Australia’s national parks aren’t ‘national’ at all

14 06 2013

Yarra-Ranges-National-Park-AustraliaFollowing our The Conversation article a few weeks ago about the rapid demise of national parks in Australia, a few of us (me, Euan Ritchie & Emma Johnston) wrote a follow-up piece on the Australia’s national park misnomer (published simultaneously on The Conversation).

Australia boasts over 500 national parks covering 28 million hectares of land, or about 3.6% of Australia. You could be forgiven for thinking we’re doing well in the biodiversity-conservation game.

But did you know that of those more than 500 national parks, only six are managed by the Commonwealth Government? For marine parks, it’s a little more: 61 of the 130-plus are managed primarily by the Commonwealth. This means that the majority of our important biodiversity refuges are managed exclusively by state and territory governments. In other words, our national parks aren’t “national” at all.

In a world of perfect governance, this wouldn’t matter. But we’re seeing the rapid “relaxation” of laws designed to protect our “national” and marine parks by many state governments. Would making all of them truly national do more to conserve biodiversity?

One silly decision resulting in a major ecosystem disturbance in a national park can take decades if not hundreds of years to heal. Ecosystems are complex interactions of millions of species that take a long time to evolve – they cannot be easily repaired once the damage is done.

Almost overnight, Queensland, New South Wales and Victoria have rolled back nearly two centuries of park protection. What’s surprising here is that many of our conservation gains in the last few decades (for example, the Natural Heritage Trust, the National Reserve System, the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act and anational marine reserve network) originated from Coalition policies. Read the rest of this entry »

Protected areas work, but only when you put in the effort

15 11 2012

Apologies for the delay in getting this latest post out. If you read my last one, you’ll know that I’ve been in the United Kingdom for the last week. I’m writing this entry in the train down from York to Heathrow, from which I’ll shortly begin the gruelling 30-hour trip home to Adelaide.

Eight days on the other side of the planet is a bit of a cyclonic trip, but I can honestly say that it was entirely worth it. My first port of call was London where I attended the Zoological Society of London’s Protected Areas Symposium, which is the main topic on which I’ll elaborate shortly.

But I also visited my friend and colleague, Dr. Kate Parr at the University of Liverpool, where I also had the pleasure of talking with Rob Marrs and Mike Begon. Liverpool was also where I first observed the habits of a peculiar, yet extremely common species – the greater flabby, orange-skinned, mini-skirted, black-eyed scouser. Fascinating.

I then had the privilege and serendipitous indulgence of visiting the beautiful and quaint city of York where I gave another talk to the Environment Department at the University of York. My host, Dr. Kate Arnold was simply lovely, and I got to speak with a host of other very clever people including Callum Roberts, Phil Platts, Andy Marshall and Murray Rudd. Between the chats and real ales, mushy peas, pork pies and visits to the Minster, I was in north English heaven.

Enough of the cultural compliments – the title of this post was the take-home message of the ZSL symposium. There I gave a 25-minute talk summarising our recent paper on the performance of tropical protected areas around the globe, and added a few extra analyses in the process. One interesting result that was missing from the original paper was the country-level characteristics that explain variation in protected area ‘health’ (as we defined it in the Nature paper). After looking at a number of potential drives, including per-capita wealth, governance quality, environmental performance, human population density and the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas (IUCN Ia, Ib, II and IV categories), it came out that at least at that coarse country scale that only the proportion of high conservation-value protected areas explained any additional variation in health. In other words, the more category Ia, Ib, II and IV protected areas a country has (relative to the total), the better their protected areas do on average (and remember, we’re talking largely about developing and tropical nations here). Read the rest of this entry »

Threats to biodiversity insurance from protected areas

26 07 2012

A red-eyed tree frog (Agalychnis callidryas) from Barro Colorado Island in Panama. This small island, just 1500 ha (3700 acres) in area, is one of the tropical protected areas evaluated in this study (photo © Christian Ziegler <>, Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute). Note: It is prohibited for any third party or agency to use or license this image; any use other then described above shall be subject to usage fees as determined solely by the photographer.

Much of conservation science boils down to good decision making: when, where and how we ‘set aside’ terrestrial or marine areas for specific protection against the ravages of human endeavour. This is the basis for the entire sub-discipline of conservation planning and prioritisation, and features prominantly in most aspects of applied conservation and restoration.

In other words, we do all this science to determine where we should emplace protected areas, lobby for getting more land and sea set aside so that we have ‘representative’ amounts (i.e., to prevent extinctions), and argue over the best way to manage these areas once established.

But what if this pinnacle of conservation achievement is itself under threat? What if many of our protected areas are struggling to insure biodiversity against human consumption? Well, it’d be a scary prospect, to say the least.

Think of it this way. We buy insurance policies to buffer our investments against tragedy; this applies to everything from our houses, worldly possessions, cars, livestock, health, to forest carbon stores. We buy the policies to give us peace of mind that in the event of a disaster, we’ll be bailed out of the mess with a much-needed cash injection. But what if following the disaster we learn that the policy is no good? What if there isn’t enough pay-out to fix the mess?

In biodiversity conservation, our ‘insurance’ is largely provided by protected areas. We believe that come what may, at least in these (relatively) rare places, biodiversity will persist despite our relentless consumerism.

Unfortunately, what we believe isn’t necessarily true.

Today I’m both proud and alarmed to present our latest research on the performance of tropical protected areas around the world. Published online in Nature this morning (evening, for you Europeans) is the 216-author (yes, that is correct – 216 of us) paper entitled “Averting biodiversity collapse in tropical forest protected areas” led by Bill Laurance. Read the rest of this entry »

Crocodiles, spiders and leeches

11 04 2011

I just wrote a fun little piece for a new section in the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment that they’re calling Trails and Tribulations. The basic idea is that the author recounts a particularly interesting field-related experience through which an ecological concept is woven.

Editor-in-Chief Sue Silver said that I could reproduce my article here as long as I acknowledged Frontiers and the Ecological Society of America. It was fun to write, and I hope you enjoy it too [the PDF of the article is available free of charge here].

“So does each team get a hand gun?”

“No, you get an oar”

“What good is an oar?”

“Listen, mate. When a 3-metre croc jumps out of the swamp at you, there is nothing more natural in the world than to thump him with a big stick. It’s an autonomous response. With a gun, IF you manage to keep it dry, and IF you manage to get it out in time before the croc bites off your head, chances are you’ll just shoot the bloke in front of you anyway. So you get an oar.”

“Fair enough”.

That is an approximate, paraphrased reproduction of the initial conversation I had with renowned Australian crocodile biologist, Grahame Webb, just prior to my first (and as it turns out, only) trip to collect crocodile eggs for his Darwin wildlife park and crocodile farm. I volunteered to take part in the collection because I had recently begun working with Grahame and his team tracking the world’s largest crocodile species – the saltwater or estuarine crocodile Crocodylus porosus – and modelling aspects of its populations (Bradshaw et al. 2006). Having already been out on several occasions to harpoon and satellite-tag animals (some measuring > 4 m) on the Mary River, and cage-trap others in Kakadu National Park, I thought a little egg collection would be a proverbial walk in the park. Little did I know that it would end up being one of my more memorable experiences.

Let me walk you through the process. First, you wait until the height of the wet season and drive out as far as you can toward the breeding swamp of interest (in this case, Melacca Swamp in the Adelaide River flood plain, about one hour’s drive from Darwin). Then you and two other loonies pile into a small helicopter equipped with landing pontoons which ferries you to one of many previously identified crocodile nests. Because there is usually too much vegetation around the nest itself, the helicopter must land about 100-300 m away. Clothed only in long pants, a long-sleeved shirt and cotton gloves to protect your skin from the slicing blade grass, you jump off the helicopter’s pontoons into impenetrably murky, chest-deep water. One of the team drags an esky (chiller box into which eggs will be placed) and another carries an oar. As the noise of the departing helicopter becomes a faint buzz, you suddenly realise via the rapid expansion of your terminal sphincter that you are in the middle of a crocodile-filled swamp – and you are holding an oar. Read the rest of this entry »

Biodiversity SNAFU in Australia’s Jewel

16 06 2010

I’ve covered this sad state of affairs and one of Australia’s more notable biodiversity embarrassments over the last year (see Shocking continued loss of Australian mammals and Can we solve Australia’s mammal extinction crisis?), and now the most empirical demonstration of this is now published.

The biodiversity guru of Australia’s tropical north, John Woinarksi, has just published the definitive demonstration of the magnitude of mammal declines in Kakadu National Park (Australia’s largest national park, World Heritage Area, emblem of ‘co-management’ and supposed biodiversity and cultural jewel in Australia’s conservation crown). According to Woinarski and colleagues, most of those qualifiers are rubbish.

The paper published in Wildlife Research is entitled Monitoring indicates rapid and severe decline of native small mammals in Kakadu National Park, northern Australia and it concludes:

The native mammal fauna of Kakadu National Park is in rapid and severe decline. The cause(s) of this decline are not entirely clear, and may vary among species. The most plausible causes are too frequent fire, predation by feral cats and invasion by cane toads (affecting particularly one native mammal species).

I’ve done quite a bit of work in Kakadu myself, and the one thing that hits you every time you travel through it is the lack of visible wildlife. Sure, you’ll see horses, pigs and buffalo, as well as cane toads and cats, but getting a glimpse of anything native, from Conilurus to Varanus, and you’d consider yourself extremely lucky.

We’ve written a lot about the feral animal problem in Kakadu and even developed software tools to assist in density-reduction programmes. It doesn’t appear that anyone is listening.

Another gob-smacking vista you’ll get when travelling through Kakadu any time from April to December is that it’s either been burnt, actively burning or targeted for burning. They burn the shit out of the place every year. No wonder the native mammals are having such a hard time.

Combine all this with the dysfunctional management arrangement, and you cease to have a National Park. Kakadu is now a lifeless shell that does precious little for conservation of biodiversity (and 3 of the 5 criteria it had to satisfy to become a World Heritage Area are specifically related to natural resource ‘values’). I say, delist Kakadu now and let’s stop fooling ourselves.

Ok, back from the rant. Woinarski and others superimposed a mammal monitoring programme over top a fire-regime experiment for vegetation. Although they couldn’t sample every plot every season, they staggered the sampling to cover the area as best they could over the 13 years of monitoring (1996-2009). What they observed was staggering. Read the rest of this entry »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 5,312 other followers

%d bloggers like this: