BY RACHEL LOWRY
CHIEF CONSERVATION OFFICER, WWF-AUSTRALIA
Australia’s 2019-20 bushfire season provided a window into a warming world that was simply too hot, and too terrifying to ignore. Many Australian’s continue to grieve all that we lost during those fires, with families that endured the loss of loved ones still very much in our thoughts.
Fortunately, a year marked by hardship and loss has also begun to sprout seeds of hope as a new narrative sets in. Fewer Australians are arguing whether climate change is ahead of us, and more discussing the changes already upon us. Many have even begun identifying the opportunities to be seized if we walk a path of regeneration.
Our planet has just experienced our six hottest consecutive years on record, and as climate scientists have long warned, this warming comes at a cost. Sadly, Australia’s people, wildlife and wild places are amongst the first frontiers to pay this price.
In February 2019, Aussies attuned to announcements from our Federal Minister of Environment learnt that Australia’s first native mammal went extinct due to climate change. This tiny Australian rodent was the Bramble Cay melomys, its light now forever extinguished due to severe weather and rising sea levels.
Our nation continues to grapple with the numbers of 3 billion native animals impacted in the fire season just past. However, we know, due to good science, that unless we take immediate action to stabilise our climate and protect our natural assets still standing, the Bramble Cay melomys will not be our last climate-induced extinction.
One could argue that 2020 has provided a reminder of what Australia has at stake if we are unable to stabilise our climate. It has also served as a reminder that Australians care deeply about nature. WWF-Australia is amongst one of many environmental organisations in which Australians placed their trust and vital donations during 2020.
Consequently, WWF’s Australian Wildlife Nature and Recovery Fund has achieved some critical outcomes to date. Just over half of the funds donated have either been deployed or committed, and the remaining funds are under allocation across our three primary arms of bushfire response, Wildlife Response, Landscape Restoration and Protection and Future-proofing. With 3 million dollars set aside to unearth innovative solutions to challenging problems through WWF’s Innovate to Regenerate program, I reflect on three of my favourite projects in 2020 while looking to 2021 with optimism and determination.
The Friends of the Koala hospital in Lismore, NSW, are a team of committed wildlife responders who bore the brunt of the early and intensified fire season before many Australian’s had fully grasped the severity of the fires at hand. Dedicated to providing care to koala’s that inhabit the forests around Lismore, this incredible team were able to utilise funds deployed via WWF’s Australian Wildlife Nature and Recovery Fund to build temporary holding facilities bolstering the number of koala’s they were able to care for at any one time.
They represent a sector of Australian wildlife responders who have worked tirelessly over the past year. During my visit in March, I found that the Friends of the Koala team were committed to learning from the recent fire season, and in doing so, will utilise a second portion of funding to help build a new hospital that will better equip them for future fires.
Not all that far from where a renewed koala hospital will soon stand, is the Ngunya Jargoon Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) that is also worthy of note.
This IPA was subject to wildfires in November 2019 that burnt through 85% of the land. Covering over 1,114 hectares of the Lower Richmond Valley on the north coast of New South Wales, the Jali lands are the largest and most significant wildlife corridors in the Lower Richmond Valley. They also provide a refuge for wildlife across a fragmented landscape.
WWF-Australia has formed a collaboration with Jali Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) on species detection. This partnership has enabled the Jali LALC to purchase equipment, including sensor cameras and thermal imagery devices, to help understand which species have survived the fires well, and which require recovery assistance.
The team at Jali LALC have been generous in sharing their findings, and you can just imagine the joy that comes from seeing a long-nosed potoroo, like the one captured below, return to this fire-affected area.
Tourists are vital to ensuring the well-being of some of Australia’s most severely fire-impacted communities. Aware of this fact, WWF-Australia has partnered with Ecotourism Australia to help six communities progress through Ecotourism Australia’s ECO Destination Certification program.
This partnership ultimately helps communities benefit from and protect the nature that makes them unique. I draw attention to this partnership, even though WWF has fostered over 81 bushfire response partnerships throughout 2020 because our work with Ecotourism Australia forges pathways with non-traditional allies that benefit nature, our economy, and ultimately, Australia’s people.
Partnerships such as this one will be vital to Australia’s regeneration.
Bushfires like we have never seen before. A pandemic that followed. We’ve all heard 2020 referred to as an unprecedented year. But that term can imply that it was so out of the ordinary that it’s unlikely to happen again. Our scientists warn otherwise. Rather than thinking of 2020 as simply being unprecedented, the challenge for all Australians is to ensure that it has been pivotal. Pivotal in changing the way that we talk about and engage with the challenges posed by climate change. Pivotal in ensuring that 2021 is the year for accelerated time-bound action. And pivotal in uniting Australia behind a pathway towards regeneration.
As the year that changed it all draws to a close, we stand in the ashes of what we lost last summer, but with a clear vision of ahead that we can’t go back to business as usual. I look forward to the incredible work we can do together in 2021 as we work to Regenerate Australia.
It’s clear that our focus must place both people and nature at the heart of our decisions from now on, as we Regenerate Australia together.