By Jamie Gonzales
Several weeks ago, I read an article published on the Boracay Sun website about Boracay’s endangered Flying Foxes. Over many years I have seen the hordes of these wonderful creatures departing from Boracay’s forestlands towards the mainland in search of food. This fascinating spectacle seems now to be in decline due to so called human development in deforestation, amongst others, destroying Boracay and its ecosystem.
Unfortunately, wildlife globally is being forced into a danger zone that threatens to wipe out many species.
Last year I visited Australia for a short business trip, just before the tragic bushfires, which started in June, really took hold. The reports and images that dominated the world’s media were nothing short of horrific. The loss of life and level of devastation were way beyond anything I ever thought I would see from Australia.
Whole communities were eradicated, literally burnt to the ground. People’s lives were left in ruins, their property and possessions lost forever. The loss of human and animal life was tragic, and the colossal future loss to nature and the animal kingdom is beyond comprehension.
By the time the bushfires were mostly extinguished in February, at least 34 people had died, and 2,779 homes were lost. On top of this, an estimated billion animals had died, and some of the horrific pictures of charred animal remains will stay in my mind for years to come. And for many of the animals that somehow survived the blaze, their food sources have been heavily damaged. I saw one organization had arranged an airdrop of carrots and vegetables, but the sheer scale of the devastation made it impossible to reach enough animals.
Speaking to ABC News in late December, Australia’s Environment Minister Sussan Ley estimated that 30 percent of the koala population had already been lost. “Even when all the fires have stopped, the outlook for koalas is fairly bleak,” she said. “Going forward, finding suitable habitat for the surviving koalas will be a big challenge, as will be the loss of genetic diversity.”
Plants and animals (including humans) depend on one another as parts of a healthy ecosystem. Remove one piece, one species, and small changes lead to big problems that aren't easy to fix. For instance, before wolves were reintroduced to Yosemite National Park in the US, the population of deer on which they had fed grew dramatically. The deer then grazed so heavily on young trees that the supply of cover and food for birds and other species was greatly reduced. It’s a chain, and if one link breaks, all the others may fail.
As of early March 2020, the fires had burned an estimated 18.6 million hectares of bush, forests and national parks, home to the country's unique wildlife. To put this in perspective, the entire island of Mindanao covers 9.75 million hectares.
One fire ripped through a major koala colony, numbering some 600, in the Lake Innes Nature Reserve in New South Wales, and spread to other koala habitats. "We are very, very concerned,” said Sue Ashton, president of Koala Conservation Australia, at the height of the conflagration. “If the wind picks up, we could lose even more habitat and more koalas. It’s just so unpredictable - we don’t know what will happen.”
"It's a national tragedy," said Cheyne Flanagan, clinical director at Port Macquarie Koala Hospital, also in New South Wales, adding that the fires would probably result in koalas being designated an endangered species.
“It’s not just the koala. It’s the lesser-known species that live in small areas that have been totally engulfed,” said Sarah Legge, an ecologist at the Australian National University. “Hundreds of species have been affected by these fires. That includes many dozens of threatened species; some of these will be brought to the brink of extinction as a result of this event. And if they’re not made extinct by this event, I think this is the beginning of the end for them. Because this event will reoccur. It’s awful. It will be ecosystem collapse in a lot of cases. And we’re not exactly sure what we’ll end up with at the end of it all.”
Australia has the highest rate of species loss of any region in the world, and researchers fear that rate could increase as the fire disaster numbers keep coming in. Calling the scale of the fires "unprecedented," Dieter Hochuli, an environmental sciences professor at the University of Sydney, said, "There are substantial concerns about the capacity of these ecosystems to rebound from the fires."