Half a billion animals and plants have died in the Australian fires

By Kate Ng

The wildfire crisis ravaging Australia has wreaked environmental havoc since it began in September, wiping out almost half a billion animals and plants as well as turning glaciers in New Zealand black.

Ecologists at the University of Sydney estimate around 480 million creatures have been killed in the wildfires, including 8,000 koalas.

Officials fear that 30 per cent of the koala colony in New South Wales had been destroyed as 10 million acres of land burnt to the ground in the state.

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Nature Conservation Council ecologist Mark Graham told parliament: “[Koalas] really have no capacity to move fast enough to get away [from the flames].

“The fires have burnt 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.”

Rescuers at Wildlife Information, Rescue and Education Services (Wires) told Reuters they were concerned about not receiving as many animal patients as they expected in the crisis.

Tracy Burgess, a volunteer, said: “We’re not getting that many animals coming into our care. So our concern is that they don’t come into care because they’re not there any more, basically.”

Across the Tasman Sea, smoke from the wildfires are posing a new threat to New Zealand’s white glaciers, turning them black and staining snow brown.

Social media posts from tourists and helicopter services from the Franz Josef and Tasman glaciers show “caramelised” snow and smoke-shrouded views.

A climber who posted a video from the top of the Tasman glacier added: “We can actually smell the burning here in Christchurch. Thinking of you guys.”

Ash from the smoke could accelerate melting snow on the glaciers, which already face a climate disaster of their own.

The whiteness of snow and ice reflects the sun’s heat and slows melting, but as ash and dust settle on the snow, it absorbs more heat and melts at a faster rate.

Over 3,000 glaciers in New Zealand are quickly disappearing due to global warming and many could completely melt away by the end of the century.

Andrew Mackintosh, a glacier and climate expert, told The Australian: “If it stays on the surface then it will certainly enhance melt. If fire frequency, ash and dust transport increase, there is a chance that this will hasten the demise of New Zealand’s glaciers.”

The total death toll rose to 17 on New Year’s Day and over five million hectares (12 million acres) of land has been torched across the nation since the blazes began in September.

New South Wales minister for transport, Andrew Constance, became emotional and broke down on live television as he recounted the impact of the fires.

“It’s unfair. I met four Rural Fire Service guys yesterday who lost their homes,” he told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s News Breakfast programme on Wednesday. “Beautiful neighbours of mine lost their homes. It is tough.”