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Fire in Australia: the greatest extinction of modern times?


Biologists fear the worst after the devastating fires in Australia: hundreds of species could be lost forever. Entire ecosystems are on the brink of collapse.

It is still burning. But Australian scientists like Mike Lee, a biologist at Flinders University in Adelaide, are already preparing for a delicate task. In the coming months, when the worst forest fires in the country's history should finally be contained, they will travel to the burned areas to take damage.

Lee wants to check on his own in a remote national park northwest of Sydney, an extinct volcano called Mount Kaputar, to see if some of the country's rarest and most vulnerable creatures have survived the fire. He hopes to find representatives of an endangered species that only exists in this part of the world - fluorescent pink giant snails, the size of his hand - between layers of ash and sooty undergrowth.

In some parts of the country the flames left little more than black stumps that stick out like scorched matches. In between: carcasses of dead kangaroos and koalas. They have become a horror picture on a continent where the entire ecosystem is on the brink after a record drought, a record heat wave and an unprecedentedly devastating forest fire season.

Australia could face one of the largest species extinctions in modern times. Mike Lee, biologist

Recent predictions about the extent of the fires on flora and fauna in Australia, one of the 17 most biodiverse countries in the world, are grim. A leading ecologist at the University of Sydney said a few days ago that more than a billion animals have been killed in wildfire across the country, more than doubling his previous estimate. There are no exact figures so far, because despite some downpour along the east coast, the fires are still out of control in many places.

Biologist Lee is prepared for the worst. He says there is strong evidence that Australia is "facing one of the greatest extinctions of modern species". Australian Environment Minister Sussan Ley speaks of an "ecological tragedy".

© Auscape / Universal Images Group / Getty Images

Approx. 75 percent of the habitat of the black giant cockatoo destroyed by fire Source: Government of South Australia

According to Lee's calculations, as a result of the fires alone, more than 700 unique species of insects, including bees, moths and spiders, could disappear from this planet forever. There are also hundreds of other small animal species such as lizards or the pink snail that Lee wants to look for in the volcanic area. Plants that are nowhere else in the world. And all the larger animals that feed on precisely those rare plants and insects that are little known even by locals. The long-footed rabbit kangaroo is one of a rat-like creature, or the endangered giant glider, a cute fur animal with the ability to sail from tree to tree. Those who have escaped from the acute blaze of flame are now staggering hungry and defenseless through a largely destroyed habitat. For many species, it has become a struggle for long-term survival.

The fires do not follow any rules or models

Forest fires accelerate species extinction in Australia. However, the statistics were already fatal. According to the World Conservation Union IUCN, Australia ranks fourth among the countries with the highest eradication rate. Species of mammals are disappearing faster than anywhere in Australia, the conservation organization Australian Conservation Foundation noted in 2018. The government lists more than 1,700 plant and animal species as threatened with extinction. They are affected not only by natural disasters, but also by a wild colonization policy and the country's dominant raw materials industry.

Researchers can only guess the consequences. Because they have no examples of what is going on. The inferno follows no rules, no models. Burn forests that shouldn't be burning. Protected areas can no longer be protected despite the best precautions. Fires run so hot that they create their own weather. Even peat soils, usually immune to flames, have caught fire. It is clear to experts that the ecological balance in Australia is changing dramatically, and that - like the Amazon fires - will ultimately affect the whole world.

Source: zeit

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