800 million killed

At last, more attention of the reporting is directed at the wildlife that falls victim to the major bushfires Down Under. It is not enough to have survived a fire if all food and sources of water have also gone. 

Bushfires have always accompanied Australian summers, often with devastating local effects. Yet over the last decades they have been intensifying, in step with increasing temperatures and drought. 2019 was both the hottest-ever year and the driest. It was the first time both parameters have coincided since records began in 1900. Hitherto, news coverage has mostly concentrated on human victims and homes lost, with the occasional pathetic picture of pets and livestock that also failed to escape. This year is different.

Twenty-five years ago I drove up the Birdsville Track in the South Australian Outback, following the old cattle drovers’ trail into Western Queensland. The scenery was mostly of magnificent emptiness, by day shimmering with subtle colour and at night roofed with a universe of bright stars. I stayed for some days with a cattle rancher whose spread was so vast he needed a light aircraft to patrol it and check on his animals’ food and water supplies. He was gloomy about his prospects, saying that drought was an ever-increasing problem. I am no longer in touch with him and his family but would be amazed if they were still there today. I remember him talking about a 1985 bushfire in Cobar, New South Wales, in which 40,000 livestock had been lost. It was clear that summer fires were a constant preoccupation for cattlemen. On that same trip I met a young scientist whose university department had bought a tract of the Outback and had enclosed it securely with 70 kilometers of tall, fine-meshed fencing. The idea was to protect rare species of lizards and dunnarts – little mouse-sized marsupials – against the scourge of the feral cats that have decimated so much of Australia’s small wildlife. Our task that day was to shoot the last two feral cats believed to be still inside the vast enclosure. We each had a shotgun but only saw and killed one cat. By the end of the day I felt I had done my bit for Australian conservation.

I mention this trip of a quarter-century ago because it gives some perspective to a report in early January this year by Professor Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney’s Faculty of Science. He was lamenting the fires still burning on Kangaroo Island. At 4,403 square kilometres this is Australia’s third-largest island, just off the coast near Adelaide. Lightning strikes had started bushfires there in Flinders Chase National Park, a well-known sanctuary for endangered birds, koalas and a species of dunnart so rare it is known only from a particular area of the park. Half of Kangaroo Island has now been razed to bare earth and charcoal including, according to Professor Dickman, the entire known range of this little dunnart. He is practically certain this creature has now joined the other 34 species and sub-species of Australian mammals known to have become extinct in the last 200 years.

The other huge fires currently burning in Australia, principally in the south-east, have already left burnt areas approaching the size of Switzerland and Austria combined. On 8 January Professor Dickman was internationally reported as estimating that a billion animals had been killed, more than 800 million of those in New South Wales alone. Given that the fires are still spreading, he acknowledged this would be a gross underestimate, especially since those billion animals did not include bats, frogs, insects, spiders and reptiles: uncountable tons of which will have added their individual grams of fuel to the bonfire.

What my trips in the Outback taught me was how so apparently timeless a landscape could also be so fragile. It is of course true that there have always been fires in Australia, and that nature returns when the rains come and plants regenerate in soil newly fertilised with ash. The Aborigines are famous for having used fire for thousands of years as part of their hunter-gathering strategy. However, before we over-praise them for their husbandry, we should remember that according to all known archaeological records it was they who were responsible for the extinction of Australia’s largest species such as the giant kangaroo. Latest research suggests that all the megafauna had died out by 46,000 years BCE, almost certainly at the hands of Australia’s human settlers. Cynic that I am, I would need a lot of convincing that any group of Homo sapiens has ever acted as conservators of a particular territory. One thinks of the Anasazi of New Mexico who in a few centuries turned where they lived into a treeless dust-bowl, not to mention the Easter Islanders who rendered their land uninhabitable before vanishing.

One reason for thinking of the animal survivors of Australia’s present bushfires as ‘fragile’ is that it is not enough to have survived a fire if all food and sources of water have also gone. Larger mammals and birds that could escape the flames will have been driven into areas where they must compete with those already there, where existing resources may not be enough to support additional refugees. They may also be forced into regions with active predators such as feral cats and red foxes. The burnt areas will of course slowly regenerate and over decades become re-populated with animal life; but the exact balance of creatures will never be the same again. A species of dunnart goes extinct, an ecological niche closes up and becomes host to some other population. Life moves on.

Despite the current anguish, many Australians remain remarkably offhand about their country’s still astonishing animal life. To drive the red laterite tracks of the Outback is to become accustomed to the abundant animal corpses on the roadside. Kangaroos, wallabies, wombats and even the occasional emu are victims of cars and ‘road train’ trucks, all with heavy ‘roo bars’ bolted above their front bumpers. This cavalier attitude to wildlife on the part of some Australians fits well with a present Coalition government and a Prime Minister officially in denial about the obvious fact that Australia’s climate, like that of the rest of the planet, is changing. 

Even if some diehards still maintain the cause is natural rather than man-made, they can scarcely deny it is happening. Once one remembers the swollen, decaying and sometimes still-twitching roadkill in the Outback it is hard not to be grimly amused by current internet images of people giving burned koalas and kangaroo joeys life-saving drinks from infants’ bottles, or of ‘orphaned’ baby bats being lovingly wrapped in blankets. (You never see them helping injured snakes, however). These Mother Theresas of the wallabies may be mere irrelevances of the Photoshop age we live in, but they have a function beyond that. The feelgood factor helps Australians overlook generations of gross failure in the political stewardship of their country’s ecology. In their way they also eloquently express people’s sheer impotence in the face of a disaster so great that not even nature can restore their landscape to exactly how it was. Meanwhile the vast tonnage of the fires’ smoke and particulates has already discoloured the snow of New Zealand’s mountains and is currently drifting across South America to add its weight to the world’s already polluted atmosphere. 

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