SWITZERLAND, JANUARY 07 – As fires continue to rip through Australia, some devastating numbers are emerging: At least 24 people killed. More than 15.6 million acres torched. Over 1,400 homes destroyed. And, according to one biodiversity expert’s count, an estimated 480 million animals killed.
That last number — nearly half a billion — is staggeringly huge, and has made the rounds on social media over the past few days. You might be wondering: How are so many animals dying? And how do we know the number of animals killed?
The bushfires, exacerbated by climate change, have since September swept through vast swathes of Australia — we’re talking about an area bigger than Vermont and New Hampshire combined — affecting a mix of rural and suburban areas.
Many wild animals and farm animals have been killed directly by the flames. We can see the evidence with our own eyes: Distressing images of burned kangaroos and koalas, and videos of dead animals on the sides of the roads, have circulated online over the past week.
Other animals have not been burned alive but have faced death due to the destruction of their natural environment, which they rely on for food and shelter.
As for the 480 million figure, that estimate comes from Chris Dickman, a biodiversity expert at the University of Sydney. A statement from that institution explains how he arrived at the number.
Regardless of the exact numbers, this is a crisis for biodiversity in Australia, which is home to some of Earth’s most distinctive animals, like marsupials. In fact, around 244 species of mammals are found only in Australia. What’s more, according to the University of Sydney’s statement, “Some 34 species and subspecies of native mammals have become extinct in Australia over the last 200 years, the highest rate of loss for any region in the world.”
The current loss of Australian animal life is a serious tragedy, by anyone’s count.It adds to the terrible human toll: two dozen people killed, and thousands more evacuated. Fires are expected to keep raging for another month.
To help with the evacuations and firefighting, the government announced this weekend that it’s deploying the military. Experts say the deployment is on a scale not seen since World War II. As Defense Minister Linda Reynolds put it, “It is the first time that reserves have been called out in this way in living memory.”