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The future for biodiversity conservation isn’t more national parks

Today we begin a series on Australia’s endangered species and how best to conserve them. The series will run each Thursday, and begins with this excerpt from Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay, After the Future…

Without help, parks like Kakadu could become marsupial ghost towns. Territory Expeditions

Today we begin a series on Australia’s endangered species and how best to conserve them. The series will run each Thursday, and begins with this excerpt from Tim Flannery’s Quarterly Essay, After the Future.

At 19,804 square kilometres, Kakadu National Park is arguably the jewel in the crown of Australia’s reserve system. World Heritage-listed, it received $18 million for operating costs in 2008–09, much of which goes to managing the influx of tourists. Yet, unless it is to become another marsupial ghost town, more needs to be spent on biodiversity protection.

Between 1995 and 2008 the abundance of small mammals found in the park declined by 75%, and a third of the species that were recorded there in 1995 can no longer be found, and appear to be locally extinct. One, the brush-tailed rabbit-rat (the last surviving relative of the white-footed rabbit rat of southeastern Australia), may even be extinct nation­wide. As the researchers who reported these dismal findings surmised:

The current rapid decline of mammals in Kakadu National Park and northern Australia suggests that the fate of biodiversity globally might be even bleaker than evident in recent reviews, and that the establishment of conservation reserves alone is insufficient to maintain biodiversity. This latter conclusion is not new; but the results reported here further stress the need to manage reserves far more intensively, purposefully, and effectively, and to audit regularly their biodiversity conservation performance.

The ongoing extinction of northern Australia’s medium-sized mammals, such as bandicoots, quolls, rabbit rats and tree-rats, while catastrophic in itself, is just one symptom of an ecosystem in extinction freefall.

As the extinctions continue, vegetation communities are changing and simplifying, while populations of reptiles and birds, such as the Gouldian finch, are also being affected. These shifts are occurring on such an awesome scale and proceeding so fast that they resemble a local version of the dinosaurs’ extinction.

What has changed in recent decades across the north, including in Kakadu, the most highly protected region of Australia?

Feral animals like the water buffalo are harmful, but counterintuitively helpful. ARM Climate Research Facility

The main driver appears to be changes in fire regime, compounded by the presence of feral cats, and shifts in the abundance, in some habitats, of large feral herbivores such as cattle and water buffalo. The water buffalo had been introduced from Asia in the 19th century, and by the 1970s were wreaking havoc with aquatic ecosystems. They would crowd the billabongs in the dry season, destroying water lilies and reeds, and stirring up mud until the waterholes became mud wallows, the buffalo using them looking like so many maggots in a sore when viewed from the air.

There was thus good reason to cull the creatures, but the cull may have had unfortunate consequences. While the dynamics of the situation are still being worked out, I gained a small insight into one aspect of it in the mid-1990s.

I was filming an ABC documentary when a parks ranger explained to me that a program to eliminate water buffalo from the park had changed the fire regime. Adult water buffalo each eat around 20kg of dry grass per day, such that prior to the cull they removed much flammable material from the Kakadu floodplain. With the buffalo gone, hot fires began to consume the uncropped grass. Fuelled from the floodplain, extremely hot and large fires then began to sweep deep into the surrounding escarpment country.

I recall standing beside one victim of the flames, a gigantic Allosyncarpia tree, its 80cm-thick trunk still smouldering, its once dense canopy a mess of browned leaves and ashes. This giant must have been hundreds of years old, and had been growing in a moist fold in the sandstone escarpment, where it had been safe from fire all its life – until, in the absence of both grazing by water buffalo and Aboriginal fire management, its trunk was burnt through and it collapsed. Tragically, it was not alone. The whole area was being transformed by the enormous, extremely hot fires.

If we are to fully understand what’s happening to Australia’s biodiversity, we must also consider the assault of cane toads, feral cats, pigs, cattle, horses, donkeys, noxious weeds, and in southern Australia foxes, cats, rabbits, camels, deer and goats.

Kakadu National Park. Michael Whitehead

In all, 72 vertebrate species have established feral populations in Australia, and when combined with the fires, their varied impacts are making our national parks unsafe for native species continent-wide. Those living close to the land have long understood this, as was recently highlighted in Adelaide at a public meeting convened by Bob Debus to discuss the Federal Government’s billion-dollar biodiversity fund.

Debus had been talking about the need to connect up national parks by creating corridors which would allow species to migrate as Australia’s climate changed. An Aboriginal elder from Cape York responded that it sounded like a great idea – in theory. But the fact was that many of the national parks in his region were infested with feral pigs, which would use any corridors that were created to spread and thereby inflict even more damage on the environment.

Medium-sized native mammals are critically important to Australian environments. They include the largest burrowers in many habitats, and their burrows provide refuge for many other species. Moreover, the spoil heaps created by digging bring fresh nutrients to the surface, providing important habitat for many ecologically important plants.

Rabbits burrow, too, but they also destroy the plants. Moreover, some marsupials are fungus-eaters, and they spread fungal spores that are important to forest health. Others disperse seeds, eat insects that can kill trees if their numbers build up, and distribute nutrients such as phosphorus across the countryside. Take out these vital functions and you end up with sick ecosystems.

What is to be done? At the highest level, it’s clear that Australians today must take up the role, forged over 40,000 years, of acting as a keystone species in Australia’s varied environments by managing fire, regulating the numbers of feral animals and eliminating weeds. If this is not done, then northern Australia will lose many of its important species, while in the south the last remnants of the medium-sized mammal fauna will be lost. Just where this would lead over time is unclear, but both ecosystem stability and productivity are likely to be affected.

With Australia having over 22 million people in a continent of nearly 8 million square kilometres, it is fair to ask if these things can be achieved within an affordable budget. A partial answer to this question comes from a recent assessment of endangered species in the Kimberley region.

A study of 637 vertebrate species showed that 45 mammals, birds and reptiles were likely to become extinct in the next 20 years without action being taken to manage fire, feral animals and weeds, and grazing. Yet the cost of all actions to avoid the extinctions was just $40 million a year – a startlingly small sum given the many benefits that flow from fire management and control of pests in one of Australia’s most valuable tourist regions.

A study of vertebrate species in the Kimberley showed 45 are likely to become extinct in the next 20 years. Neerav Bhatt

We need not rely on theoretical studies alone as a guide to the cost-effectiveness of protecting endangered species in the Kimberley. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) is a not-for-profit organisation funded principally through donations from the public. It was established by Martin Copley, whose vision to protect Australia’s endangered species has had an enormous impact. (Here I must declare a personal interest: I’ve been involved with the AWC since its inception, and now serve on its board of directors.)

In little over a decade the AWC has grown to the point where it man­ages over 3 million hectares. Its reserves are scattered throughout the nation, with particularly significant holdings in the tropical north and centre. On this land, the organisation conserves around two-thirds of Australia’s threatened mammal species, and 70% of its threatened mainland bird species. And it manages to do this on an annual budget of around $12 million – just two-thirds the budget of Kakadu, which occupies an area half the size of the AWC’s holdings.

In southern Australia, the challenge of environmental conservation is significantly different, and requires other measures. Many of the medium-sized mammals, such as woylies and rabbit rats, that once abounded in the south are now extinct or survive only as remnant populations on islands, where they have lost all wariness of mammalian predators.

In these circumstances feral-proof enclosures offer the best method of conservation. This involves fencing areas, eliminating cats, foxes, rabbits and other ferals, and reintroducing the endangered species. These fenced areas effectively act as arks, keeping the survivors safe from extinction and genetically diverse until better options are developed.

Rabbit rats once abounded in the south, but not any more. Gould/Museum of Victoria

It is reasonable to ask if not-for-profit organisations can be charged with protecting Australia’s biodiversity in the long term. After all, being dependent on donations, they may be thought to have a tenuous existence. But overseas some not-for-profit organisations have been operating successfully for a century or more. Such organisations suffer ups and downs as the economy expands and contracts, but so too do government departments. Indeed, one AWC staffer recently told me that employees there feel far more secure in their jobs than do their government-employed peers.

It may also be argued that the AWC has a particular vulnerability in that much of the land it manages consists of pastoral leases, and so it does not enjoy the legislative protection of national parks and nature reserves. Yet, as we have seen, even lands protected under legislation are not exempt from being resumed for development. And the AWC is increasingly managing land on behalf of others, making it less vulnerable to changes in tenure, and ever more capable of using its expertise to preserve biodiversity in a wide variety of circumstances.

With biodiversity in Australia’s national parks in decline, there’s a crying need for state governments to reach out to organisations like the AWC for help in managing the problems that they can no longer adequately address acting alone. Were an organisation like the AWC to be given a role in managing feral animals, weeds and biodiversity in national parks, the state could hold it responsible for achieving a clear set of mutually agreed goals. If they were not met, the state could sack the organisation and employ another to do the job.

Some may object that letting private enterprise into the state-owned realm will only lead to a further hollowing out of government expertise. But public–private partnerships are hardly new, and they’ve proved useful where governments alone lack the means of achieving results. Moreover, the risk to the environment of this initiative failing could be minimised if it were trialled first in national parks or nature reserves where biodiversity values are already low.

The truth is that things are now so dire that we cannot afford to persist with business as usual: a change of direction is essential if we’re to head off the great impending wave of extinctions. Australia needs several organisations like the AWC, which would compete for funding and the privilege of conserving our endangered fauna and flora.

This is an edited extract from Quarterly Essay 48, After the Future: Australia’s New Extinction Crisis by Tim Flannery, published by Black Inc. RRP $19.95, also available as an ebook.

Read a response to Tim Flannery’s article, and a review of his Quarterly Essay.

Join the conversation

25 Comments sorted by

  1. David Paxton


    Tim,thank you for the conversation and the bonus photographs, which were not in the Quarterly Essay.

    We recently visited northern India, just after the monson. Half the land area and 45 times the population of Australia. Yet it seemd organic and functional in a natural sense. There were many largish herbivores around, including several species of antelope. According to our driver they were protected by the idea of kharma -- that our actions have consequences. Even accidental injury to a…

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  2. Angus Martin


    Yes, I've read the Quarterly Essay and what Tim says desperately needs saying. My only quibble is with his suggestion that "Australia needs several organisations like the AWC" (Australian Wildlife Conservancy). Perhaps because of his association with the AWC, he's being a bit parochial. There are already several comparable organisations: Bush Heritage and Birds Australia certainly warrant mention. And it would be worth noting, too, the potential contribution to wildlife conservation of sensitively managed farms and other relatively small areas. The fundamental point is that private landholdings are achieving success in the spheres in which national parks are failing.

  3. Jeremy Tager


    As the disgraceful story of the pipistrelle highlights, many of these extinctions are preventable. Stopping extinctions is both about money and political will and both are sorely lacking at all levels of government. At a legal level it is harder to get a species listed than to get a coal mine approved. Unfortunately, we are not likely to see this change under either of the old parties. The Gillard Government (with support from the Coalition) has agreed to wash its hands of its environmental responsibilities and pass those powers back to the states. Their capacity and interest in protecting species, ecosystems or parks or eliminating invasives appears to be almost nil. Desperate times.

    1. Pat OBrien


      In reply to Jeremy Tager

      Jeremy is right...desperate times indeed. A good article, and the focus must be on feral (or introduced wild animals) more than anything else.

      The current methods of dealing with these introduced threats are only band-aids. 1080, aerial and ground shooting, trapping etc, etc, costs a lot of money and they only reduce populations, they cant eradicate the animals...and there are far too many different introduced species anyway to be effectively dealt with like this.

      Most of these band-aid "control…

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  4. Murray Webster

    Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

    Governments have spent billions of dollars in the forests wars, resulting in the bureaucratic conversion of state forests to national parks, with larges losses in regional employment and expertise. It appears that this has been sub-optimal in terms of conserving biodiversity, to put it kindly. And yet this trend continues as we see in Tasmania with the federal govt putting up about one quarter of a billion $$ to convert more State Forest to National Park. Bob Brown seems to want it all in national…

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    1. Chris Owens


      In reply to Murray Webster

      Going more than just a bit off topic there Murray.

      With the industrialisation of logging, woodchipping in particular, jobs have been in freefall in the industry for decades. Not to mention that the industry is uneconomic and relies on government subsidies for survival.

      I have seen no evidence the forestry industry has any regard for threatened species. Whilst forests may need management, why does this have to involve chopping them down? Historically his did not happen on the mass scale that…

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    2. Murray Webster

      Forestry-Ecology Consultant/Contractor

      In reply to Murray Webster

      Hi Chris,
      It seems to me that the forests of the south east quarter of the continent say from Mackay to Western Vic and including Tasmania, are broadly suffering the same problems as Kakadu, i.e fire management, weed invasion, decline in animal species - so I think it is relevant.

      I refer you to this tender put out by NSW Office of Environment and Heritage (which includes NSW National Parks):

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  5. Tim Comber

    logged in via Facebook

    Always the feral cats getting the blame. What about the feral rats? Surely rats must do more damage than even cats as they are smart and capable animals and they are omnivorous. I am on a few acres here in Coffs and I must continously lay out baits for the rats otherwise I would be overwhelmed by them. Has anyone studied how much damage rats do the the native enviroment?

    1. Felix MacNeill

      Environmental Manager

      In reply to Tim Comber

      Good point, Tim...but wouldn't it be better to work from 'what about BOTH'?

    2. Ian Smith

      logged in via email

      In reply to Tim Comber

      Feral Cats are predatory and will therefore consume anything in the "Critical Weight Range" which most native mammals are.
      Rats do not consume species in this range but they do have an impact on young and eggs of some species, so extinctions by rats would be more specific (notably on islands from ships).

    3. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Tim Comber

      And feral dogs.

      At least with dogs and cats, more people are responsibly having Fluffy or Fido spayed or neutered. That doesn't mean we can stop a campaign of public awareness of responsible pet ownership.

      As for rats - perhaps dumping a rat type contraceptive is a possibility. There have been attempts to control feral pigeons using this technique:

      China has attempted rat contraceptive control:

      Also protecting undamaged linked areas will help to ensure biodiversity - this includes limiting mining, clear fell-forestry and other intrusions.

      We may simply have to accept that many changes to the Australian environment are permanent and learn to conserve and protect what we have left. The original inhabitants of this wide brown land could teach us a lot about land care & burn off.

  6. Sab Lord

    tour guide: Kakadu & Arnhemland

    Great work Tim. Everything that you are pointing out is true, having lived in Kakadu for 40 plus years and growing up on a Buffalo Station the fires have been getting worse each year, nothing to eat the native grass and the introduce ones. As a tour guide for the past 22 years I have seen massive decline in wildlife & the question I am asked on every trip is where is all the wildlife.
    A great example of this is Yellow Water, there are less birdlife there then ten years ago because of both native and introduce weeds taking over this great billabong, when I was young this place was unbelievable with bird like. you have to go to places that have buffalo & cattle like Swim Creek Station to see what it was like for birdlife.
    Lets stop talking about and the Government start doing something about. As I always say, if wildlife could speak then people would listen. So, lets start work together and save out wildlife & stop thinking about where you can be in the parks!!

  7. Renato Ramsay

    Distance Education Teacher

    Thank you for posting this extract. I knew nothing of AWC until I visited Mornington Station on the Gibb River Road last June. We also stayed at Seven Emu Station.They were highlights of my 10 week expedition. The sole emphasis on restoring and maintaining habitat based on research was so enlightening. Comparison with National Parks reveals that the parks have a mixed agenda. Much of the allocation going to parks is for tourism management and development. AWC has only one agenda - research based land management.

    I hope organisations such as AWC and other similar non-government entities will have a huge and emerging role to play in Australia in the future. I have recently had some experience of the way in which George Soros' Open Society Foundation is influencing attitudes towards how police respond to more enlightened approaches to managing drug problems internationally. Good on those wealthy supporters of AWC and similar!

  8. Ron Chinchen
    Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

    I guess the major problem in addressing this issue is public will. And given that the vast majority of Australians live in a couple of large cities, we are rarely confronted by the damage that Tim is referring to. The average Australian is caught up in protecting and enhancing their employment prospects, meeting mortgage payments, raising families, saving for the next car or I-Pod.

    What's happening in Australia's national parks for most people is often at best of peripheral importance, Maybe enhanced…

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  9. Graham Phelps


    First the declaration of interest; I was head of the NT's Parks and Wildlife Service from 2006 until September this year. Kakadu NP is run by the Commonwealth Government and I had no involvement with its management but of course have a good knowledge of the park.

    I fully support Tim's call for improved protected area management. The biodiversity decline is real and the threats are increasing and the resources needed to deal with those threats including moving to improved fire regimes are enormous…

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    1. Jane Rawson

      Editor, Energy & Environment at The Conversation

      In reply to Graham Phelps

      Really nice comment, Graham: thanks for taking the time to write this.

  10. Philip Brentnall


    None of these measures will be effective until we reduce the growth rate of human population. An increase of 250% in my lifetime has created an insatialble demand for living space, which is already insufficient.

    We, the polluters are THE problem. No point in blaming someone else! Of course my expectations are limited, expecting we will probably continue to explore better killing methods.

    1. Neville Mattick
      Neville Mattick is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Grazier: ALP Member at A 4th Generation Grazing Station

      In reply to Philip Brentnall

      That is the core isn't it Philip, our environmental footprint is vast, spread that across the landscape and it isn't difficult to see we have over populated our welcome. I know only too well what overgrazing does!

      Every time we flick a switch, buy a computer or airline ticket, invisible impacts well beyond the horizon, transparent to the consumer and not accounting the ecosystem impact.

      I have long held the view that we need to 'value nature' so that the majority stakeholders' in Australia…

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  11. Peter Boyd Lane


    Tim, I would very much like a list of those 72 vertebrate ferals.
    A very interesting, even though very depressing article, of far, far greater importance than what the PM did or did not do 18 yrs ago, but it will never get a mention in parliament.

  12. Andrew Cox

    Conservation adviser and nature advocate

    Congratulations to Tim Flannery for drawing renewed attention to critical conservation issues facing Australia. However, the debate is not assisted by a provocative and inaccurate headline, presumably not chosen by Tim Flannery.

    In the full essay essay Tim says: "Today, national parks and nature reserves cover around 13% of the country. While that's not enough, it is a splendid start, and the creation of the national parks system must surely be seen as the principal environmental achievement of…

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    1. Dianna Arthur


      In reply to Andrew Cox

      @ Andrew Cox

      I agree with your observation regarding the title to this article. Particularly when there are so many vested interests in exploiting the environment to the demise of flora and fauna.

      We need more understanding of biodiversity and how easily this basic pattern of life on Earth can be and has been disrupted.

      Human beings are the most influential life on this planet, yet I fear our legacy will be to the future will be that of a fouled nest.

  13. Mark Vitlin

    logged in via email

    It may be counterintuitive, but national parks may actually contribute to the decline in diversity. They certainly contribute to the disconnect between humans and the natural environment. Creating a national park is bit liking creating an art gallery. It is a clear statement that we don't believe that art is part of everyday life and it's enough to keep a bit of it in a special building somewhere else, just in case we want to visit it one day.

    As national parks were established in Africa the…

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    1. Ron Chinchen
      Ron Chinchen is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Retired (ex Probation and Parole Officer)

      In reply to Mark Vitlin

      Your point is a good one Mark.

      But its more than that, that is causing the disconnect. What is causing less interest from people as a whole is that we humans are living in overpopulated 'national parks' called cities. We have become domesticated and separated from the natural world through intense urbanisation and an increasing dissociation with things natural.

      Because of this we cant truly understand the dynamics of the rural world and make decisions often with the best of intentions, but borne out of a naivety and simplicity through lack of a true understanding of what is needed and what works.

      Unfortunately the experts in these fields are more likely shouted down by an often ignorant public opinion, when political decisions are made. That public opinion may have the best of intentions but living in our city national parks, we dont really know what's happening out there and are easily swayed by the cleverest orator rather than the cleverest expert.

  14. Rosie Cooney

    Visiting Fellow at UNSW Australia

    Thanks Tim and The Conversation for this excellent article. I agree that without the money to fund their management adequately more parks don't necessarily lead to better conservation. This article raises the private conservation model as an excellent success story worthy of support and emulation. Another outstanding achievement in recent years is the growth of IPAs - Indigenous Protected Areas. These are established by Aboriginal groups on their land in partnership with the Commonwealth, and now cover over 35 million hectares. While they support conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, they also help support Aboriginal cultures and livelihoods and maintain indigenous knowledge and integrate it into parks management.