Life Sciences at The University of Newcastle said many species would have had the majority of their habitat destroyed in the fires. The Parma Wallaby and the Red-Legged Pademelon are two of the many threatened species in this situation, he said.

"Once a fire goes through an area, animals that did survive need to be able to find enough food to survive and this is much harder in burnt areas...

"There is unlikely to be much food in these areas until rains come and the vegetation responds. This drought-fire-drought trifecta means the impacts on biodiversity treble," he said.

The Dunnart and Glossy Black cockatoos on Kangaroo Island, the Long-Footed Potoroo and the Regent Honeyeaters are just some of the many other species likely to have also suffered substantial impacts to their natural habitat during the fires.

Koalas threatened

The koala is of particular concern. Although already under stress from continued drought conditions, fortunately, experts believe the current fires will not cause the extinction of the species.

"I don't think [Koala extinction] is possible, but we've always got to be cautious," Associate Professor Mathew Crowther from the University of Sydney told NITV News.

Associate professor Crowther has worked on a Koala Survey for the NSW Government for the past three years and is currently researching the movement of the marsupial in response to climate changes.

"These fires are more like what we are going to face in the future. Really, really hot days, the combination of factors of dry days that have led to the fires, koalas could be looking at a lot of trouble into the future," he said.

Recovery in the drought

Dr Joe Fontaine, a Lecturer in Environmental and Conservation Sciences at Murdoch University, described the current drought conditions as being as bad as the Federation drought, "but hotter".

"Hotter drought...has consequences after the flames pass," he told NITV News.

Both animals and plants are less equipped to survive and recover after fires in hotter, drier conditions. Tree mortality, seedling survival, food and shelter for animals are all areas of concern for the recovery period.
Animals dwelling in rainforests have historically had the option to shelter in cooler, wetter areas of bushland.

With the recent record droughts, experts are concerned.

"We have grave fears for many rainforest species," says Dr Ritchie, "...[they] typically don't experience fire and hence aren't particularly resilient."

Dr Radford echoed the same concerns.

"Due to the extremely dry conditions in the lead up to the fires, and the impact of previous land use, many wet gullies, rainforest, wet forest areas and wetlands that would have provided some refuge and shelter within the fire-affected areas... many of those areas are also burning," he said.

Australian plants have adapted to regenerate after major fires over millions of years, but Professor Bob Hill, Director of the Environment Institute at the University of Adelaide, said the heat from these latest fires may be too much for some species to recover.

"The intensity of the fires is so extreme they are now reaching temperatures where these adaptations are no longer effective, said Professor Hill.

"If this continues, we will begin to see plant species losses from burnt sites as their regeneration processes fail," he said

"Over time, this has the potential to be catastrophic."

The future

The fires continue to burn, with predictions that it could be months before any end is in sight. If we see an event like this again, what do we need to do to help protect our native animals in the future?

"We face a more fiery future, and a real risk of more drought-heat-fire interplay further threatening our iconic landscapes," said Dr Joe Fontaine.

"Effective policy and thinking will need to incorporate these realities going forward."

Professor Bob Hill said the short-term solution is to invest more heavily in fire-fighting equipment. But he emphasised that the only long term solution is to reduce the level of critical greenhouses gases in the atmosphere to reverse the impact of climate change.

"This is a global catastrophe that has now hit Australia hard," said Professor Hill.

"There is no reason to believe that this is an isolated event."

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