In the Australian bush southwest of Sydney, a wedge-tailed eagle is gliding over the paddocks. He’s on the hunt for prey. Watch a “wedgie” for long enough and you’ll see them suddenly swoop, dive-bombing toward the ground, before lifting aloft a rabbit, wallaby or small kangaroo.
There’s no sign of that today. Today, he circles, looping over hillsides filled with blackened trees. There’s no prey to find.
We’re on Tallygang Mountain Road, in an area called Wombeyan Caves. The bushfires swept through this part of Australia in early January, during a fire season which consumed more than 12.6 million hectares (about 50,000 square miles) of bush, mainly in the country’s eastern states.
Only one thought gave succor. The Australian environment has evolved to recover after fire. Indeed, some plants require fire for their seeds to germinate. Within a few months, we can usually look forward to a blaze of regrowth.
It hasn’t worked out that way. Not everywhere. Not this time.
Seven months on, the land around Wombeyan Caves is still a denuded landscape. A carpet of luminous grass covers the open paddocks — the farmers call it “green pick” — but the trees stand blackened and weary. They creak in the wind and, occasionally, collapse in a roar of splintering timber.
Before the fires, this ridgetop was full of wildlife. Echidnas would shimmy into the leaf litter as you walked past. Crimson rosellas, bold-looking parrots, would flash through the air, leaving an hallucinatory stripe of red against the grey-green wall of the eucalyptus forest. At dawn and dusk, mobs of kangaroos would bounce regally across the paddocks.
On my most recent trip, a fortnight ago, I saw none of this. There was one wombat, trundling across the road, caught in the headlights of my car. There was the distant laugh of a single kookaburra. Then, that circling “wedgie.”
A month after the fire, in early February, I took a photo of a young kangaroo — a joey — sheltering in a rare patch of grass, beside a building saved by firefighters. I left water and food — lumps of sweet potato — hoping he’d pull him through.
Now, pausing where I’d last seen him, I found a pile of what I assume are his tiny bones.
According to research released this week, it was one of nearly 3 billion animals who died or were displaced in the fires.
The tally includes “143 million mammals, 180 million birds, 51 million frogs and a staggering 2.5 billion reptiles” — some killed by flames and heat, others by starvation, dehydration or predation by feral animals.
The research, commissioned by the World Wide Fund for Nature, proves the fires were “one of the worst wildlife disasters in modern history”, according to the organization’s Australian chief executive, Dermot O’Gorman.
Why have these fires been so different to those of the past? Scientists say climate change has made the difference. The annual fire season now begins in August, three months earlier than during the 1950s. The fires are of such scale, they join together in mega-blazes such as the Gospers Mountain Fire on Sydney’s northern doorstep — impossible for even fleet-footed animals to escape.
And they burn landscapes that are not adapted to fire, such as the damp rainforests of northern New South Wales.
Richard Kingsford, a professor and ecologist from the University of New South Wales, is championing a citizen science project tracking the recovery — or lack of it — in various landscapes.
Early indications, he told me, are that the usual “bounce back” is not occurring, at least not everywhere.
During a normal fire season, there will be patches of unburnt bushland to which animals can retreat. This season’s fires were too hot and too big to allow such refuge.
“There were a whole lot of birds, particularly in those southern fires, who had nowhere to go”, Kingsford said, “so they flew out to sea and then ran out of puff. And so they drowned. There were bush birds washing up on the coastline.”
Australia’s politicians, particularly those in denial about climate change, love to quote a patriotic poem which celebrates Australia as a land of “droughts and flooding rains.” The problem, according to Kingsford, is that we assume those cycles of drought and flood, of destruction and rebirth, will always be with us.
“But really,” he said, “there’s nothing that says these cycles will always occur. If we change the severity of these cycles, we get into a place where our plants and animals no longer have the adaptations to cope with that level of change. And some of them will fall off the cliff, and they won’t just do it in small numbers. They’ll do it in large numbers.”
Australia remains on a trajectory that will see the country falling short of its Paris emission-reduction commitments. This is despite the devastation of wildlife; despite the continuing human impact of the fires; and despite the firming conviction that Australia is one of the countries most vulnerable to climate change.
Meanwhile, up at Wombeyan, a wedge-tailed eagle circles, hoping for a meal.
Richard Glover presents the "Drive" show on ABC Radio Sydney. He’s a former news editor and European correspondent for the Sydney Morning Herald and author of 12 books, including the best-selling memoir “Flesh Wounds."