Half a billion animals feared killed in Australian bushfires as at least 8,000 koalas are wiped out

Andy Wells
·Freelance Writer

As the devastating bushfires in Australia continue to rage, estimates suggest up to half a billion animals may have died since the start of the crisis.

Some 480 million mammals, birds and reptiles are estimated to have perished since September, according to ecologists from the University of Sydney, while 8,000 koalas in New South Wales are thought to have been killed – nearly a third of the entire koala population in the region.

More koalas – who eat leaves on highly flammable eucalyptus trees – are feared dead in other areas, and that figure is thought likely to increase as flames have spread across New South Wales and Victoria over the past two days.

Australia deployed military ships and aircraft on Wednesday to help communities ravaged by the wildfires, which have left at least 17 people dead nationwide and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline.

FIEL - In this image made from video taken on Dec. 22, 2019, and provided by Oakbank Balhannah CFS, a koala drinks water from a bottle given by a firefighter in Cudlee Creek, South Australia. Thousands of koalas are feared to have died in a wildfire-ravaged area north of Sydney, further diminishing Australia's iconic marsupial, while the fire danger accelerated Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019 in the country’s east as temperatures soared. (Oakbank Balhannah CFS via AP, File)
A koala drinks water from a bottle given by a firefighter in Cudlee Creek, South Australia. (Oakbank Balhannah CFS/AP)
Kangaroos graze in a field as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra, Australia, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020. Australia deployed military ships and aircraft to help communities ravaged by apocalyptic wildfires that destroyed homes and sent thousands of residents and holidaymakers fleeing to the shoreline. (AP Photo/Mark Baker)
Kangaroos graze in a field as smoke shrouds the Australian capital of Canberra. (AP)
In this image from a video taken on Friday, Dec. 27, 2019, and provided by @bikebug2019, a koala drinks water, given by a cyclist in Adelaide, Australia. A South Australian cyclist has been approached by a thirsty koala searching for water as a heatwave continues to grip the state. (@bikebug2019 via AP)
A koala drinks water given by a cyclist in Adelaide, Australia. (@bikebug2019/AP)

Video footage taken in recent days shows desperately thirsty koalas clinging to cyclists while being given water to drink, and kangaroos have been seen fleeing terrifying walls of fire.

Harrowing images have also showed the cockatoos falling dead out of trees.

Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham said: “The fires have burned so hot and so fast that there has been significant mortality of animals in the trees, but there is such a big area now that is still on fire and still burning that we will probably never find the bodies.

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“[Koalas] really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away.”

Stand Up For Nature said in a letter to NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian that “the full scale of wildlife losses will probably never be known, but they will surely number in the millions”.

She added: “These unprecedented fires have jeopardised the long-term viability of threatened species populations and forest ecosystems in several areas.”

Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the animal death figures would only be known after “the fires have calmed down and a proper assessment can be made”.

In this image made from video taken Dec. 21, 2019, kangaroos move as nearby property burn in a fire in Lithgow, New South Wales state, Australia. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison on Sunday apologized for taking a family vacation in Hawaii as deadly bushfires raged across several states, destroying homes and claiming the lives of two volunteer firefighters.(Australian Broadcasting Corporation via AP)
Kangaroos move as a nearby property burns in a fire in Lithgow, New South Wales. (AP)
In this Dec. 20, 2019, photo taken and provided by Adam Mudge, koalas sit inside a home in Cudlee Creek, South Australia, after being rescued from fires at a garden. Local firefighters assigned to protect a property from an approaching fire in South Australia on Friday helped a homeowner move koalas into her house to keep them safe from the flames. (Adam Mudge via AP)
Koalas sit inside a home in Cudlee Creek, South Australia, after being rescued from fires at a garden. (Adam Mudge/AP)

Tourists given 48 hours to flee Australia

Thousands of tourists have fled Australia's wildfire-ravaged eastern coast after being told they had 48 hours to get out of the area.

Worsening conditions were predicted as the military started to evacuate people trapped on the shore further south.

Saturday is forecast to bring gusting winds and temperatures above 40C, creating dangerous fire conditions.

In this image released Thursday, Jan. 2, 2020, from the DELWP Gippland, shows massive smoke rising from wildfires burning in East Gippsland, Victoria. Thousands of tourists are fleeing Australia's wildfire-ravaged eastern coast ahead of worsening conditions as the military started to evacuate people trapped on the shore further south. Cooler weather has aided firefighting and allowed people to replenish supplies.  (DELWP Gippland via AP)
Massive smoke rises from wildfires in East Gippsland, Victoria. (DELWP/AP)
In this Monday, Dec. 30, 2019 photo provided by State Government of Victoria, a helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, Victoria state, Australia. Wildfires burning across Australia's two most-populous states trapped residents of a seaside town in apocalyptic conditions Tuesday, Dec. 31, and were feared to have destroyed many properties and caused fatalities. (State Government of Victoria via AP)
A helicopter tackles a wildfire in East Gippsland, Victoria. (State Government of Victoria/AP)

Officials said these conditions have the potential to be worse than those on Tuesday – the deadliest day of the bushfire crisis since it began.

The fire conditions were expected to deteriorate on Saturday as high temperatures and strong winds return.

Glaciers turn brown in New Zealand

Smoke from the bushfires has turned white glaciers brown in New Zealand – thousands of miles away from where the flames are raging.

Residents of the country said they could smell smoke early on Wednesday morning, while the haze made the sun appear red.

MetService, New Zealand’s official forecaster, tweeted: "Smoke which has travelled around 2,000km across the Tasman Sea can clearly be seen.

"Visibility in the smoke haze is as low as 10km in the worst affected areas."

Wall of smoke wider than Europe

A vast wall of smoke wider than Europe has been created as a result of the ongoing fires.

The 2.1 million square-mile plume is drifting across the Pacific Ocean and its size is an astonishing 14 times bigger than Japan.

Areas affected by the bushfires so far (PA)
.Areas affected by the bushfires so far (PA)

If it were laid out on a map of Europe, it would stretch from Iceland to Turkey, according to Antti Lipponen, a physicist and research scientist at the Finnish Meteorological Institute.

Smoke from the bushfires meant that on Wednesday, Canberra, the nation's capital, had air quality more than 21 times the hazardous rating, to be reportedly the worst in the world.