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Fires a ‘wildlife disaster’ that killed or displaced 3 billion animals

Mr O’Gorman said the research had also been released in time to be considered by the current review of Australia’s flagship environment law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act.

“Following such a heavy toll on Australia’s wildlife, strengthening this law has never been more important,” he said.

A kangaroo that survived the fires in Lathami Conservation Park on Kangaroo Island.

A kangaroo that survived the fires in Lathami Conservation Park on Kangaroo Island.

The research was undertaken by 10 scientists from the universities of Sydney, Charles Sturt, Newcastle and New South Wales, and from BirdLife Australia.

University of Sydney’s Professor Chris Dickman, an expert in territorial ecology, said researchers compared animal population density maps with fire-affected areas to draw conclusions about how many native vertebrates were killed or displaced.

Even if they escaped the flames, the prospects for animals in bushfire-affected areas were poor because of a lack of food and shelter, or being forced into habitat that was already occupied.

Survival also depended on species’ ability to flee or shelter from fire, the availability of unburnt refuges and the impact of smoke inhalation, heat stress and sedimentation run-off into waterways.

A brush tail rock wallaby in the Blue Mountains with a food drop.

A brush tail rock wallaby in the Blue Mountains with a food drop.

Professor Dickman would like to see more funding for on-ground monitoring of animal populations which would give scientists better insight into how to intervene to try to prevent more animal deaths.

These could include augmenting ground cover, leaving burnt tree limbs on the ground, removing survivors or supplying them with food.

The estimates of reptiles killed or displaced was substantially higher than other animals. Many of the reptiles affected were smaller species, such as skinks, that can live in densities of more than 1500 individuals per hectare.

In January, Professor Dickman and WWF scientists produced an early estimate that 1.25 billion animals had been affected, a calculation that focused only on NSW and Victoria.

Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in the 2019-20 fires.

Nearly 3 billion animals were killed or displaced in the 2019-20 fires.

Last summer saw Australia’s worst fire season on record, with more than 15,000 fires burning through 19 million hectares.

The WWF study area was primarily in the southeast and south west of Australia. It excluded savannahs in northern Australia that commonly burn, are deliberately burned by Indigenous or national park rangers, or are burned to deliver carbon farming contracts.

The final report will be available in August.

A different study produced last week found 21 threatened species – including the long-footed potoroo and eastern bristlebird – were among 70 animal types that had more than 30 per cent of their habitat burnt in the fires.

That habitat loss put them at a far greater risk of extinction, according to a peer-reviewed study from researchers at the University of Queensland and La Trobe University, and published in the journal Nature, Ecology & Evolution.

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