Tasmanian bushfires destroying 'living fossils'

A bushfire raging behind Arthur River township in Tasmania on Thursday. Parts of the island's famed wilderness are being destroyed by fires which have been raging for more than two weeks.
A bushfire raging behind Arthur River township in Tasmania on Thursday. Parts of the island's famed wilderness are being destroyed by fires which have been raging for more than two weeks.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

SYDNEY • World Heritage-listed forests, whose origins pre-date the age of the dinosaurs, are being destroyed by raging Australian bushfires and conservationists are increasingly fearful that they could be lost forever.

Firefighters in Tasmania - a state south of the mainland known for its cooler temperatures - have been battling bushfires for 18 days, with 95,000ha of land burnt so far, the authorities said on Friday.

While no properties have been destroyed and no one hurt in the infernos - which are so numerous that firefighters from across Australia and New Zealand have been flown in to help - parts of western Tasmania's famed wilderness have been destroyed.

"The fires in western Tasmania are occurring in basically an ecosystem which is a remnant from the geological past, so they are of immense significance scientifically," Dr David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, said.

"These systems were once more widespread and indeed grew on Antarctica billions of years ago, so they are living fossils... they go back to well before the age of the dinosaurs, they are a tangible connection to Gondwana."

HISTORICAL THREAT

These systems were once more widespread and indeed grew on Antarctica billions of years ago, so they are living fossils... they go back to well before the age of the dinosaurs.

DR DAVID BOWMAN, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania.

Gondwana was a land mass that included present-day Africa, South America and Australia and formed the southern part of an ancient supercontinent called Pangaea.

One of the world's last expanses of temperate wilderness, the Tasmanian Wilderness was entered into the World Heritage list in 1982 and covers nearly 20 per cent of the island, or 1.4 million ha. It includes the Cradle Mountain-Lake Saint Clair National Park and the Walls of Jerusalem National Park, home to popular bush-walking tracks.

With the Tasmania Fire Service battling more than 70 blazes and access to remote areas difficult, a spokesman said the agency was not able to gauge how much forest had been burnt, although most of the fires are in the west and encompass vast swathes of protected land.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Tasmanian bushfires destroying 'living fossils''. Print Edition | Subscribe