Around 480 million animals are feared to have died in the bushfires sweeping Australia, including nearly a third of the koalas in New South Wales‘s main habitat.

Hospital workers at Port Macquarie tend to a burnt koala (AFP via Getty Images)

“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,” Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told parliament during an urgent December hearing regarding the koala population, News Corp Australia reports.

According to Mark Graham, an ecologist with the Nature Conservation Council, koalas “have no capacity to move fast enough to get away” from fires that spread from treetop to treetop.

Female koala Anwen recovering from burns at The Port Macquarie Koala Hospital on November 29, 2019, in Port Macquarie, Australia. 

As the number of fires in Queensland, Victoria, and New South Wales continues to rise, the death toll of animals is likely to increase.

“Certainly, large animals, like kangaroos or emus – many birds, of course – will be able to move away from the fire as it approaches,” Prof Dickman said.

But he added that many of those that survived the actual fire would die later because of lack of food or shelter.

Unprecedented continent-wide bushfires

While a number of Australia’s native flora and fauna are reliant on fire to reproduce and bushfires occur seasonally, the scale of bushfire this time is unprecedented and almost continent-wide.

Australia has lost an area of more than three million hectares to the fire thus far and this is much more devastating than the usual area of 280, 000 hectares burnt in a season in the past few years, according to the NSW Rural Fire Service.

Scientists cited record-breaking drought as one of the key reasons for this devastating fire.

“We would need, in a number of areas, hundreds of millimetres of rainfall,” says Shepherd. “Not only to extinguish the fires we have, but to correct some of the deficits from the long-term lack of rainfall.

“It’s not just a quick rain shower we need. We need days of steady rain to actually extinguish the fires and reduce the risk. And that is not on any forecast at the moment”.

It’s still too early to say how many creatures will lose their lives due to the fires, but we know that the number is far beyond what anyone could have predicted when the fires started.

Wildlife communities will almost certainly require human assistance to bring population levels to what they were before the crisis, but even so an uncertain future is looming.

What a terrible tragedy, and one that Australia is sure to feel for generations to come.