Koalas are the instantly recognizable, undeniably adorable symbols of Australia. At Zoo Miami, we met a male koala named Milo, who is safe and snug in his enclosure while his cousins are fighting for their lives back home. The massive bushfires are devastating huge swaths of Australia.
“We know that certain populations have been obliterated in certain areas, in the country, there’s still koalas, but if these fires continue we may be looking at the koala as an endangered species, which would be profoundly tragic,” said Zoo Miami’s conservation expert, Ron Magill.
The bushfire season in Australia is just hitting its peak. An area 20 times bigger than the area burned by fires in California a few months ago, an area about the size of Ireland, is currently on fire.
Half a billion animals are estimated to have died already.
“The animals that occur there occur nowhere else on the planet, so they are endemic animals, so unique to Australia, if they get wiped out, all the money in the world is not gonna bring them back,” Magill said.
Some species, such as kangaroos, wallabies, and emus can run away from the flames. Koala’s are not blessed with speed.
“Koala’s feed on eucalyptus, and the irony is, eucalyptus is an incredibly flammable tree so wen fires take over these eucalyptus groves they burn very, very quickly, and koala’s are not fast animals, they cannot outrun the fire,” Magill explained.
For the animals of Australia, it’s not just that the fires are destroying habitat, they’re destroying the animals themselves in such large numbers that it might be impossible to repopulate the wild areas once the fire season is over.
There are heroic efforts going on right now to save as many wounded animals as possible, but it’s not just wildlife in danger.
At least 25 people have died and 2,500 buildings have been destroyed by the fires.
“The damage done here is quite profound and out of bounds in the historical record,” said Dr. Ben Kirtman, a climate scientist at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science.
Kirtman says the data and science is clear: the Australian fires are being fueled by anthropogenic climate change. Australia has become hotter and drier, so naturally-occurring bushfires have more fuel to burn and quickly grow into monster firestorms.
“The current trajectory is for a significantly warmer climate which will make things in Australia worse in terms of fire risk,” Kirtman said. “There is a way to fix this in a natural way and that’s to reduce our emissions, we’re not going to be able to prop up the eco system without significant reductions in CO2 emissions.”