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Let’s get serious about protecting wildlife in a warming world

The white-lipped tree frog, one of the species threatened by warming. Stephen Williams, Author provided

In the rainforests of northern Queensland, scientists and government are getting serious about protecting wildlife, plants and ecosystems from climate change. A couple of years ago, Mount Baldy in the Herberton Range near Atherton became part of Queensland’s protected area estate, in part because the mountains will remain cool enough under global warming for many species to survive there.

The area will act as a refuge as species move from the warming lowlands. Now the Queensland government is using resilience to climate change as the primary factor in deciding what new national parks to add across the state.

Climate change poses a significant threat to animals, plants and ecosystems over the coming decades. Queensland’s World Heritage Wet Tropics Rainforests are particularly vulnerable, as many species are adapted to a narrow temperature range.

To save wildlife we’ll need to mitigate climate change (reduce our greenhouse gas emissions) and adapt to the warming already coming our way. New national parks are just one of the methods Queensland is developing to give wildlife room to move.

From science to action

A whole host of research groups have worked on conservation in the Wet Tropics, supported by the Australian and Queensland governments. These include: the Wet Tropics Management Authority, Rainforest-CRC, Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility and the National Environmental Research Program.

Each of these groups has worked with the management authorities and built on previous research. That research is starting to pay off. Here’s how it worked.

Biodiversity research in the Rainforest-CRC fed directly into the Marine and Tropical Science Research Facility program. In 2011 this research identified refugia that will remain cooler than average under climate change. This is due to buffering of temperature by cloud, forest canopy and the natural topography of the landscape.

The JCU team then combined projections of future species distributions with the refugia mapping to identify areas of high conservation importance. These areas have high refugial potential and both high current and future biodiversity value.

The green-eyed tree frog is found only in the Wet Tropics. Stephen Williams

These analyses identified places that are currently cleared but could support many species in the future if the rainforest was restored and existing patches reconnected. This information directly informed the Wet Tropics Management Authority conservation plans and priorities and contributed to the new Mt Baldy National Park being gazetted.

The scientists, the Wet Tropics Management Authority, landholders and community groups worked together under a federal Caring for Country grant to figure out where and how to restore habitat in places that would connect remaining patches of rainforest. Connecting habitat patches is important. It allows animals to move across the landscape as the climate changes in order to stay in their comfort zone.

This led to the Making Connections project, which is actively revegetating and connecting rainforest areas. This helps build resilience for the region’s biodiversity.

The research was further developed and adapted nationally under the National Climate Change Adaptation Research Facility to identify climate refuges Australia-wide.

The Queensland government then used this knowledge to make informed decisions about how to increase the state’s protected area estate in a way that would enhance the resilience of Queensland’s biodiversity into the future.

These examples clearly emphasise how science and research can have a real and positive influence on producing on-the-ground adaptation actions that will reduce the climate change impacts on biodiversity.

Australia to the world

Tropical ecosystems are the most important reservoirs of biodiversity and ecosystem services on the Earth, but the tropics also face the greatest conflict between human well-being, sustainable development and a healthy environment.

The three most important regions for global biodiversity are South America, the Asia-Pacific and Central Africa. These tropical megadiverse regions contain approximately 80% of terrestrial biodiversity with a high proportion of threatened species. They also provide significant ecosystem services to the Earth and the well-being of billions of people.

The tropics are ‘hotspots’ for biodiversity, as shown in red and yellow. Mannion et al. in Trends in Ecology & Evolution, CC BY

However, tropical ecosystems are under considerable threat. The tropics have 40% of the global human population, two-thirds of the world’s poorest people and the fastest growth rates in human population, economic change and habitat loss.

Until recently, habitat loss and degradation was clearly the major environmental threat in the tropics. However, in the 21st century the impact of global climate change in combination with other human-induced impacts poses the greatest challenge of our time.

It has never been more important to provide and disseminate knowledge that informs policy and natural resource management. This can then enable effective adaptation and mitigation measures to maintain the resilience of tropical ecosystems and the humans that depend on them.

We need to establish a global network that builds on the Australian model by including empirical research on adaptation and mitigation, monitoring, regional and global capacity-building and information exchange across the globe.

There are positive signs that governments in the tropics are recognising the importance of this issue and the potential benefits of bringing their scientists, stakeholders and the public together to increase their capacity to adapt and mitigate.

The Singapore government has expressed interest in establishing an Asia-Pacific network in collaboration with our Australian network. Similarly, the Ecuadorian government has funded the initial development of a South American network in partnership with Yachay Tech University.

We need to make the momentum created in Australia snowball into a global network of people, organisations and monitoring sites across the tropics. This will enable us to make the right decisions in the face of the combined threats of global climate change, habitat loss and illegal logging and poaching. This will hopefully reduce the negative impacts of global climate change on biodiversity and on the livelihoods of the growing economies and populations of the tropics.

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