Dec 7, 2020 - Science

Over 60,000 koalas killed or harmed by Australia's "black summer" fires

A mother koala and her joey are rehabilitated at Taronga Zoo in Sydney after a bushfire ravaged their habitat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, NSW, January 13, 2020.
A koala and her joey during rehabilitation at Taronga Zoo in Sydney after a bushfire ravaged their habitat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney in the Australian of New South Wales in January 13. Photo: Cole Bennetts/The Sydney Morning Herald via Getty Images

Australia's "'black summer" bushfires killed, wounded or displaced 143 million mammals — including over 61,000 koalas, per a report published Monday

Why it matters: Koalas in New South Wales and Queensland were in "rapid decline" before last summer's fires ravaged the states, per a statement from Dermot O'Gorman, CEO of WWF-Australia, which commissioned the research. It's "a deeply disturbing number for a species already in trouble," he added.

The big picture: The blazes killed 33 people and destroyed some 59 million acres. The new research concurs with an interim report published in July that the wildfires impacted some 3 billion animals.

  • "It's hard to think of another event anywhere in the world in living memory that has killed or displaced that many animals," O'Gorman said at the time. "This ranks as one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history."

By the numbers: Along with the mammals, 2.46 billion reptiles, 181 million birds and 51 million frogs occupied areas hit by the 2019-2020 fires, per the new report by University of Sydney researchers.

What to watch: WWF-Australia launched a Koalas Forever" initiative Monday designed to double the number of koalas in eastern Australia by 2050. "It's part of WWF’s Regenerate Australia plan — the largest and most innovative wildlife and landscape regeneration program in Australia’s history," O'Gorman said.

  • "Koalas Forever includes a trial of seed dispersing drones to create koala corridors and the establishment of a fund to encourage landowners to create koala safe havens."
  • The Australian government plans to deploy "heat-seeking drones, acoustic surveys and detector dogs" during its koala count, the New York Times reports.

What they're saying: Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley said in a statement announcing the audit in November that scientists told the government there's "a serious lack of data about where populations actually are, how they are faring and the best ways to help them recover after the devastating bushfires."

Of note: Australia is facing fresh threats from bushfires this season — notably on the World Heritage-listed Fraser Island, where Queensland Fire and Emergency Services have warned a "fire may pose a threat to all lives directly in its path."

Read the full report, via DocumentCloud:

Go deeper: Australia fires: "Widespread devastation across the ecosystem"

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