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The Kimberley: pristine, precious and on the precipice

Mention “The Kimberley”, and for most Australians visions of spectacular sunsets, giant boab trees, rocky escarpments and cascading waterfalls spring to mind. But there is a storm on the horizon, and it…

The wave of extinction that swamped southern species like the stick-nest rat is heading north. Gould/Wikimedia Commons

Mention “The Kimberley”, and for most Australians visions of spectacular sunsets, giant boab trees, rocky escarpments and cascading waterfalls spring to mind. But there is a storm on the horizon, and it is about to hit the region hard.

Australia’s Kimberley is roughly the size of Victoria and one of only five great wilderness areas remaining in the world.

Geographically, this region stretches north from a line between Broome in the west to the Northern Territory Border in the east.

A history of great diversity

It is one of the most ecologically intact regions in Australia, containing exceptional biodiversity, high numbers of endemic fauna (more than 50 vertebrate species alone) and many animals listed as threatened or declining elsewhere in Australia.

It also contains a spectacular and fragile coastline, hundreds of offshore islands, numerous undisturbed, unregulated rivers and the world’s most significant aboriginal rock art galleries.

The Kimberley’s remoteness has protected it. claire barnes/Flickr

Isolation - combined with little development and few people - has acted to protect the Kimberley and its wildlife since European settlement.

Fire and grazing making their mark

There have been few biological surveys of the Kimberley and all have occurred in the high rainfall areas as opposed to the lower rainfall, rangeland regions. We surveyed a rangeland area in the north Kimberley between the Prince Regent Nature Reserve/Mitchell Plateau in the west and the Drysdale River National Park in the east.

Most sites we visited, no matter how remote from the station homesteads, have had clear evidence of fire. Fire mapping to date indicates that roughly half of this 2 million acre area burns each year.

This results in large tracts of homogenous vegetation - it’s all similar species and of a similar age.

The ground has been pock marked with hoof prints from cattle, donkeys and horses, cattle grazing being the primary pastoral activity in this region.

The number of large grazers is now well above sustainable levels and there is evidence of damage to rainforest patches, rangeland vegetation, mound springs, swamps and river banks were common.

Lots of species but few individuals

Despite all this we found more than 190 different bird species and 80 different reptile species, including several un-described species. It’s a testament to the rich biodiversity of this region.

We also identified more than 26 different frog species, including several unidentified species, and around 50 mammal species.

Rangelands need to be surveyed too. Bron/Flickr

The variety of different mammals we’ve found has been amazing. But with few exceptions, the density of mammals was low.

For example, northern quolls, which are typically quite trap-happy animals, were only caught four times in 30,000 trap nights. We caught northern brown bandicoots just eight times in the same period.

An urgent need exists to establish good vegetation, fire and geographical maps for the region. These resources will help to make the most of the wildlife data and information being collected.

The extinction wave is on its way

The initial wave of animal extinctions that occurred following European settlement started in the south of this continent. The extinction wave travelled behind clearing, overgrazing, the introduction of a variety of feral pest species, hunting for the fur trade, changed fire regimes and exotic diseases.

Distance, isolation and the inability of foxes and rabbits to take hold in the north protected much of this region of Australia, but many scientists now believe that the tide is turning. We may be on the cusp of the next great wave of extinctions in this country.

So what has changed?

Scientists believe a second period of extinctions in the north is unlikely to be the result of just one single factor. Like the decline of our fauna in the south, it will probably occur as a result of many of the factors mentioned above.

On top of those, we now have cane toads, mining activities, disease and climate change.

Addressing these threatening processes is essential if we are to preserve the unique biodiversity and beauty of the Kimberley.

A move to have the north Kimberley declared a world heritage area has begun. Further information can be obtained by visiting Save the Kimberley. If we don’t act now, the Kimberley as we know and love it, will change forever. Bad things happen when good men fail to act. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!

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4 Comments sorted by

  1. Mark Duffett

    logged in via Facebook

    This piece does not explain how the 'threat' has suddenly become urgent, nor how declaration of a World Heritage area will address the issues raised. I can't see cane toads, disease (what does this mean? Why is it a new threat?) or climate change respecting world heritage area boundaries. Grazing has operated in the Kimberley for over a century. Fire has been part of that landscape for millennia. The Argyle diamond mine has operated in the Kimberley for close to thirty years. How many extinctions have resulted from that?

    I accept the need for greater baseline documentation. But surely, in an area the size of Victoria, there's room enough for constructive carefully managed cohabitation with development, without the need for huge blanket World Heritage areas.

    1. Megan Evans
      Megan Evans is a Friend of The Conversation.

      logged in via Twitter

      In reply to Mark Duffett

      I think this is a fair comment.
      I'm not clear on the details of Save the Kimberley's proposal for World Heritage, but presumably such a declaration if it were to occur would work best alongside improvements in the management of key threats to biodiversity - too frequent fire, invasive species and unsustainable grazing practices.
      A couple of recent reports look into this in more detail - first, the urgency for acting in the Kimberly is addressed in this report:

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  2. Jeni Thornley

    Lecturer 'Issues in Documentary' FASS at University of Technology, Sydney

    Thanks for your article. Spending time in the Kimberley over the past few years - I sense the 'the extinction wave' on its way; it's palpable. So I appreciate your insights. Yet, I read your piece as if you are describing country inhabited by mammals and species only (flora and fauna), unpeopled by a living culture of traditional custodians who have diverse responses to what many consider an 'invasion' by the British, not 'settlement' as you call it. Perhaps it's no co-incidence that Aboriginal people were classified under the Flora and Fauna Act until the 1965 Referendum. We 'good men' settlers have many rivers to cross….

  3. Caroline Copley


    Belated response, but still a poignant topic what with James Price Point etc.

    Of course the Kimberley should be World Heritage, but then you have to look at management zones, like the GBR, which has worked somewhat but due to the mining industry may very well shortly be described as a mess. So whatever management regime is put in place it would have to be well done.
    The problem is there seems to be a government in W.A. that no matter what the evidence and support, seems to want to revert to…

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