3 Billion. What does that number mean to you? I find it difficult to even understand, I know it's big but beyond that, it loses meaning. As it turns out, I'm not alone. Human brains have difficulty making sense of immense numbers because we can't relate them to our everyday experience.
Another intriguing brain-related fact is that our level of empathy and compassion takes a dive when we are faced with processing large numbers. The story of an individual's struggle will emotionally affect us more than the plight of many.
So last summer in Australia when the number of animals reportedly killed by catastrophic megafires continued to escalate from millions to billions, those whopping figures made it possible that these animals would become just statistics, perhaps as a coping mechanism for us but more so because of how our brains react. Footage of individual animals suffering horrific burns, dehydration and other injuries led to an incredible outpouring of grief especially for koalas. But there were so many more lost than our brains can conceive or cope with.
As a small animal vet, I focus on treating beloved family pets each day, dealing with the emotional highs and lows that come with each individual patient and their story. I am still struggling to wrap my head around the story of 3 billion. But I need to go there, to feel the raw pain and the grief and to try and comprehend the enormity. Not just for the sake of it but to give me the strength and determination to make the changes that are necessary for a liveable future.
3 billion animals were lost in the Australian megafires. Lets start the process of healing, raise awareness & help stop habitat destruction & slow the process of species extinction through tackling climate change #ForOurFauna #vetsforcliamteaction pic.twitter.com/B1qGXGZZGj
— ForOurFauna (@ForOurFauna) February 26, 2021
We must not forget those searingly hot days and the walls of angry fire that incinerated everything in their path . Australia lost 3 billion vertebrates(mammals, birds and reptiles) due to direct fire, smoke inhalation and the loss of habitat. This doesn't include the 10,000 farm and domesticated animals who also died.
To give our heads some kind of context, 40,000 people fill an average stadium and most of us can visualise what this looks like. 75, 000 of these packed stadiums would approach 3 billion.That is equivalent to just over a third of the human population as it will reach 8 billion in 2023.One third of the population of NSW koalas and half of that on Kangaroo Island perished, pushing koalas even closer to a species extinction we must avoid. 2.4 billion reptiles (60, 000 stadiums), 181 million birds (4,500 stadiums), 40 million possums and gliders (1000 stadiums)36 million dunarts, antechinus and other insectivorous marsupials (900 stadiums), 11 million kangaroos and wallabies, bandicoots, quokkas and potoroos (275 stadiums)1.1 million wombats (27.5 stadiums), 114 000 echidnas….. (almost 3 stadiums). The numbers are still too big even when broken down.
And if we include the insects and invertebrates that are vital parts of ecosystems, their numbers are estimated to be over 240 billion in NSW and Victoria alone. Around 18 million hectares of land was burnt, which is about three times the size of Tasmania.I can't recount an individual's story for you, (there are some incredible people who can), but I can imagine the terror that each of those animals felt as they ran or hid from the flames, the heat and the smoke. I had a shock realisation last year that as a vet I hadn't done enough to speak out for the protection and wellbeing of our native animals (the ones that are not part of human families) and that I needed to do much more.
It is true that fire is a part of life in Australia. Evidence of plant regeneration one year on, shows that over thousands of years of dealing with fire, our plants and animals have learned to adapt and survive. The difference now is that climate change is generating fires that are more intense, more frequent and more widespread. This new generation of fire is one from which our wildlife and bushland may never recover.It is crucial that we realize that climate change, caused by human activity, is driving these dangerous conditions and there will be more frequent catastrophic natural disasters to come.
The 2019/2020 fires profoundly damaged Australia's biodiversity. With our already appalling species extinction rate, we now have another 119 speciesthat require urgent attention to save them from this fate.
As this thankfully cooler and wetter La Nina summer comes to an end we must be mindful of the link between our modern way of life and the impact it is having on the animals we love - all of them; wildlife, pets, horses and farm animals. Some of us are still recovering from the trauma of loss and the eerie empty silence that was left behind. For others, perhaps the memory is fading.
I invite you to try to connect with those numbers and to really feel the gravity of our loss. We can use our love for these animals and our beautiful wild places that in turn sustain our health and wellbeing to achieve a safer climate for all animals including ourselves.
What you can doThis March, as our summer here in Australia draws to an end, Veterinarians for Climate Action, together with Zoos and wildlife parks, WIRES, the RSPCA and other animal care organisations invite you to join a Vigil for Australian Animals, to spend a minute's silence honouring the memory of the lives that were lost.
You can get involved by joining the #ForOurFauna online hashtag campaign which is raising awareness for animals impacted by climate change. There hasn't been an opportunity yet for animal care professionals and animal lovers to come together to grieve since last summer.
By bringing our online community together, we can start the process of healing, stop the destruction of habitats and reduce the number of species being pushed to extinction by tackling climate change.
Share a photo of an animal you love together with a simple climate pledge on your favourite social media. Together the animal lovers of the world can inspire more people to get involved, have meaningful conversations and take much needed action on climate change.
Each of those 3 billion animals has a story, let's give them all a face and a name and recognize the profound enormity of this loss. Out of the deathly silence, we can raise the voices of the lost, their message is one of urgency but also of hope. It's time for humanity to listen.
Written by Mila Kasby
Mila is a veterinarian, a mum of 2 and a relatively new climate activist. She loves travelling to remote wilderness areas and hopes these incredibly beautiful places exist for future generations to enjoy.She thrives on discovering new environmental ideas and innovations from around the world and maintains an optimism that we can meet this challenge and achieve a better, cleaner and fairer planet for all.
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