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WWF: 3B animals impacted by Australian bushfires

A satellite image from January shows burned land and thick smoke over Kangaroo Island, Australia. The World Wide Fund said Monday that some 41,000 koalas on the island were negatively impacted by the fires. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory/EPA-EFE
A satellite image from January shows burned land and thick smoke over Kangaroo Island, Australia. The World Wide Fund said Monday that some 41,000 koalas on the island were negatively impacted by the fires. Photo by NASA Earth Observatory/EPA-EFE

Dec. 7 (UPI) -- Bushfires in Australia negatively affected billions of animals, including more than 60,000 Koalas, according to a new report on the devastation caused by the 2019-2020 fire "season of hell."

A report released Monday by the World Wide Fund for Nature Australia said nearly 3 billion mammals, birds and other animals were in the path of the more than 15,000 fires that scorched some 19 million hectares of land across Australia late last year and into early 2020.

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By type, 2.46 billion reptiles, 181 million birds, 143 million mammals and 51 million frogs are estimated to have lived within the affected area, the report said, explaining the animals either died or "experienced higher subsequent risk of death as a result of injuries or later stress and deprivation of key resources."

WWF-Australia Chief Executive Dermot O'Gorman called the fire season in the report "one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history."

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The report estimated that among the worst impacted were 50 million native rats and mice; nearly 40 million possums and gliders; 36 million antechinuses, dunnarts and other insectivorous marsupials; 5.5 million bettong, bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos; and 5 million kangaroos and wallabies.

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The report also estimated that some 60,000 Koalas, including 41,000 on South Australia's Kangaroo Island, were negatively impacted, including killed or injured, during the fires, dealing a blow to the already declining species.

"That is a devastating number for a species that was already sliding toward extinction in eastern Australia," O'Gorman wrote in the report's forward. "We cannot afford to lose koalas on our watch."

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By state, 11,000 koalas were impacted in Victoria, nearly 8,000 in New South Wales and nearly 900 in Queensland, it said.

Along with the report, WWF launched a Koala Forever campaign that O'Gorman said aims to double the number of koalas in eastern Australian by 2050.

"Koalas Forever includes a trial of seed dispersing drones to create koala corridors and the establishment of a fund to encourage landowners to create koala safe havens," he said in a statement.

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The initiative is part of the WWF's $300 million Regenerate Australia plan to help restore wildlife and habitats and rejuvenate communities impacted by the bushfires.

"Nearly 3 billion animals impacted is a number that's off the charts and shows why a plan of this scale is needed," he said.

The report also lists a series of recommendations to eliminate factors that limit the ability to accurately estimate the impacts of bushfires, including increase funding for long-term monitoring programs, identify and map the distributions of biota that are most at risk, identify key resources at risk and develop national methodologies for surveying and modeling animal densities.

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It also calls for improved habitat connectivity to ensure access to fire refuges, identify and protect unharmed habitat and establish improved fire prevention and management practices, among other measures to mitigate the effects of bushfires.

Chris Dickman, a professor at the University of Sydney and a WWF-Australia board member who oversaw the research for the report, said people have been shocked by the figures and have told him this catastrophe cannot be allowed to continue.

"With long-term monitoring we would be in a much better position to know where and when to act and what resources are needed to save at risk species," he said.

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