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Climate change devastates Australia's wildlife

July 19, 2022

A five-yearly report by the Australian government said the country's flora and fauna was badly affected by bush fires, drought and global warming. It warned more species could head for extinction.

A mother koala named Kali and her joey are seen in their natural habitat
Wildfires have wiped out significant portions of koala habitatImage: Loren Elliott/REUTERS

Australia's unique wildlife is being devastated by bush fires, drought, habitat loss and global warming, a government report said on Tuesday. It warned that more species were headed for extinction.

The five-yearly State of the Environment report said immediate action was required to reverse the state of flora and fauna on land and sea.

"It tells a story of crisis and decline in Australia's environment," said Australia's environment minister, Tanya Plibersek. 

Plibersek, a member of the newly elected Labor Party, said her predecessor under the previous conservative government received the report in December 2021 but never released it.

"I won't be putting my head in the sand," she said. 

Which species are threatened

Some animals such as the blue-tailed skink are now only known to exist in captivity, while the central rock-rat and Christmas Island flying fox are among mammals considered most at risk of extinction in the next 20 years, largely due to introduced predator species.

The sandalwood tree is also in decline.

The "Black Summer" of bush fires 2019-20 killed or displaced an estimated 1 billion to 3 billion animals and razed 9% of koala habitat. Marine heatwaves caused mass coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in 2016, 2017 and 2020, it said.

The report said increasing temperatures, changing fire and rainfall trends, rising sea levels and ocean acidification were all having significant impacts that would persist.

"Our inability to adequately manage pressures will continue to result in species extinctions," said the report.

Saving the animals! Australia after the fires

What can be done

The number of species added to the list of threatened species or in a higher category of threat grew 8% from the previous report in 2016 and rose sharply as a result of the bush fires that hit in 2019-2020. 

The report also highlighted the threat of ocean acidification, caused by absorption of carbon dioxide from the air, which it said was nearing a tipping point that would affect reef recovery.

Australia's average land temperatures have increased by 1.4 degrees Celsius since the early 20th century.

Spending of around A$1.7 billion ($1.2 billion) a year is required to revive threatened species, the report said.

Scientists and environmental groups said the report was a wake-up call to step up carbon emissions reductions to curb climate change, overhaul laws to protect habitat and invest more money to protect species.

"Climate change is compounding the already significant damage to our land, water, waterways and coasts from threats including introduced species, pollution and land clearing," Landcare Australia Chair, Doug Humann AM said in a statement shared with DW.

As highlighted in the report, landcare funding has been progressively cut since 2010. Increasing investment in landcare is critical to support innovative landcare-led partnerships that benefit the environment, landscape and biodiversity as well as our communities and personal wellbeing." he added.

"The findings of this report are heartbreaking, and the leadership failures that have led to loss at this scale devastating. If we ignore the warnings of this report then iconic species like koalas across eastern Australia, or our largest gliding mammal, the greater glider, will disappear forever on our watch," WWF-Australia acting chief executive Rachel Lowry told AFP news agency.

tg/aw  (AFP, Reuters)