Australia bushfires have killed half a billion animals. When will PM Morrison wake up?

As the bushfires ravage Australia wiping out one-third of the koalas and half a billion animals, PM Scott Morrison denies linkage to climate change and refuses cuts to the coal industry.

 |  9-minute read |   07-01-2020
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One of the most heartbreaking images of the Australian wildfires ravaging the continent is that of a baby kangaroo charred to death holding on to a fencing wire. The devastating photo by Brad Fleet, a senior photographer with The Advertiser, who shared it on Instagram went viral on the internet, leaving many teary-eyed and praying that the photo was not real.

WARNING: Distressing images

The photo is real. As real as the fact that we, as a species, are responsible for the death of nearly half a billion animals burnt to death. It is among the most deadly wildfires that Australia has seen in decades, and it is being strengthened by the record-breaking heatwave that the country currently faces, coupled with droughts and strong winds.

While the charred corpse of the baby kangaroo is becoming the poster child of the wildfires, it is the koalas that have fared worse. The cuddly marsupials were already ranked “vulnerable” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List — the most comprehensive inventory of the global conservation status of species. New South Wales' mid-north coast is home to a significant number of Australia’s koalas. Before the wildfires, the population was estimated to be between 15,000 to 28,000 individuals. On December 27, 2019, Australia’s environment minister Sussan Ley said in an interview to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that up to 30 per cent of the koalas (8,400 individuals) in the region had been killed since the fires began in December 2019. "Up to 30 per cent of their habitat has been destroyed,” Ley went on to add. “We'll know more when the fires are calmed down and a proper assessment can be made.”

The estimate is conservative.

main_koala-on-fire_010720024210.jpgA koala tries to escape the fire. Experts estimate that the bushfires of 2019-2020 have killed almost 8,000 koalas.

“The fires have burned so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies,” Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told the Parliament in a hearing regarding the koala population in December 2019.

“Koalas really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away from the flames,” he added.

The ongoing blaze in Kangaroo Island, a popular nature-based tourist attraction and home to wild populations of native animals, has razed 170,000 hectares, which is one-third of the island. Animal hospitals in the country are having their hands full with treating burnt animals, nursing them back to health and rehabilitating them in the wild once they, and the situation, are better. This is no easy task considering that the animals that have survived the wildfires are starved for food and water. While typically Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services advise against feeding wild animals, they have now changed the advisory and are urging people to provide the stranded wild animals with the much-needed water and food.

Beyond koalas and kangaroos

The damage goes beyond what the eyes can see. According to Dieter Hochuli, associate professor, University of Sydney, “It is not just the charismatic well-known species that are at risk.” 

main_wallaby-and-bru_010720030648.jpgA wallaby (L) licks its burnt paws after escaping a bushfire and a rescued severely burnt brushtail possum (R) in New South Wales, Australia. (Photo: Getty Images, Reuters)

“The insects that so many of our ecosystems are reliant on for services like pollination and nutrient cycling are very sensitive to fire. One of the great unknowns is just how, if it all, their populations and subsequently the services they provide will recover,” he said in a statement.

main_australia-fire-_010720023335.jpgA wallaby charred to death in the bushfires in Australia. (Photo: Getty Images)

Apocalypse advanced

"Fire is a natural part of Australian ecosystems and many of our plants and animals are adapted to it. However, changes to the frequency and intensity of fires can have a massive impact on wildlife. We know that risk of extinction increases exponentially as populations decline to low numbers so this raises significant concerns for their future," Hochuli says.

The apocalyptic fires have burnt 6.3 million hectares, destroying over 1,300 houses and killing 25 people as of Sunday (January 5, 2020). The fire and the summers rage on in the tinder-dry region even as you are reading this. 

main_australia-bush-_010720031053.jpgA bushfire raging near Canungra in South East Queensland, Australia. (Photo: Reuters)

The previous summer in Australia (2018-2019) was considered the hottest and driest on record. The highest temperature touched 49.3 degree Celsius in northwest Western Australia in December 2018. This summer, the temperatures have already hit 49.9 degree Celsius on December 19, 2019.

Add to this factors impacting the flammability of landscapes like drought conditions, bone-dry vegetation, low humidity, high wind speed and low soil moisture, and we have a perfect fuel to the fire. "What would have been a bad fire season was made worse by the background drying/warming trend,'' says Andrew Watkins, head of long-range forecasts at Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

main_bats_010720031332.jpgCasualties of last summer: Dead flying foxes lined up on the ground in a backyard after an extreme heatwave in November 2018. About 34 per cent of the spectacled flying foxes reportedly died in just two days in the extreme heatwave. (Source: Facebook/Lisa Eagleton)

The ever-rising heat conditions dry out the moisture from the woods and aid in spreading the fire. According to a study by the Royal Society journal Open Science published in 2016, the number of bushfires per week in Australia increased by 40 per cent between 2008 and 2013. The study went on to establish that lower moisture was more likely the reason why Australian fires were starting and spreading faster. “It means more fuel is available to burn, which means higher intensity fires, which makes it more difficult — or impossible — to put out,” Watkins adds.

It is not the fury of nature, but something we humans have built — step by step, brick by brick — with our own hands and actions. Climate scientists concur unanimously without a doubt that man-made global warming has been a big part of the fires. Mike Flannigan, a fire scientist at the University of Alberta in Canada emphasised, “Australia's fires are an example of climate change.”

Leaders in denial and MIA

The Aussie policymakers, however, are in denial.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison was vacationing in Hawaii last month as the fires ravaged his country. He returned to Australia on December 21 after increasing criticism on social media regarding his holiday at this hour of national crisis. His Liberal Party won the 2019 elections despite stiff opposition to his policies that downplayed climate change. The Guardian argued that "the climate emergency is the most pressing issue of our time" and that "the Coalition (the Liberal-National Coalition led by Morrison) appears deaf to the rising clamour from the electorate...".

Responding to the questions on the country's devastating bushfires, the PM reiterated that he will not make "reckless" cuts to the coal industry, claiming that it is not "credible" to link climate change to the fires. 

main1_scott-morrison_010720023145.jpgWith the blood of half a billion dead animals on his hands, PM Scott Morrison is still in denial that climate change is behind the ravaging bushfires. (File photo: Reuters)

In line with the views of his party, the Australian deputy PM Michael McCormack decried the people raising climate change as "ravings of the inner-city raving lunatics” when the bushfires started this summer. As is wont for a typical politician, he blamed his opponents — Greens leader Richard Di Natale and Melbourne MP Adam Bandt — for “disgraceful attempts” to score political points by using the bushfires to prosecute their agenda on climate change and shut down the coal industry. But the koalas, kangaroos and millions of wild animals charred did not support either McCormack or Bandt.

In her speech at the UN Climate Action Summit in September 2019, 16-year-old Greta Thunberg accused the world leaders of pretending that climate change can be solved with ‘business as usual’. “You are failing us,” she charged. The Australian government goes on to prove her charges — much to their own peril, and also to that of the wild animals that are paying the worst price of the suicidal actions of the humans in charge. You have the blood of half a billion dead animals on your hands, Mr Morrison.

Also read: Two days and one heatwave is all it took for Australia to lose one-third of its flying fox population

Writer

Rajeshwari Ganesan Rajeshwari Ganesan @rajeshwaridotg

Assistant Editor, DailyO

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