There has been an outpouring of grief in Australia and across the globe as images of the devastation caused by raging bushfires have circulated on social media. As well as the loss of human life, homes and livelihoods, the huge number of animal lives lost has really struck a chord; helpless animals, their habitats up in flames, an ecosystem in chaos. It was initially estimated that 500 million animals had perished in the fires, an already significant number that has continued to rise to an estimate of 1.25 billion, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
With experts yet to understand the true extent of the loss, environmentalist Natalie Kyriacou OAM, founder and CEO of My Green World, told Neos Kosmos the worst is yet to come.
“The scale and severity of this crisis is heartbreaking. It will almost certainly set whole species extinctions in motion and will have irreparable consequences for the future of Australia’s flora and fauna. Australia will not recover from this in my lifetime,” Ms Kyriacou said, a concerning statement given she is aged in her early 30s.
“The main piece of advice I would give is to take this cause on as your own; the onus is on us, as individuals, to create the environment of the future, and every single person will need to make a sacrifice.” – Natalie Kyriacou OAM
As well as having lasting consequences for Australian biodiversity, the loss of animal life to such a huge extent will also have implications on the country’s political, cultural, social and environmental landscapes and institutions.
While bushfires have been a natural part of the Australian environment for thousands of years, the fact that they are occurring alongside many other stressors like habitat loss, climate change and invasive species has now exacerbated their scale and severity, Ms Kyriacou added.
Meanwhile for the animals that have survived, there is significant concern for the state of their habitats and the impact on survival outcomes going forward once they have been rehabilitated and released back into the wild.
“In the immediate aftermath, we can expect an increase in starvation events for many species as well as an increase of predation on native wildlife by invasive species, such as feral cats,” Ms Kyriacou said.
With Australia home to many vulnerable species, and experiencing the highest mammalian extinction rate in the world, while it is difficult to understand the scope of damage to individual species at this point in time, conservationists are concerned for species like the endangered southern corroboree frog and many species that live on Kangaroo Island, particularly the dunnart.
“A key concern is the loss of genetic diversity that these fires have caused, which could reduce a species’ ability to tolerate stress from their environment. Species with greater genetic diversity generally have more tools to adapt to changes in their environment. Ecosystems are incredibly fragile, and disturbances to any species can have terrible consequences on entire populations,” she explained.
Ms Kyriacou said what Australians are currently experiencing is a glimpse of what climate inaction looks like, with an increasing frequency of such disasters if the threat of climate change is not taken seriously.
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“I would like to see government collaborate with wide-ranging environmental stakeholders – both here and abroad – to develop an ambitious, innovative, cohesive and comprehensive climate and environmental policy that achieves climate neutrality before 2050. This policy should capture and reflect the diverse voices of Australia, particularly that of young people,” Ms Kyriacou said.
“Some key areas of action should include moving away from our dependence on coal and animal products, rapidly prioritising green spaces and car-free spaces in our cities, developing effective waste reduction strategies and education campaigns, increasing support for non-profits, social enterprises and small businesses tackling climate change, banning single-use plastics and establishing greater legal protection for wildlife and the environment.”
Meanwhile for those feeling helpless, further to government action, the environmentalist urges everyone to do their part, starting from today, by reducing their own carbon footprint by opting for a more sustainable lifestyle.
“The main piece of advice I would give is to take this cause on as your own; the onus is on us, as individuals, to create the environment of the future, and every single person will need to make a sacrifice,” Ms Kyriacou said.
“As a consumer, you vote for the future you want through your purchases and habits. Some key first steps are to avoid plastic products, opt to walk or cycle rather than drive, reduce meat consumption, write to your local government and businesses that you frequent to ask them what their commitment to the environment is.”
Everyone can check their carbon footprint using websites and apps such as the Carbon Footprint Calculator.
For those not feeling the burn directly, sometimes people can have short-term memories. But as fires continue to spread, what’s clear is that this is very much a long-term disaster, and the threat of further loss of human, animal and plant life, a decrease in air quality, greater resource insecurity and an increase in climate refugees is very real.
“In addition to supporting emergency relief funds, please consider becoming a regular donor to wildlife and/or environmental conservation, education and advocacy organisations who work tirelessly to protect wildlife and the environment into the future,” Ms Kyriacou urged.