The duality of social media: a deeper look at the Australian bushfire crisis


We live in the age of information. While there are many benefits associated with this privilege, the readily available abundance of information cultivates an ambiguity surrounding the truth in many instances. In the case of Australia, fake accounts and baffling statistics have been shared by millions, while accurate statistics and legitimate ways to help those in need are ignored. So, that begs the question, What is really going on in Australia? 

Causes of Australian Bushfires

The dry and hot climate of Australian summers in conjunction with hot winds is a recipe for wildfires. Lighting can also cause fires. Bushfires are common and often times result in no significant damage to the ecosystem.

There Several Fire Seasons in Australia, Depending on the Region

Australia's bushfire seasons - Social Media Blog - Bureau ...

Incredible Adaptations

Many Australian plants and shrubs have adapted to the frequent and relentless bushfires by becoming fire-resistant. The serotinous cones and/or fruits of the Lodgepole pine, Eucalyptus and Banksia are sealed with a heat-sensitive resin that can only be removed by the high temperatures of a bushfire. Many shrubs and annual plants similarly require the presence of smoke to break the dormancy of their seeds. Their seeds will remain dormant for decades until a wildfire occurs (2).

Fire Danger Rating Signs

Fire danger rating signs are posted all around Australia, varying in presentation style but always to be taken with the utmost seriousness.

Fire danger sign

Affect on Animals / What is Really Happening to the Koala on Your Instagram Explore Page

Before we are able to discuss the magnitude of the wildlife loss caused by the bushfires it is imperative to recognize many of the numbers that have been given about the number of animals lost are an estimate based on previous assumptions of existing population sizes and give no credit to the survival instinct of the animals

10,000 camels, 25,000 koalas, and more than 1 billion animals in total. These 3 numbers have been used to increase awareness about the devastation the bushfires have caused. While well-intentioned, the accuracy of these numbers has been questioned and in reality, they create a relatively misleading narrative.

The Truth in the Numbers

10,000 feral camels are intended to be killed due to their negative impact on local communities. They wander into towns in search of water and destroy infrastructure and raid homes of food and water. They pose a threat to the children of the community and are overall damaging. As a result, the Australian government is forced to order for the culling of the feral camel population in order to ensure the safety of Australian citizens. Another piece of important context to this situation is that this is not the first time there has been a camel population control ordinance. The recent example of this was in 2010 when there was a cull of 670,000 camels over the course of 4 years (3). Keeping this in mind, the intended 100,000 camel cull looks relatively modest. Camels are smart animals and build population numbers quickly and will no doubt build their numbers back up in no time.

25,000 koalas have been reported to have died over the course of the bushfires. This number was given by Sam Mitchell, the co-owner of the Kangaroo Island Wildlife Park in Duncan in an interview with the guardian where he estimated the total koala population prior to the fires was around 50,000. Mr. Mitchell further extrapolated on this assumption by stating, “probably more than half” of the islands koalas died due to the fires. He later admitted that most of the numbers were educated guesses and not grounded in absolute facts (4). The issue with Mr. Mitchell’s assumptions is that his exaggeration is potentially more detrimental to conservation efforts than beneficial because misleading evidence removes credibility and reduces sympathy towards the situation.

Over a billion animals have been estimated to have perished in Australia. The reality of the situation is the true number of deaths is inestimable. The media and general public are hungry for numbers and metrics which results in the circulation of inflated and/or inaccurate numbers. In an interview with NPR, Professor Chris Dickman of the University of Sydney stated, “It’s events like this that may well hasten the extinction process for a range of species” (5). While this statement has some truth to it, it does not properly account for the animal’s survival instincts and is more a warning about the worst-case scenario. Professor Dickman received some pushback for this inference due to the inability to truly account for this number

How can I help?

Donate money, food or any other resources to the Australian Red Cross, here is a link to their website (https://www.redcross.org.au/)

Donate to GIVIT, an organization in Australia that matches those in need with specific donation per their request (http://www.givit.org.au/)

Donate to the Salvation Army of Australia, cash donations are preferred for logistical reasons (https://www.salvationarmy.org.au/)

Lastly, try to raise awareness in a constructive manner. What I mean by this is double check the links and accounts you are posting on your instagram story for validity. There are plenty of fake accounts that blow up because people mindlessly repost their message thinking they are making a difference. Take the extra 5 minutes to check your sources.


Sources

  1. https://www.ritas-outback-guide.com/bushfires-in-australia.html
  2. https://www.britannica.com/list/5-amazing-adaptations-of-pyrophytic-plants
  3. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/11/world/australia/fires-animals.html
  4. https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2020/jan/07/kangaroo-island-bushfires-grave-fears-for-unique-wildlife-after-estimated-25000-koalas-killed
  5. https://www.kosu.org/post/1-billion-animals-have-died-australian-bushfires-ecologist-estimates
  6. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/01/06/world/australia/help-australia-fires.html

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