More than 60,000 koalas were among the animals badly affected by the bushfire crisis in Australia a year ago, according to a report commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.
The worst losses were on Kangaroo Island in South Australia, where the conservation group estimates more than 41,000 koalas were killed or harmed by the ferocious fires. More than 11,000 were affected in the state of Victoria, nearly 8,000 in New South Wales (NSW), and nearly 900 in Queensland.
WWF-Australia chief executive Dermot O’Gorman said koalas in NSW and Queensland were in rapid decline even before the fires.
“Sixty thousand koalas impacted is a deeply disturbing number for a species already in trouble,” O’Gorman said in a statement. “We cannot afford to lose koalas on our watch.”
The bushfires that swept across southeastern Australia from September 2019 and into the early part of this year destroyed more than 24 million hectares of land and left 33 people dead.
In July, WWF published a preliminary version of the study which revealed that nearly 3 billion animals – mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs – were in the path of the flames.
A kangaroo amid the devastation caused by January’s bushfires on Kangaroo Island in South Australia. WWF estimates nearly 3 billion animals were in the path of the flames [File: David Mariuz/EPA]Koalas were already in decline before the devastating fires in which the WWF estimates more than 60,000 were killed or harmed in the flames and smoke [File: David Mariuz/EPA]That overall estimate is unchanged in the final report, which was released on Monday, with about 143 million mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 181 million birds, and 51 million frogs in areas that were hit by the fires.
Koalas, which usually spend most of their time in the trees, suffered from injury, trauma, smoke inhalation, heat stress, dehydration, and death, the report said. The marsupials were also affected by loss of habitat – and conflict with other animals as they fled to unburned forest – as well as reduced food supply.
As well as the koalas, the WWF estimates that millions of native animals were in the path of the flames, including 50 million native rats and mice, nearly 40 million possums and gliders, 5 million kangaroos and wallabies; 5 million bats; 1.1 million wombats; 114,000 echidnas, and 5,000 dingoes.
WWF is launching a new programme with the goal of doubling the number of koalas in eastern Australia by 2050.
Koalas Forever will include a trial of seed-dispersing drones to create koala corridors and the establishment of a fund to encourage landowners to create safe havens for the marsupials, who live in eucalyptus trees and eat the leaves.
“WWF is determined to help restore wildlife and habitats, rejuvenate communities impacted by the bushfires, boost sustainable agriculture and future-proof our country,” O’Gorman said.
The research into the effect of the fires on Australia’s animals was managed by Lily Van Eeden, a researcher at the University of Sydney, and overseen by Chris Dickman, the university’s professor of Terrestrial Ecology.
An injured koala brought in for treatment during the Kangaroo Island fires in January [File: Tracey Nearmy/Reuters]
They have recommended that Australia map and monitor plants and animals in regions most at risk in future fires, and develop strategies to protect those places when fires do take place.
“We didn’t have a lot of data for some animals,” Van Eeden said in a statement. “More research is needed on how many animals are out there and their ability to survive different levels of fire intensity. We need to understand this to protect species more effectively.”
“People have been shocked by our research and have said to me ‘We can’t allow catastrophes of this magnitude to continue into the future,’” said Dickman, who is also a WWF-Australia board member.
“With long term monitoring, we would be in a much better position to know where and when to act and what resources are needed to save at-risk species.”