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Incendiary Extinctions: Australian Fires and the Species Effect

Cocooned as it is from the world of science scepticism, the handling of the bush fire catastrophe unfolding in Australia is going to one of the more notable (non)achievements of the Morrison government. They were warned; they were chided; they were prodded. But the measures lagged, and the flames came.

To a certain extent, this remains unfair. Australian governments, across colours and persuasions, have found managing the environment a problematic, and inconvenient affair. Being a country rich in resources ready-made for digging and export, environment ministers have become the executing tribunes of mining rights and interests before the preservation of flora and fauna species. Miners, rights, not Earth rights, are what counts. Talk of climate change responses is heavily weighted in favour of pro-emission and polluting measures; greening projects look like acts of ecological pantomime. Australia remains a country transfixed and terrified by Nature, even as it mangles or ignores it.

With that in mind, the flames that continue to consume Australia have not merely destroyed agriculture, property and human life; they have had an impact on animal species that remains hard to measure. As a general rule, these events now have the makings of the unprecedented, at least in terms of human records. There are fire fronts that stretch like scars of battle across terrain. Smoke plumes half the size of Europe have been noted.

Updates on the progress of the flames resemble a relentless disaster narrative. Over 25.5 million acres of land, or territory the size of South Korea, is a figure that has caught the eye of news outlets. Images from NASA’s Earth Observatory, its Suomi-NPP satellite and the Himawari 8 Japanese satellite of the Japanese Meteorological Agency, have shown the international print being left by the fires.

Little wonder that the more terrestrial assessments of impacts have turned their focus on species extinction, a point that was bound to happen given Australia’s already unflattering honour of having the highest rate of mammal extinction on the planet. They are far more than the shrieks and howls of pain coming from koalas as they are incinerated to death, or the charred remains of kangaroos left in a funereal silver-ash landscape. It is the post-apocalyptic aftermath, when species find themselves in a world of ash and remains, with food and shelter miserably scarce.

The extinction literature, speculative and more solidly grounded, is burgeoning. Six Australian professors have stuck to the safe, if dark premise by claiming in The Conversation that “most of the range and population of between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt. Such species include the long-footed potoroo, Kangaroo Island’s glossy black cockatoo and the Spring midge orchid.”

Another unnerving estimate from January 3, and applicable to the state of New South Wales alone, put the toll of birds, mammals and reptiles affected by the conflagrations at 480 million. (The number did not include insects, bats or frogs). “Many of the affected animals are likely to have been killed directly by the fires, with others succumbing later due to the depletion of food and shelter resources and predation from introduced feral cats and red foxes.”

Within five days, an updated assessment from Professor Chris Dickman almost doubled the initial NSW figures. Across the continent, a billion animals are said to have perished. In an interview with National Public Radio in the US, Dickman suggested that the figures were exceptionally staggering. “I think there’s nothing quite to compare with the devastation that’s going on over such a large area so quickly. It’s a monstrous event in terms of geography and the number of individual animals affected.”

The disaster for such species is one of ongoing affects; the fire leaves the initial destructive mark, with these being particular savage. According to wildlife rescue volunteer Sarah Price, “We are not seeing the amount of animals coming into care or needing rescuing that we would normally anticipate.” The implication is hard to avoid: “We think a lot perished in the fires.”

Some animals might well survive the scorching, but insatiable and uninterrupted land clearing coupled with the busyness of introduced fauna varieties does the rest. The impacts of fire events also remove habitat sanctuaries for wildlife, be they layers of fallen leaves, specific shrubs important as food sources, or log and tree hollows.

Should there ever be an ecological tribunal vested in powers to assess government actions over the years on the subject, the failure to put in measures to protect species from calamity may well have to top the list. A reckless, occasionally malicious stupidity might count as motivation, but by then, not much will be left to protect. Any punishment will be left without a purpose.

The management of biodiversity and ecosystems, involving measures taken to bolster and buffer against the next catastrophe – for they will be more – matter far more. The discussion, as it stands, remains asphyxiated by the smoke and rage, with an overwhelming focus on human suffering, the calls for donations to human survivors, the search for compensation. The earth and its non-human inhabitants remain the statistics of silent suffering and, after this event, some will go the way of their doomed ancestors. As ever, Australia remains, as Dickman claims, the canary in the coal mine in terms of climate effects and human response. And the canary is not looking too good.

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4 comments

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  1. DrakeN

    The consequences on the environment and its inhabitants of these fires will be subjects of research for centuries – provided, of course, that humankind has not eliminated itself in the interim.

    We have little to no idea of the effect on the micro-biology of the very soils themselves of the extreme temperatures generated by such fierce conflagration, nor upon the physical structures of the ground itself.

  2. Kaye Lee

    Thousands of people have taken part in demonstrations across Europe, taking aim at what they say is the Australian Government’s lack of action on climate change during the bushfire crisis.

    Fi Radford from Bristol carried a sign which said “koalas not coal”.

    “We’re here to say to the Australian people, challenge your Government on the evidence they’re giving you,” she said.

    “Australia, you are custodians of precious species that exist nowhere else in the world. Overturn your Government, they’re leading you to destruction.”

    https://www.abc.net.au/news/2020-01-11/scott-morrison-labelled-laughing-stock-europe-climate-protests/11859988?section=politics

  3. JudithW

    “insatiable and uninterrupted land clearing”

    State owned Vicforests and its NSW counterpart are currently (yes at least this past week) logging some of the last remaining prime habitat that survivors might still inhabit or be rehabilitated to – this is indefensible. All logging of native forests must stop immediately.

    And should these insensitive companies get access to the fire grounds for so-called salvage logging, they will further decimate any chance the forest has to regenerate with unimpeded clearfelling of any timber they choose within whatever their contractors deem to be a fireground, as they did after the 2009 fires with devastating consequences for the last remaining stands of forest.

    No reference to scientific advice is required – Vicforests is it’s own regulator. How is that good for the future of the forests?

    No passing glance at the Precautionary Principle. Willful ignorance is good for greed!

  4. Patagonian

    I donate to quite a few charities who contact me by phone. Over the past month, every time they ring – and I get up to 4 calls a week, I politely tell them that all my donations are now going to endangered species and that will be the case for the foreseeable future. They are very polite when I refuse to donate and say they understand. After I finish talking to them, I immediately go online and make a donation to the animal charities. In the early stages of the fire I donated to individuals and fire brigades, but as I become aware of the horrific toll the fires are taking on our beautiful wildlife, I’m focussing solely on donating to animal charities – koala drinking stations, donations to KI glossy black cockatoos and KI Dunnart thus far.

    I think if a lot of us started being frank with the usual charities we donate to, it might get the message across to politicians because frankly I believe every dollar the public donates is a dollar the government doesn’t have to – and governments and the big corporations are the ones who should be doing the heavy lifting, not members of the public..

    While there are many worthy causes (I usually donate to children’s charities, medical research and animal rescue) and I wish I could continue to help them all, the time has come to put our precious wildlife first because they, unlike advocates for human charities, have no voice. I understand some of the bigger charities have politicians as their ‘face’ or sponsor. When the donations start to dry up and they are told the reason why, it might wake them up a bit.

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