Dr Stuart Blanch, WWF-Australia’s Senior Manager of Landclearing and Restoration, fans the flames for legal reform.
When last summer's catastrophic fires approached my neighbourhood just north of Sydney I thought the smoke and flames resembled an atomic bomb cloud. I'd never seen anything like it.
But the worst was yet to come, as the bushfire crisis unfolded. The Lake Macquarie fire was just one of countless blazes that razed vast tracts of our continent. As the bush burned with frightening ferocity, confounding even our most experienced fire-fighters, we watched, powerless.
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In the months that followed, I visited three burnt forests to see the horrific impacts of the fires first-hand. Amid the destruction, the fallen trees and ashes, the thing that shocked me most was how deathly quiet these forests had become.
In some areas, smoke still rose from grand trees that lay smouldering on the ground. Defeated. These forest giants, some of them hundreds of years old, had been nature's most populated high-rise apartments only weeks before. They'd been home to generations of bats and owls and koalas and greater gliders - animals now either dead or rendered homeless and hungry.
Travelling with other scientists to carry out post-fire koala surveys near Port Macquarie was even more heartbreaking. Here, entire rainforests were blackened. Not our nation's flammable eucalypts - that would have been fathomable - but groves of endangered subtropical lowland rainforest that just isn't meant to burn. It was like someone had torched the landscape with a giant flamethrower.
We spent three hours looking for koalas on that occasion, and found no survivors. In fact, we hardly heard or saw any animals at all. It was one of the most sombre and sobering experiences of my long career as a wildlife conservationist.
Wildlife surveys in more recent months have only served to confirm our worst fears about the extent of the devastation. In seven burnt sites across the Gibraltar Range National Park and Torrington State Conservation Area, in northern NSW, the number of ground-dwelling species had been reduced by 90%. The fires were so widespread and intense that they burnt everything from the ground up to the very canopies of the trees. Entire communities of animals had been wiped out.
Only those mobile enough to escape, like kangaroos and wallabies, were recorded during the surveys. There were few of the smaller, ground-dwelling species you would normally expect to see, and for any animal that did manage to escape the flames, there was little food or shelter.
Last summer produced fires the likes of which we have never before seen in Australia.More than 15,000 fires burned across all states, more than 19 million hectares burned, including 12.6 million hectares of forest and woodland. Working with the University of Sydney, we sought to estimate the number of individual native vertebrates that would have been present within the bushfire impact area as a step towards a more holistic understanding of the impacts of the fires on native wildlife.
In total, we estimate that 3 billion native animals would have been impacted. In a rough breakdown, that is estimated to look like:
- 143 million mammals
- 2.46 billion reptiles
- 180 million birds
- 51 million frogs
The true cost and tally of lives lost will never be known; but these figures give a damning and heartbreaking view into what that cost might be.
Experts are already warning about what lies ahead as our planet continues to warm. Which makes protecting the precious habitat that does remain - habitat that threatened species now desperately depend on - so critical.
This year we have an unprecedented opportunity to do just that. An opportunity to ensure that our federal environment laws are capable of affording our forests and their residents the protection they deserve. As part of a statutory review of the legislation, we have the chance to contribute to the strengthening of the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act, the cornerstone of conservation in this country.
Introduced in 1999, the EPBC Act was designed to be a powerful, binding contract between developers and farmers, scientists, conservationists, Indigenous people and land managers to protect natural features of national significance. But over the past 20 years it has become largely ineffective and inefficient, progressively watered down by exemptions and loopholes that preference development over the environment.
I am one who believes the EPBC Act is in crisis and needs a major overhaul.
However, the federal government has just rejected scientific recommendations to strengthen our nature laws and create an independent compliance agency so that Australia’s flagship nature laws are actually enforced.
This rejection by the government means we risk losing so much more of our precious wildlife as their habitats continue to be destroyed. Have we not lost enough already?
Since the EPBC Act was introduced, some 7.7 million hectares of threatened species habitat has been destroyed across Australia.
The good news is, you can take action right now to ensure our Australian wildlife and the places they call home have a future.
Australia's premier national environmental legislation was introduced to take care of such threatened ecological communities, among many other national assets. If it is not protecting those communities adequately - and even contravening its own aims - then the EPBC Act is failing both our environment and us, its custodians. Especially in the face of accelerating global heating and the associated increased fire threat, we have to do better. Fast.
We must comprehensively review and strengthen the EPBC Act to ensure that bulldozing, salvage logging or clearing for agriculture does not threaten the forest refuges that have escaped burning. We have to silence the powerful economic voices calling for job creation and development at all cost during the current coronavirus pandemic.
The EPBC Act, developed two decades ago, is clearly no longer fit for purpose. It cannot meet the mounting challenges we face, and it's our shared responsibility to ensure that it does. Robust legislation is fundamental to addressing Australia’s extinction crisis at the local, state and national levels.
You can play your part by helping WWF to advocate for the application and enforcement of stronger national environment laws. Join us today, and speak up on behalf of all those animals that have been silenced.
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