Jonny Rogers investigates how tourism has contributed to destroying this island’s beautiful and rare ecosystem.
Photo by Jo-Anne McArthur
For six weeks, Australian firefighters have struggled to contain a wildfire on Fraser Island after a recent heatwave in the country has left the ground completely dry, though it is believed that the catalyst for the blaze was an illegal campfire in mid-October.
At least 75 firefighters, 21 air vehicles and 30 fire trucks have been called to the island, and will continue to operate until the fire is subdued. However, the resultant smoke has affected both visibility and air quality in the area.
“Almost 1 million litres of water and gel have been dropped on Fraser Island in the last few days alone. More drops are occurring today and until the fire is put out.” – Mark Ryan, Queensland’s Fire and Emergency Services Minister
Damage to a Sensitive Ecosystem
Laying just off the east coast of mainland Australia, Fraser Island became a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. As the world’s largest sand island, its geographical features include long stretches of clear sand beaches, rainforest vegetation, mangrove forests and freshwater lakes. Covering a total 1,840 square-kilometres, the island’s varied ecosystem is home to around 50 species of mammals, 350 species of birds and 80 species of reptiles.
It has also been inhabited by human communities for thousands of years, earning the name ‘K’gari’, meaning ‘Paradise’, from the native Butchulla people. However, only in the past few centuries has human activity begun to compromise the island’s ecology. Hundreds of thousands of campers and tourists visit the island in an average year, though this will undoubtedly be adversely impacted by the recent fires. Popular tourist attractions include whale watching, exploring rainforests, swimming in lakes and driving along the 75-mile beach. The deposit of faeces, urine, sunscreen, disposable products and vehicular emissions has turned the island into ‘one big toilet’.
The recent fire, which was likely caused by campers, has already burned through at least 80,000 hectares of the island, or 800 square-kilometres, undoubtedly causing severe and irreversible damage to its ecosystem. Even creatures that are not harmed by the fire itself will struggle to find food, shelter and resources as a result of habitat loss.
Managing Future Threats
At the end of last year, bushfires began to sweep through millions of hectares of land in Australia, causing the death or displacement of billions of animals and destroying thousands of homes and buildings. The World Wild Fund for Nature (WWF) declared these fires to be one of the “worst wildlife disasters in modern history.” With at least 33 direct human casualties, journalists named it the ‘Black Summer’.
“If that explodes again, it's going to be very damaging economically and also psychologically. I think people are scarcely recovering from the bushfires last year and early this year. So, when you're looking at these regions now, you can see the damage has not been undone."
However, a new system – the aptly-titled ‘Australian Warning System’ – is set to be introduced to monitor and govern the public response to future threats of flooding, storms, cyclones, heatwaves, and bushfires. As a standardised national code, it will be implemented in response to confusion over the differences between warning systems in various states and areas. Nevertheless, even the most efficient of codes will remain ineffective as long as tourists refuse to change their behaviour.
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