Bushfires Hasten the Death Knell of many Australian Native Animals and Plants

Kangaroos in Bawley Point on the south coast of New South Wales.
Credit: Neena Bhandari/IPS

By Neena Bhandari
SYDNEY, Australia, Jan 14 2020 (IPS)

The chatter of cockatoos and lorikeets has given way to an eerie
silence in smoke enveloped charred landscapes across south-eastern
Australia. The unrelenting bushfires have driven many native animal
and plant species to the brink of extinction and made several fauna
more vulnerable with vast swathes of their habitat incinerated.

As many as 13 native animal and bird species may become locally
extinct following the devastating bushfires, according to an
initial analysis by national environment organisations, including
the Australian Conservation Foundation (ACF) and World Wide Fund
for Nature (WWF) Australia.

These vulnerable species include, Koalas, Regent Honeyeater,
Blue Mountains Water Skink, Brush-Tailed Rock Wallaby and Southern
Corroboree Frog in areas of New South Wales; Glossy Black Cockatoo
and Kangaroo Island Dunnart in South Australia; Greater Glider and
Long-footed Potoroo in East Gippsland in Victoria; and Quokkas and
Western Ground Parrots in areas of Western Australia.

“Early estimates indicate the number of vertebrate animals
affected since the fires started in September 2019 could be as high
as one billion, with most of these likely to have been killed
immediately by the severe fires, or dying soon after as burnt
landscapes leave them with little or no food and shelter,” said
the Acting Director General of the International Union for
Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in a
statement
.

  • Australia is one of 17 countries described as being ‘megadiverse‘.
    The continent country is home to between 600,000 and 700,000
    species, many of which are endemic, that is they are found nowhere
    else in the world. These include, for example, 84 percent of plant
    species, 83 percent of mammals, and 45 percent of birds.
  • “It is estimated that most of the range has already burnt for
    between 20 and 100 threatened species of plants and animals,
    putting them at even greater risk of extinction”, the IUCN
    statement added. 
  • Some species have had large parts of their entire habitat
    burned, for example, the native grey-headed flying fox (Pteropus
    poliocephalus) and the spectacled flying fox or spectacled fruit
    bat.

ACF’s nature campaigner Jess Abrahams told IPS, “Flying
foxes are particularly vulnerable to heatwaves. Spectacled flying
foxes are just one of Australia’s many threatened species that
are being pushed to the brink by the climate crisis. A heatwave in
Cairns in November 2018 killed 23,000 endangered spectacled flying
foxes — almost one-third of the total population in Australia —
and the current devastating summer is killing thousands
more”.

“The fate of our wildlife is intimately connected to our own
fate; the loss of a key pollinating species like the grey-headed
flying-fox, would have huge impacts on our future food supply,”
Abrahams added.

  • Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become

    extinct
    in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate
    of loss for any region in the world. In October 2019, over 200
    scientists in an open letter to Prime
    Minister Scott Morrison had expressed concern about the alarming
    rate at which Australia’s native species were disappearing and
    cautioned that another 17 animals could go extinct in the next 20
    years.

The bushfire crisis may have undermined decades of conservation
gains. With trees and foliage burnt and no vegetation cover, the
surviving wildlife will be more at risk of predation, exposure to
environmental conditions – heat, cold and wind, and more
vulnerable to starvation. Besides wildlife, tens and thousands of
sheep, cattle and other farm animals have perished in the fires or
sustained burn injuries. 

The prolonged drought and bushfires have also led to more
animals vying with communities for the scarce water resources,
especially in remote regions of this second driest continent on
earth.

In a five-day aerial culling operation, about 10,000 camels were
to be killed in drought-ravaged Anangu Pitjantjatjara
Yunkunytjatjara (APY) Lands in South Australia.

According to the Australian Department of the Environment and
Energy (DEE) spokesperson, “During droughts, feral camels
congregate in large herds seeking water. At these times they damage
infrastructure, compete with livestock for food and water, threaten
people in remote communities, destroy native vegetation and foul
natural water holes. Culling to manage camel numbers is the only
option at this time to protect these assets and people.”

“Alternatives such as trapping and removal for domestic or
overseas consumption, or live export, have prohibitive logistics
and costs because of the extreme remoteness and specialised
infrastructure required. There are also animal welfare concerns
with trapping and transporting wild camels for overseas markets,”
the spokesperson added.

Culling animals is decided on a case by case basis. Australian
state and territory governments have primary responsibility for
management of animals and their welfare.

APY Lands General Manager Richard King told IPS, “The
Traditional Owners have requested this intervention, but they have
not taken this decision lightly. We are simply doing the best we
can in a dire situation. Increasing population of feral animals,
such as camels, has squeezed out animals that were part of
traditional Aboriginal food and also many of the bush tucker
(native bush food) – berries, plums and tomatoes – as camels
eat a large range of flora. This makes it hard for Aboriginal
people to hunt and gather as they have done for thousands of years
to survive.”

Besides camels, kangaroos, horses, donkeys and pigs are also
culled to manage sustainable feral populations as they are
unfettered by the normal constraints of population growth, such as
predators, disease and parasite load.

Arthur Georges from University of Canberra’s Institute for
Applied Ecology told IPS, “In the Australian Capital Territory,
the strategy is to take off a fixed number of kangaroos each year
rather than wait for numbers to build up and cause a crisis where
more animals need to be culled. This is a sensible strategy as some
level of control, preferably using the meat and other products, is
sensible from both a conservation and an animal welfare
perspective. In the broader context, culling is also beneficial
from an agricultural perspective because of the biosecurity risk
and the impact on production.”

The Australian Federal Government on Monday announced an initial
investment of AUD 50 million, drawn from the government’s AUD 2
billion bushfire recovery fund, for wildlife and habitat
recovery.

Welcoming the announcement as an important first step,
WWF-Australia CEO, Dermot O’Gorman said, “Significantly more
funding will be required to help our threatened species
recover.”

As this ecological tragedy continues to unfold, Professor David
Lindenmayer from Australian National University’s Fenner School
of Environment and Society said in a media release, “Fires burn
patchily, and small unburnt patches, half burnt logs and dead or
fire-damaged trees are commonly left behind. Our research has
demonstrated that these patches and remaining woody debris are very
important to recovering wildlife populations. Standing fire-damaged
trees as well as dead trees and fallen logs also provide many
resources to surviving and recovering wildlife such as food,
shelter and breeding hollows. Many trees that look dead will still
be alive.”

The ACF, together with other environment groups, have written to
Australia’s Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley with a
five-point plan, including funding to provide feed, water and
habitat structures in worst hit areas, and establishing breeding
programs, to fast track recovery efforts for the most at-risk
wildlife.

Arid
Recovery
, an independent not-for-profit organisation which runs
wildlife reserve in South Australia, has come up with a simple
design of water
fountains
that can be made from basic materials with little
skill required.

Its General Manager Katherine Tuft told IPS, “We developed
them to support native wildlife in the drought-affected reserve
that we manage and shared the design via social media for people in
bushfire-affected areas to assist animals and potentially
livestock. At least 30 different individuals or groups have made
their own, including the NSW Environment Department who have put a
factsheet together for their staff and volunteers to make
them.”

Meanwhile, wildlife hospitals, zoos, veterinarians and
volunteers have been caring for displaced and injured wildlife with
generous donations from the community. People have been knitting
mittens for signed paws, donating blankets for joeys, making bird
boxes and putting out birdbaths and bird feed. Officials in New
South Wales have been air-dropping carrots and sweet potatoes into
the fire-ravaged habitat of the endangered brush-tailed
rock-wallaby.

It may be months, if not years, before the impact of the
bushfires on Australia’s biodiversity will be determined.

The post
Bushfires Hasten the Death Knell of many Australian Native Animals
and Plants
appeared first on Inter Press Service.

Source: FS – All – Ecology – News
Bushfires Hasten the Death Knell of many Australian Native Animals and Plants