Australian Fires Have Incinerated the Habitats of Up To 100 Threatened Species
Scientists Warn of an Ecological Catastrophe as Crucial Habitats of Rare Plants and Animals Burn
By John Pickrell
January 13, 2020
Until last week, the Kangaroo Island glossy black cockatoo was one of Australia’s conservation success stories. Thanks to a recovery program that began in 1995, its wild population increased from 150 to 400, and its status was downgraded from critically endangered to endangered.
Now it’s part of an unfolding horror story.
Fires have raged across nearly 50 percent of Kangaroo Island, a 4,400-square-kilometer isle off the coast of the state of South Australia, destroying the habitat of the great majority of the birds. It’s unclear how many glossy black cockatoos (Calyptorhynchus lathami halmaturinus) survived. For those that escaped the flames, food may be scarce; it eats the seeds of single tree species in its habitat, the drooping she oak.
Many years of hard work have gone up in smoke and “it’s a big step backwards for the recovery team,” says Daniella Teixeira, a conservation biologist at the University of Queensland in Brisbane, Australia, who has studied and worked to protect the birds for the last four years. Even if just a quarter of the population has been killed, the subspecies could end up back on the critically endangered list, she says.
“Two landholders have reported sightings of glossy black-cockatoos in some small she-oak patches that survived in burn areas, so we are hopeful that some flocks were able to survive the actual fire,” Berris said.
“When it is safe to do so, our first job will be to go out and survey the damaged sites and see what habitat remains in the burn areas.”
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Western ground parrot (Pezoporus flaviventris) — a critically endangered species thought to have numbered just 150 individuals in the wild. Fires in December at its final stronghold, in Cape Arid National Park in Western Australia, may have burned through much of its habitat, but researchers have not yet been able to return to the site to confirm.
Regent honeyeater (Anthochaera phrygia) — a black-and-yellow, nectar-feeding bird, which numbered less than 400 individuals, that also had its stronghold in the Greater Blue Mountains. More than 80 percent of that region has burned, destroying the rare trees that the critically endangered bird feeds on, as well as nesting and monitoring stations created to conserve it.
Eastern bristlebird — lives in a small and shrinking part of north-eastern NSW and south-eastern Queensland. It is estimated there were fewer than 50 left in the wild before this fire season, and its habitat has been reduced by more than 50% since the 1980s. It is critically endangered. Samantha Vine, of Birdlife Australia, said some of its Queensland habitat had been lost to fires, but it was too early to know what had happened to its stronghold in NSW. “With such a small population, the loss of any habitat and individuals is of grave concern.”