These Are The Animals Most At Risk During The Bushfire Crisis

Eighty per cent of the one billion animals predicted to die during the bushfire crisis will be reptiles, experts warn, with koalas making up the tip of the iceberg. Here are the species most under threat this summer.

Heartbreaking images of scorched koalas and kangaroos have been sent around the world as bushfires tear through millions of hectares of land -- destroying the animals and their homes in their path.

But there is plenty of lesser-known wildlife that have also been impacted by the fire crisis, leaving ecologists scratching their heads at the scale and severity of the damage to threatened species and sensitive ecosystems.

It remains unclear exactly how many animals will die in the crisis as bushfires continue to rage across multiple states and experts are unable to re-enter burnt areas. But several ecologists agree that number will rise above one billion.

"It's pretty tough," Terrestrial Ecology expert Professor Chris Dickman told 10 daily.

"I know these animals up close and personal, and they're beautiful, charismatic, wonderful animals. To see them being burnt alive, dying from smoke inhalation and losing their habitats at the same time ... it's just horrible."

A kangaroo trying to move away from nearby bushfires at a property near the town of Nowra, NSW. Image: Getty

Dickman said some will be killed instantly by the flames, while others will perish as they seek refuge in unburnt areas that have little food or water, as they're eyed off by hungry predators.

One Billion?

Dickman has studied the effects of land loss on wildlife populations for years.

In 2007, he produced a report for the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) detailing the number of mammals, reptiles and birds caught up in a NSW land clearing scheme.

He and his colleagues came up with average population density estimates for each wildlife group and then multiplied it by the number of hectares of land cleared.

In 2020, Dickman has applied the same formula to work out the devastating impact of the fire crisis -- predicting that at least one billion will die.

The southern corroboree frog is critically endangered. Image: Melbourne Zoo

"The current numbers for the three main groups look big, but they're conservative because of what we've had to leave out," he said. 

Of the one billion animals, Dickman estimated about 80 per cent would be reptiles that are abundant in forests.  The remaining 200 million would be birds and terrestrial mammals that inhabit the land, including about 10,000 koalas.

"The koala population will be culled in the worst way you can imagine, but it's still only a small fraction of the one billion estimate," he said.

An injured Koala is seen at a forest near Cape Borda on Kangaroo Island, southwest of Adelaide. Image: AAP

The estimate excludes bats, frogs, insects or other invertebrates, which Dickman said could push the true figure into the trillions.

Environmental Management expert, Dr Martine Maron, agreed the current predictions are conservative.

She said many unique species of bats in Australia are susceptible to fires and are a critical part of ecosystems.

So too are invertebrates, a vital bird food, which Maron said live in forest layers that have already been dried out by drought.

"These fires are really just a catastrophic endpoint," she told 10 daily.

"At the species end of the scale, we might be losing some. At the other end of the spectrum, it may be that we are losing ecosystem functions," Dickman warned.



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What Species Are Most At Risk?

Dickman, one of the country's leading ecologists, said there is a concern for the species that already have very small populations and limited geographical spread.

Some of Australia's top environmental experts have estimated between 20 and 100 threatened species will have been burnt.

10 daily has also obtained a list of at-risk species compiled by conservation groups, including the WWF and the Australian Conservation Fund (ACF).

The list currently sits at 13, but ACF Policy Analyst James Trezise told 10 daily it was imperfect, and likely to rise in number.

"The reality is we are not going to know until the fires have stopped burning," he said.

The list includes three species from South Australia's Kangaroo Island, a biodiversity hot spot where about one-third of land has burnt this fire season.

There are serious concerns for the island's dunnart, an endangered small marsupial, and the highly-endangered glossy black-cockatoo.

The endangered Kangaroo Island dunnart. Image: K Gates via Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife Facebook

Daniella Teixeira, a PHD student from Queensland, has been studying the cockatoo species on Kangaroo Island for four years.

She told 10 daily watching the island go up in flames was "demoralising".

"Some of the sites that have been burnt are my study sites ... I know their individual nests, and I've heard some of them been lost," she said.

The Kangaroo Island glossy-black cockatoo in its habitat. Image: Daniella Teixeira

The glossy black cockatoo's last refuge was on the island.

Before the fires ripped through, Teixeira said there were only about 400 left.

"It's hard to say what the extent of the damage is, but depending on how many nests have been lost, we might see a reduction in their breeding outlook over the next year or two," she said.

"But we do know they haven't been obliterated."

In NSW's Blue Mountains region, there are concerns for the regent honeyeater, a critically endangered bird whose habitat has been burnt out by the Gospers Mountain blaze.

Maron said the bird used to be common in forests and woodlands of eastern Australia but now only a few hundred exist..

"We don't know the extent of damage, or the extent to which their breeding sites have been affected," she said. 

Eastern bristlebird in the Gondwana World Heritage area on the NSW-Qld border. Only 38 birds are known to remain. Image: Martine Maron

Also on the list is the endangered eastern bristlebird, marsupials the greater glider and long-footed potoroo and the quokka.

What's Next?

Conservation groups and ecologists are desperate to get on the ground to assess the damage in burnt-out areas.

Trezise said an emergency recovery response "cannot wait" and should be steered by the federal government.

"We need teams going in there to avert the worst for some of these species," he said.

"This is a national crisis, so there is absolutely a role for the government to bring all the jurisdictions together and design a recovery plan for at-risk populations."

Experts say wildlife recovery is a 'national crisis'. Image: AAP

Stuart Blanch from the WWF agreed.

"The bushfire emergency is a catastrophe for both people and wildlife, and we need a multi-billion wildlife recovery plan to sit alongside the prime minister's multi-billion human communities recovery plan," Blanch told 10 daily. 



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Environment Minister Sussan Ley said that while work has started in some areas, such as Northern NSW, the fire situation remains active and authorities must wait until all areas are declared safe before they can get on the ground.

"Planning is already underway through the Department of Environment and Energy to work with scientists, state organisations and other partners to identify recovery priorities and future protection strategies," Ley said.

"It will take months before we can accurately assess the impacts and in truth we may never have the complete picture on exact numbers."

Ley said Scott Morrison has identified wildlife and habitat restoration as a "key" recovery area that will require short and long-term funding.

"In the absence of that, Australia's global conservation image is going to be heavily tarnished," Trezise said.