What goes unsaid when habitats burn

Over Australia’s Black Summer, I drove more than 2000 kilometres, slept in the bush and in my car, ate at pubs and out of cans, and even flew in military transport on a koala rescue mission. My objectives were simple: document and highlight the impact of bushfires on our wildlife, and the work being done to try and rescue and care for them.

I saw the best of humanity and the worst of politics. I witnessed incredible acts of selflessness and depressing acts of selfishness. I saw how in times of crisis social media can be used to inform and help, and also how people with self-serving agendas can use it to spread disinformation and distraction. I saw desperate hopelessness, but also unbridled optimism.

What stuck with me most though was the impact on the wildlife – how many individuals suffered and how much they suffered. I saw koalas with awful burns cry in agony and I heard stories of kangaroos dragging themselves through the bush by their front paws because their back feet were rotting from post-burn infections. I saw starving wallabies searching for food in the charred landscape and heard stories about wombats that managed to survive the fires, only to drown in a slurry of ash and mud as the rains came and flooded their burrows.

As images of koalas being rescued from the ashes and of kangaroos fleeing the flames circulated, the apocalyptic scale of our summer drew international attention. From this flowed generosity of spirit, practical help and financial assistance. By the end of the summer, an estimated 19 million hectares (46 million acres) was “lost”, “burnt” or “destroyed” –that’s 12 times the area burnt during the Amazon fires, and more than has ever been recorded anywhere.

The intensity of the bushfires (defined by how much heat was generated) and the severity (defined by the amount of damage to vegetation) was at record levels. We saw wet forests burn and we saw rainforests burn. The toll on wildlife however is probably what resonated most around the country and around the world, with the incomprehensible and shocking reports that 480,000,000, then 800,000,000, and finally over one billion (1,000,000,000) animals had “perished” – the human equivalent of over three times the population of the USA or forty times that of Australia.

But despite these shocking numbers and the powerful imagery, to me something was missing, something was left unsaid. Something specific about how they died and something about the pain and suffering they went through.

Many might think it’s pretty obvious how all these animals died during the bushfires, but not all the fatalities were from what you’d think – being burnt to death. Sadly, many deaths were much slower than people might have dared imagine. And when it comes to wildlife, being explicit helps engage the powerful emotion of empathy, and from this, increases the chance that people will care and get off their bums to take action. And isn’t this why we do what we do – to help engage people and inspire them to act. To help make the world a better place?



What’s true for bushfires is true for most habitat destruction
But it’s not just bushfires people are not explicit about the impact on wildlife. This happens with most reporting about habitat destruction, and most (if not all) types of habitat destruction also have wildlife and animal welfare issues deeply embedded in them.

The case of Grevillea – a magnificent female greater glider (Petauroides Volans) – is a good example of why. Her species is listed as vulnerable and has been under attack from human-driven habitat destruction and fragmentation for years. But the decline in their numbers hasn’t been the result of a single catastrophic event like a bushfire, rather it’s been the result of a thousand small cuts over time – both figuratively and literally.

Grevillea was found alone on the ground as a baby when the tree she was living in with her mum was cut down by a mining operation. If she hadn’t been found she’d most likely have died a slow and painful death from starvation, dehydration, exposure (hypothermia or hyperthermia), or a combination of all of these.

So while the simple story may be one of habitat destruction – a tree being cut down – the more engaging information, the information more likely to evoke empathy and more likely to engage people lies in the details of the pain and suffering that could occur.

It’s in the details (the how many and how)
We know that emotions engage people, and we know empathy is a powerful emotion that can motivate people to take action. We also know it’s a lot easier to feel empathy for injured wildlife than say a destroyed forest,(1) and its more likely people will care more deeply when an animal dies from burning to death than say ‘natural causes.’

So if we care about the natural world being destroyed and the sentient beings that live in it, and we want to engage people to act, we should always try and do so in a way that ensures not only everyone gets a complete picture, but also in a way that maximises the chance they will do something to help. Given this, I feel it’s important that when we discuss habitat destruction in any form, we also include these two pieces of information:

1: how many animals were impacted – directly and indirectly
2: how the individual animals were impacted

Perhaps if we start talking more about the wildlife consequences of all habitat destruction, we start talking about the death, the pain and terrible suffering that habitat destruction – no matter what the cause – inflicts on all wildlife that call these places their home, it might just get more people to care and to act. That’s my hope anyway.




About this coverage:
My ability to document the 2019/2020 bushfires was supported by unrestricted grants from iLCP, Wildlife Victoria and Environment Victoria as well as an assignment for the Foundation of Parks and Wildlife.

Reference:  The Empathy effect: https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/sites/files/policy/documents/2019-02/empathy-effect.pdf

Footnote thought: But animals suffer all the time in the wild – suffering is ‘natural’, so what really is the difference here?”
Yes, animals suffer all the time in the wild, but to me habitat destruction is different because of the ‘why’ it usually happens.

Most the time habitat destruction is not because of some ‘natural’ event (e.g. volcano, tsunami, typhoon), but its the result of either a deliberate human act, or deliberate inaction by humans. Add to this that most of the time it’s initiated by people in power who are (or at least should be) aware of the wildlife welfare impacts, and that adds a layer of ethical culpability. This is no more obvious when we look at the IUCN’s four broad category list of threats to all wildlife – residential and commercial development, biological resource use, natural system modifications and climate change and severe weather. All of these (with the possible exception of severe weather) are the result of deliberate human driven actions or culpable inaction, not accidents.

There is no doubt that if I did something to cause (or didn’t do something to prevent) the suffering of a pet, I would be held morally responsible for that, so what’s the difference when it comes to destroying or threatening areas of natural habitat and the species that make their lives in it? I think this make it different and also something that needs to be talked about.

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