An ariel photograph of a forest with a line of fire dividing the forest into two

Bushfire © Robert Irwin

Wildlife Photographer of the Year: a bird's eye view of habitat loss

A red-hot line of fire tears its way through pristine forests in the Steve Irwin Nature Reserve in northern Australia. 

Dramatic wildfires have come to characterise the Australian summer in recent years, their ferocity and extent building annually. Scientists have attributed this growing problem to the increasingly hot and dry weather brought on by the climate emergency.  

In the early months of 2020, Australia was declared a state of emergency as fires swept across large parts of the continent. 

Robert Irwin, young wildlife photographer and winner of this year's People's Choice Award, was camping on the reserve - named in memory of his late father - when a fire began to burn out of control.  

'Unfortunately, fires are quite a common occurrence in this area and while we were out camping, we saw the tell-tale sign of a big fire: smoke billowing up out into the horizon' Robert explains.  

He quickly launched his drone and flew it over towards the fire. He says, 'I only had a few minutes of battery left to spare when I finally got over there, so I took the drone right in the middle of it, right in the thick of the smoke to capture this shot.'  

In Australia, it is illegal to fly a drone over an active fire however, because the Steve Irwin Nature Reserve is owned by the Irwin family and Emergency services were not called, Robert was able to take this photo.

Robert's image is a strikingly clear illustration of the devastation that these fires can cause: 'on one side that beautiful, pristine natural habitat and, sadly, the other side is just barren wasteland.'

Unfortunately, this fire was lit deliberately which is often done to flush out feral pigs for hunting. Intentionally lit fires can get out of hand very quickly, especially in landscapes that are already degraded by the negative impacts of climate change.  

firefighters tackle a bushfire

 

'With the really unusual environmental changes that are occurring all over the world mostly due to climate change, we're seeing fires really raging out of control. Here in Australia, we've had a fire season like we've never seen before, losing billions of individual animals and millions of acres of precious habitat,' Robert explains. 

A recent WWF report has estimated that around three billion animals were displaced during the 2019-2020 bushfire season in Australia, and 12.6 million hectares of forest and bushland were destroyed. On top of this devastating loss to the natural world, 33 human lives were lost and around 3,094 homes were ruined. 

Fire-proof fauna 

Contrary to these troubling statistics, Australian ecosystems have evolved to cope, and even flourish, with seasonal wildfires. 

Many native plants, such as the Australian grass tree, have developed insulation in the form of dense dead leaves around their stems to protect the plant from the heat of the fire. Other species, including eucalyptus, rely on wildfires to enable their seeds to sprout. The heat of the fire melts away the resin that surrounds the seeds, enabling them to germinate. 

Native Australian plants are also known to recover incredibly quickly from the devastation caused by the fires. Yucca plants are often the first to bounce back, resprouting after just a few months. 

Despite the remarkable characteristics enabling these plants to withstand extreme weather, the continued changes brought about by the climate emergency have weakened their ability to rejuvenate. With the fires starting earlier, burning hotter and lasting longer each year, the natural defences that the native plants of Australia have developed are proving less and less effective. 

A photograph of an Australian landscape with a bare tree trunk standing alone in the bush

Image credit: Simon_sees via Flickr CC-BY 2.0

Scientists have predicted more heatwaves and longer periods of drought as global temperatures continue to rise, increasing the likelihood of wildfires and reducing the ecosystem's ability to recover. 

Tipping point

Robert sees these recent fires as an important marker in the fight to control the planetary emergency that is unfolding. He says, 'I think that what we've seen with the fires - not only here in Australia but also in the Amazon, in the United States, all over the world - we're really starting to see that we're reaching a tipping point. It is up to us humans, to make the difference and make a change for our environment.'

Through Wildlife Photographer of the Year and the medium of photography, Robert hopes to start a conversation about what we can do to protect our environment. 

'I hope that this image will instill a passion and drive for everyone to want to protect what we have left,' Robert says, 'because we really have a finite amount of precious, pristine natural habitat left, and fires can absolutely devastate it.

'I think that the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition is incredibly important. If your photo makes it into the exhibition, you know that your story and your message are going to be spread to millions of people all over the world.'

As a young wildlife photographer, Robert is an inspiration to those starting out in the field. He says, 'We all have a really important responsibility to tell these stories from the frontline of wildlife conservation, and it is the most rewarding experience.

'You've got to have a lot of patience, but if you're thinking about getting into wildlife photography, you absolutely should because it is so rewarding when you finally get that shot.' 

See the gallery

Robert's image, and the highly commended images from this year's People's Choice Award can be seen in our gallery alongside the other winning images.