Biodiversity loss is a flaming tragedy

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There are so many details about these unprecedented bushfires that I have no idea how to process. Like so many in Australia, I have spent hours staring in disbelief at the sheer number of fires raging across NSW alone, watching clips showing glimpses of their incredible size and ferocity, and grieving the millions of acres of forest laid to waste in their wake.

Sam Mitchell, owner of the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in the Parndana region, carries a dead koala and kangaroo to a mass grave site on 8 January 2020. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)As a country, we have cried over the human lives lost, and tried to contemplate the economic and emotional toll of the thousands of homes and properties destroyed, in addition to the mass evacuations of people. I doubt we will ever forget those images of evacuees huddled by the water on New Year's Eve under a deep red sky; or of the brave little boy accepting a medal on behalf of the father he lost so young.

But nothing — including the ever-present shroud of acrid smoke that has blanketed my city since November — has brought home the scale of this tragedy quite like the estimation that one billion native animals have been killed.

One billion. I honestly can't get my head around such a number, especially as it doesn't even include frogs, insects or other invertebrates. How do we even measure the cost of such a loss?

At a basic level, we must consider the cost of each and every one of these lives. This was most horrifically illustrated by that haunting image of the young joey trapped in a fence, but each one of those animals had a life of value, and experienced fear and pain as it was taken from them.

There is also the specific impact of these deaths on threatened species. The fires have had a devastating effect on species such as koalas, brush-tailed rock wallabies, the Kangaroo Island dunnart, and the quokka, whose very survival may now have been pushed to the brink.

Australia was already facing an extinction crisis. We have the dubious honour of leading the world in mammal extinctions. And this brings us to the most significant cost of these deaths (especially when combined with the destruction of all of those millions of acres of forest) — the incredible loss of biodiversity.

 

"We should all be paying attention to this review, along with the need for our state and federal governments to take real action in response to the repeated recommendations of experts."

 

Australia's most recent State of the Environment Report emphasised the fundamental value of biodiversity — both its intrinsic value, and the significant and multilayered role it plays in supporting human wellbeing. It also highlighted the global importance of Australia's biodiversity, noting that:

'Australia is considered one of the world's 17 megadiverse countries, which together account for 70 per cent of the world's biological diversity across less than ten per cent of the world's surface. Scientifically, our biodiversity is highly regarded for its diversity, endemism and evolutionary adaptations, but it is also an inseparable part of our Indigenous culture and how we identify as Australians.'

But all this was a prelude to the report's repeated warnings that Australia's biodiversity is facing multiple, cumulative threats from changed fire regimes, habitat clearing and fragmentation, invasive species and climate change.

So, what can we do?

Australians (and people from around the world) have responded to these fires with incredible generosity, opening up their homes and their wallets to support the response and recovery effort. We desperately want to help and to do anything to feel less powerless in the face of the devastation we are all witnessing. But it is harder to know what to do to support the recovery of biodiversity.

Some people are keen to take direct action, but not all of this is helpful. Many organisations are warning people not to feed native animals, as human food can kill them, in addition to introducing invasive species and predators into their habitats. Water is generally useful, but not from a bottle, and it is best to leave small amounts in order to avoid attracting mosquitos.

Another option is to volunteer. You could join Conservation Volunteers Australia or your local Landcare group, or train to be a WIRES volunteer. These organisations, along with others such as Animals Australia or the Wilderness Society, could also do with your donations.

But, in the long term, recovery is also going to need a systematic response. As the State of the Environment Report documents, Australia's biodiversity loss has been accelerating in good part because federal and state policies and legislation have either failed to prevent it or exacerbated the situation.

In November last year, the federal government announced the second independent review of Australia's primary national environmental law, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act). But in announcing the review, Environment Minister, Sussan Ley, emphasised the importance of reducing the regulatory burden on business and notably failed to appoint even one ecologist or conservation scientist to the expert panel.

In response, more than 240 conservation scientists called on the government to 'seize a :once-in-a-decade opportunity" to fix a system that is failing to stem a worsening extinction crisis' — arguing our 'current laws are failing because they are too weak, have inadequate review and approval processes, and are not overseen by an effective compliance regime'.

We should all be paying attention to this review, along with the need for our state and federal governments to take real action in response to the repeated recommendations of experts.

One key recommendation that has received increasing attention over the last month is the critical importance of Indigenous land management. We must allow space for Indigenous leadership in all of the recovery efforts, and support ongoing leadership in the development and implementation of future policy and legislation, if we are to have a chance of successfully adapting to what many are ominously calling 'the new normal'.

 

 

Cristy ClarkDr Cristy Clark is a human rights specialist. Her work focuses on the intersection of human rights, neoliberalism, activism and the environment, and particularly on the human right to water.

Main image: Sam Mitchell, owner of the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in the Parndana region, carries a dead koala and kangaroo to a mass grave site on 8 January 2020. The Kangaroo Wildlife Park positioned on the edge of the fire zone has been treating and housing close to 30 koalas a day. (Photo by Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Cristy Clark, bushfires, climate change, wildlife, extinction

 

 

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Existing comments

why would we want to appoint an ecologist or conservation scientist to the expert panel? They are responsible for the fuel on the ground disaster. Face up to it; this is fuel on the ground issue which is something we can fix right now.
Joe Sicher | 15 January 2020


I agree Cristy. The property loss and human loss aside, losses to native wildlife are incalculable. There has to be cleared wildlife corridors, better firebreaks around rural towns and more thought put into management of bush areas, wilderness areas. Fortunately the Australian bush will regenerate and many species only germinate after fire has gone through. But on the scale of the recent fires, that doesnt help the wildlife. Perhaps in the wilderness and large bush areas we need to consider building fireproof animal shelters and large man made lakes where animals can seek refuge. Animals need to be imported from areas where they are plentiful (eg Tas, NT and WA) to repopulate the ravaged areas of the Southern States. Parks and wildlife are going to be run off their feet. And the key to it all is water.
francis Armstrong | 15 January 2020


One major threat to biodiversity that you didn’t mention is urban encroachment. One significant thing city dwellers to protect species diversity would be to move to shrinking rural towns. This would not only support the economic frameworks of those towns where much good environmental work is done but take the environmental pressure off our larger cities.
Rob McCahill | 15 January 2020


Joe, you must be reading too much of the Murdoch media. The real experts in fire services and forest management say that’s not the principal problem and in any case, how do you conduct more cool burns when the safe season for cool burns is shrinking ?
Ginger Meggs | 15 January 2020


Management of our fires, land and safety requires a highly complex and multi faceted response. Govt and the people should listen to the fire chiefs, Aboriginal elders, conservationists and to the people. But we need stolen water returned to our rivers and communities, we need management of fossil fuels, management of where people build and how they build. It goes on and on. But we need to make radical changes right now, or each year it can get worse and our animals will be extinct, homes will burn and people will become ill from the pollution. No more waiting, everyone should demand action from their MPs.
Cate Wallace | 15 January 2020


Ginger, Joe's point is fuel hazard reduction and removal. Indigenous or not, "cool burns" leave bulk, heavy fuel, only reducing grass and litter. It took Grenfell tower for international attention to flammable cladding (fuel) and the resulting legislation for removal, it only burns with a detonator heat applied, but governments don't own the cost of the replacement = laws + fines. Conversely, hazard risk mitigation in forests is often ineffectively managed as cool burns, its VERY expensive to reduce that stumps and dead trees fuel load and wide firebreaks limit biodiversity = study + reports + time. Bulldozers and logging reduce fuel, bigtime...and that might help explain why "unprecedented" happened after logging certain areas was stopped. State and local governments can't cop the cost of reducing vermin killing biodiversity, let alone intensive fuel loads. Nobody is right or wrong, no easy answers, you can't have flammable cladding but you can have a redgum railway sleeper retaining wall within metres of a house, go figure! 2,000 families now know the fantastic efforts of CFA/RFB can't save everything. With luck we will reach an uneasy compromise. Don't let us have the conversation to identify or blame indigenous land practices, incorporate them.
Ray | 15 January 2020


Cristy, You are correct, This country is facing an extinction crisis.We need all fields of the earth sciences to advise governments . Joe your comment is inappropriate and incorrect. No amount of hazard reduction can prevent mega fires developing as the landscape is so dry from drought and so hot from human made temperature extremes . Burning the landscape by hazard reduction burns works in normal years but this is NOT a normal year, indeed this weather and climate may be the new normal if we don't change our ways. Bob is also correct. As our urban footprint expands and habitat is destroyed, native flora and fauna are affected adversely. Gavin O'Brien; FRMetS.
Gavin O'Brien | 16 January 2020


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