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SOURCE: The Guardian

DATE: January 3, 2020

SNIP: Close to the Western River on Kangaroo Island, Pat Hodgens had set up cameras to snap the island’s rare dunnart – a tiny mouse-like marsupial that exists nowhere else on the planet.

Now, after two fires ripped through the site a few days ago, those cameras – and likely many of the Kangaroo Island dunnarts – are just charred hulks.

“It’s gone right through the under storey and that’s where these species live,” said Hodgens, an ecologist at Kangaroo Island Land for Wildlife, a not-for-profit conservation group. “The habitat is decimated.”

On Friday afternoon word came through that three other Land for Wildlife sites protecting dunnarts and other endangered species, including the southern brown bandicoot, had also been consumed by fire on the island off the South Australian coast.

Prof Sarah Legge, of the Australian National University, said the prognosis for the Kangaroo Island dunnart was “not good” and its plight was symbolic of what was happening all across the east coast of Australia.

“Many dozens” of threatened species had been hit hard by the fires, she said. In some cases “almost their entire distribution has been burnt”.

So far, the Australian bushfire season has burned through about 5.8m hectares of bush, known across the world for its unique flora and fauna.

Ecologists say the months of intense and unprecedented fires will almost certainly push several species to extinction. The fires have pushed back conservation efforts by decades, they say, and, as climate heating grips, some species may never recover.

Climate scientists have long warned that rising greenhouse gases will spark a wave of extinctions.

Now ecologists fear the bushfires represent the catastrophic beginning of a bleak future for the country’s native flora and fauna.

“It feels like we have hit a turning point that we predicted was coming as a consequence of climate change,” Legge said. “We are now in uncharted territory.”

Bushfires don’t just burn animals to death but create starvation events. Birds lose their breeding trees and the fruits and invertebrates they feed on. Ground-dwelling mammals that do survive emerge to find an open landscape with nowhere to hide, which one ecologist said became a “hunting arena” for feral cats and foxes.

“It’s reasonable to infer that there will be dramatic consequences to very many species,” said Prof John Woinarski, of Charles Darwin University. “The fires are of such scale and extent that high proportions of many species, including threatened species, will have been killed off immediately.”

“We know that the species that can’t fly away – like koalas and greater gliders – are gone in burnt areas. Wombats may survive as they’re underground but, even if they do escape the immediate fire front, there’s essentially no food for them in a burnt landscape.”

Woinarski said the critically endangered long-footed potoroo was restricted almost entirely to East Gippsland, which has been devastated by this year’s fires.

In southern Queensland, much of the known range of the silver-headed antechinus “has been obliterated by fires”, he said.

He said fires had always been a feature of the Australian landscape but in normal circumstances extensive patches of unburnt areas were left, which helped species survive.

“There are no winners in fires like this,” he said. “These fires are homogenising the landscape. They benefit no species.

Prof Brendan Wintle, a conservation ecologist at the University of Melbourne, said the scale and timing of the fires was “terrifying”.

“If this is what we are seeing now are the beginnings of changes due to climate change, then what are we looking at 2C or 4C? I don’t think we can get our heads around what that could be like. This is not the new normal but it’s a transition to something we have not experienced before.

Three-quarters of threatened species in Australia are plants, many of which exist in only small pockets, such as the dark-bract banksia and the blue-top sun orchid.

“You can lose the lot in one big fire,” Wintle said. “If the timing is wrong, or the fire is too hot, you can also lose the seed bank and that’s then another species on the extinction list.”