Australia’s animal population is unquestionably special. Many of its best-known species, such as kangaroos and koalas, are native to the country, and many creatures there can’t be found in any other nations outside zoos. Imagine if they’re all gone. Sadly they’ve come close to that recently.
In the massive bushfires sweeping the country, Australia’s wildlife is helpless and populations are being devastated. We’ve all seen the heartbreaking images and videos coming out of the crisis involving Australia’s animals. It’s heart wrenching to see koalas shielding their babies from smoke, kangaroos being comforted, Patsy the Wonder Dog saving a herd of sheep
Importance of wildfires
Now, before we delve further, I need to give you a bit of information about fire. Fire is often associated with negative impacts on the environment. We often antagonize them because we usually think of the damage and devastation fire causes to wildlife and vegetation.
However, a fire event can also be beneficial for plants and animals. According to the New South Wales government, fire can have a positive and negative effect on our plants and animals. Nonetheless, managing fire in national parks to minimise the ecological impact on wildlife and native vegetation is just as important.
Fire heats the soil, cracking seed coats and triggering germination, triggers woody seed pods held in the canopy to open, releasing seed onto a fresh and fertile ash bed, clears thick understorey reducing competition for seedlings, encourages new growth that provides food for many animals, and creates hollows in logs and trees that can be used by animals for nesting and shelter.
But as you know, fire can also burn and damage vegetation communities, such as rainforest that take hundreds of years to recover, kill or injure individual plants or animals, cause erosion and subsequent sedimentation of creeks and wetlands, open up areas to the impacts of weed and feral animal invasion as well as human access and vandalism.
In the recent case, it was more of the latter. And we’ve seen the devastation it’s caused.
How many animals involved?
Sydney University ecologist Chris Dickman told The Sydney Morning Herald that there are nearly 500 million animals (including mammals, birds and reptiles) that have died in bushfires in New South Wales. Organizations have worked hard to rescue and rehabilitate animals caught in the blazes.
Many have estimated the number, because animals don’t have birth certificates and there are no other ways to track them accurately So, the answer to this question is never going to have a definitive answer albeit still staggering.
Dickman estimates more than a billion animals have been killed across Australia, with 800 million dead in the worst-hit state of New South Wales alone. Early estimates included only mammals, birds and reptiles, but Dickman notes that once the insect, bat and frog populations are added in, a billion begins to look like a low estimate.
The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) used Dickman’s numbers to create its own sobering estimate that 1.25 billion animals may have been killed directly or indirectly by the fires.
A recent report in The New York Times notes that some experts are “dubious” about the numbers. There’s naturally limited access to the burned areas, and the death toll is arrived not by counting individual animals, but multiplying the number of animals expected to inhabit a given area by the total acreage burned.
The wildfires in Australia have been relentless, burning for months. As of early January, more than 14.7 million acres have burned, and the fires continue to spread. At least 20 people and an estimated half a billion animals have lost their lives, according to CNN.
The thing about the fire is that it’s not just the wild animals which are affected, the domestic ones like pets were also impacted on. Kelly Casey, a local Australian, managed to save two horses from the huge fire and other animals have been taken in by Canungra residents until it is safe to return home.
“We got the phone call early this morning that we needed to evacuate some horses from up on Binna Burra … so we went up and ended up bringing down a couple of horses and taking them to the Canungra showground,” she said.
She wasn’t alone, everybody was willing to help the animals and each other. Casey said it had been an amazing effort from the community. “I’ve been here seven years and every time something happens, they never cease to amaze me the people here, they’re just so wonderful,”
“Everybody wants to pitch in and help. We’ve got people who have collated lists of what locals can do to help, what services they can offer, rooms they can provide in their house for emergency accommodation, what animals they can take.”
Casey said the challenge was now to find enough feed for the rescued animals. “We’ve got a big drive at the moment to get some feed for dogs, goats, sheep and horses that have been rescued,” she said.
Donating to help the animals
It’s heartbreaking to read the stories and watch videos about the fires and the damage they’ve caused. For many, it’s especially painful to see the animals that have been hurt or displaced by the blazes.
And if you’re like me, an animal lover who doesn’t want to see them hurt, you can help the animals by donating. I realize that the fire has been reduced, but it hasn’t stopped, and there are affected animals who are still in need of help (your donation can also help them in the long run). Here are some organizations you can donate to.
RSPCA Australia: The Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals Australia, the nation’s leading animal welfare charity, is accepting donations to fund the rescue and treatment of animals affected by the fires. RSPCA chapters in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and South Australia are accepting donations.
Wildlife Victoria: A nonprofit that provides wildlife emergency response services, Wildlife Victoria is accepting donations to distribute to wildlife shelters to help rebuild enclosures and equipment, the organization says on its website. Donate at wildlifevictoria.org.au.
Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital: Bindi Irwin, the daughter of the Steve Irwin, has been taking in many displaced animals at the Australia Zoo Wildlife Hospital, which is owned by her mother, Terri. The zoo’s Wildlife Warriors program is raising money for new enclosures to house flying foxes and koalas injured or displaced by fires. Donate at wildlifewarriors.org.au.
Is volunteering possible?
Most emergency response organizations require volunteers to have training before participating in relief efforts. While booking a ticket to Sydney might not be the most effective way to help, you can still sign up for a training session to help out in the future.
Ways to help people instead of animals
Some of us might be more sympathetic towards animals, but people do need help as well. Here are the organizations you can donate to.
Australian Red Cross: Since July, the Australian Red Cross has assisted more than 18,600 people affected by the fires, according to its website. The organization says that it is currently supporting thousands of people in evacuation centers and recovery hubs. Learn more about where your money goes and donate at redcross.org.au.
The Victorian Government, in partnership with Bendigo Bank and The Salvation Army, has established a fund for affected families and communities. According to the government’s website, an advisory panel will recommend where funds are distributed. More at vic.gov.au/bushfireappeal.