- Be informed
- Get involved
- Donate now
- News & media
Andrew Picone explores biodiversity, carbon and economic opportunities in northern Australia.
When I moved to Cairns six years ago I wrongly assumed northern Australia’s ecosystems – a virtually continuous stretch of bush from Cairns to Broome – to be relatively pristine and intact.
I soon discovered many species were fast disappearing from the North’s diverse habitats and landscapes. The wave of extinctions that swept through southern and central Australia soon after European settlement is now creeping west across the northern savannahs, headed straight for the Kimberley.
Kakadu National Park, one of our largest, most visited and well-resourced conservation reserves exemplify this trend. Its resident mammal populations have crashed dramatically over the last two decades.
Associate Professor John Woinarski from Charles Darwin University says that the decline we are witnessing across northern Australia can be remedied.
“The most important causal factors are predation by feral cats, inappropriate fire regimes and habitat change brought about by livestock and feral herbivores,” Professor Woinarski said.
“Each of these factors can be controlled, so long as there is sufficient commitment and sufficient knowledge.”
Described as a national crisis by scientists, the extinction wave facing northern Australia’s mammals is unique in the world in that the landscape is still largely intact. Habitat destruction is not the principle cause.
Emerging markets in carbon sequestration, natural resource management and cultural maintenance are now providing an alternative to mining
A landscape of fire
The intensity and frequency of fire is recognised as playing a key role in the alarming decline of many native wildlife species, particularly mammals. Fires burning too hot, at the wrong time of year and across too much country are having a devastating effect on many species. Combined with the pressures of pest plant and animals including cats, the spread of cane toads and unsustainable grazing, northern Australia’s ecosystems are in decline.
In 2009, during a long hot dry-spell, over six million hectares of Cape York Peninsula burned. Victoria’s Black Saturday bushfires that same year burnt around 500,000 hectares.
These unplanned or poorly managed fires can take a heavy toll on the environment, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, destroying habitat, facilitating weed invasion and transforming ecosystems. Although fire plays a critical role across many of Australia’s landscapes, its ecological function, natural regularity and historical application by Aboriginal peoples have been plagued by conflicting assumptions, myth and misunderstandings.
Ongoing joint research into Aboriginal burning techniques using traditional knowledge and scientific approaches are yielding ecological insights – illustrating not only environmental benefits but also economic opportunities.
Fire abatement project
A long-term project of international significance is the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) project covering 28,000 square kilometres of the Arnhem Land Plateau adjacent to Kakadu.
Running since 2006, the WALFA project is one of the first large scale initiatives that delivers economic and employment opportunities to Traditional Owners and remote Indigenous communities. The initiative also reduces carbon emissions, provides much needed environmental management and monitoring in a remote landscape and improves and protects the quality of habitat for a range of species including many endangered mammals.
WALFA has an annual carbon abatement target of 100,000 tonnes and after four years to 2010 the project had abated 707,000 tonnes of CO2. Similar projects are currently being planned in the Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula.
Although fire plays a critical role across many of Australia’s landscapes, its ecological function, natural regularity and historical application by Aboriginal peoples have been plagued by conflicting assumptions, myth and misunderstandings
Land tenure reform
More than 20 per cent of Australia’s land mass is of Aboriginal tenure. In northern Australia this proportion is much higher and is increasing every year.
The Queensland government has returned nearly two million hectares of state held land or pastoral properties to Aboriginal ownership across Cape York Peninsula. Aboriginal lands contain some of the most significant areas for biodiversity conservation in Australia and are of ongoing cultural significance to Traditional Owners.
While much of the Indigenous lands around Australia are commercially marginal, having remained undeveloped in more than 200 years of European settlement, they are now presenting as sources of economic opportunity and livelihood potential for Traditional Owners. Emerging markets in carbon sequestration, natural resource management and cultural maintenance and now providing an alternative to mining.
There is increasing recognition of the vital role Traditional Owners and Indigenous Ranger groups have in managing land for biodiversity and carbon outcomes, particularly in central and northern Australia.
Many endangered species have some of their last strongholds on Aboriginal land, and economic incentives provided by a range of programs from federal funding, philanthropic sources and private enterprise are resulting in a large range of initiatives across a multitude of land tenures.
In late 2010, the Aboriginal Carbon Fund was established as a not-for-profit entity to trade in carbon credits on behalf of Indigenous landholders. “People and Australian companies would like to support Traditional Owners looking after their country but are not sure how to go about it; the Aboriginal Carbon Fund provides this service,” Said Aboriginal Carbon Fund general manager Rowan Foley.
In other words, buy Australian and support Traditional Owners looking after country.
The biggest contribution to biodiversity conservation in northern Australia will come from Traditional Owners and a range of partner organisations
In northern Australia, where habitats remain largely intact, it is cost effective to implement preventative measures to ensure ecosystem health than it is to rehabilitate degraded land or rescue species from the brink of extinction. This is all the more important in the context of ensuring ecosystem resilience against climate change.
Getting the policy settings right
The biggest contribution to biodiversity conservation in northern Australia will come from Traditional Owners and a range of partner organisations. The many and varied programs supporting Indigenous land and sea management need to continue and grow.
John Woinarski regrets “not having the opportunity to see Thylacines, Lesser bilbies and Paradise parrots” and laments previous generations for causing the loss of that biological legacy. But he also believes too little is being done to control today’s threats other than fire; namely feral cats.
With a clear ‘no-regrets’ approach to addressing the trend towards extinction for northern Australia’s mammals and a commitment to do everything possible not to squander the environmental legacy we leave future generations, Woinarski believes that we can fix the problem and avert this extinction crisis.
Read more about our northern Australia program