Many people assume, as I did when I moved to Cairns six years ago, that northern Australia’s ecosystems – a virtually continuous stretch of bush from Cairns to Broome – are still relatively pristine and intact.
However, I soon learnt 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 for example, is one of our largest, most visited, well known and well-resourced conservation reserves in Australia. However, 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. 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.
The intensity and frequency of fire is recognised as playing a key role in the alarming decline of many native wildlife species, particularly mammals. Across vast areas of northern Australia, fires burning too hot and 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 and hot dry-spell, over six million hectares of Cape York Peninsula burnt. In comparison, Victoria’s Black Saturday fires the same year burnt around 500,000 hectares.
Every year, from the Kimberley to the Cape, late dry season fires burn millions of hectares across northern Australia. 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 for monitoring are yielding ecological insights and illustrating not only environmental benefits but also economic opportunities. While acknowledging the challenges, John Woinarski believes that: “Improved fire management – with the objective of reducing the annual extent of burning – is being addressed across large landscapes.”
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.
Nationally, more than 20% of the Australian land mass is of Aboriginal tenure. In northern Australia this proportion is much higher and is increasing every year.
On Cape York Peninsula for example, the Queensland Government has returned nearly two million hectares of State held land or pastoral properties to Aboriginal ownership, including national parks, since 2004. Aboriginal lands, particularly in the Kimberley, the Top End and Cape York Peninsula, contain some of the most significant areas for biodiversity conservation in Australia. They are also, of course, 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.
As a nation, we cannot meet our international obligations or our national benchmarks for biodiversity conservation without meaningful engagement of landholders across all tenures. The same goes for carbon abatement. Nationally, 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.
With a suite of government supported voluntary measures, private enterprise and emerging economic opportunities in carbon markets, the value of fee-for-service enterprises delivering land management and conservation outcomes is rapidly growing and Indigenous ranger groups and land and sea management centres are best placed to meet this market demand. Payment for environmental management and the maintenance of ecosystem services outside of what we traditionally call the national reserve system is a legitimate approach to achieve our national conservation objectives, particularly on Aboriginal land.
The extinction crisis facing mammals across northern Australia provides an excellent case in point.
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. General Manager Rowan Foley, believes that “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.”
Rowan’s message is simple; buy Australian and support Traditional Owners looking after country.
In northern Australia, there is advantage in payment for the protection and maintenance of healthy ecosystems. While 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 in a highly modified landscape. This is all the more important in the context of ensuring ecosystem resilience against climate change.
At the same time, we may be able to avert the pending extinction crisis faced in the north.
The convergence of a variety of policy objectives ranging from the social, economic and environmental that has dividends for Aboriginal culture and biodiversity protection cannot be over stated. 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.
Like many of us, 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.
Originally published in Habitat (Vol 40 No. 3) July 2012.