‘Going backwards’: A third of protected land at risk as Australia lags


Almost a third of the world's protected lands face intense pressure from humans with even rich nations such as Australia failing to conserve key biodiversity, a new study by Australian scientists has found.

The research, published in Science on Friday, found that while declared protected zones had quadrupled in size in the past quarter century, much of that land enjoyed little protection from farming, logging or other human intervention.

“One third of that land is in a terrible state, doing nothing for biodiversity conservation," said James Watson, interim director of the University of Queensland's Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science and an author of the report.

"Nations across the world are exaggerating in an incredible way their contribution to solving the biodiversity crisis.”

Threats from expanding slash and burn agriculture are placing pressure on many national parks around the world, even the better managed ones such as Niassa Reserve in Mozambique.

Photo: World Conservation Society/UQ

The study claims to be first to examine in high resolution – using satellite imagery and other data – the world's 202,000 protected areas that account for almost 15 per cent of land.


"We couldn't have done this study 10 years ago," Professor Watson said. "Nations need to realise they're going to be held more and more to account."

Search for funds

Among the examples are the Tsavo east and west national parks in Kenya.

The reserve was established in 1948 and now has a railway built through it, with plans to establish a six-lane highway to parallel it. Animals at risk include the eastern black rhinoceros and Tsavo lions, whose adult males often lack manes.

The Rio Platano Biosphere Reserve in Honduras had lost about 300 square kilometres to illegal agriculture and infrastructure. The area includes some of Central America's last surviving areas of undisturbed rainforest, and is home to king vultures, jaguar and mantled howler and spider monkeys.

Nations should address rising human pressures – including from climate change – not by defunding national parks but stepping up support for regions that were important for economic and social wellbeing, and the natural capital they contain, the paper said.

"Funding could also be increased through mechanisms that allow nations to trade or offset conservation funding and commitments, so wealthy nations can support conservation in poorer nations," it said.

'Massively degraded'

Australia's track record was notably poor, with mining permitted in national parks – such as Kakadu – and cattle allowed into conservation areas in places such as the Carnarvon Gorge in Western Australia and alpine reserves in Victoria.

"At least 15 per cent of Australias protected areas are massively degraded," Professor Watson said.

“Australia, unless a miracle occurs, will always be going backwards, because theres no injection of cash to get the objectives we need.”

Recent federal budgets have included deep cuts to conservation spending with at least 60 officers involved in biodiversity cut in the 2017 budget, said James Trezise, healthy ecosystems policy co-ordinator for Australian Conservation Foundation.

"Some places that we think are safe and free from development are quite clearly at significant exposure," Dr Trezise said.

Australia's track record on biodiversity conservation is poor, even in some protected areas.

Photo: Goongerah Environment Centre, Gippsland

Those cutbacks extend to marine areas too, with the Turnbull government responsible for the largest reversal of such protections in the world in changes announced in April, he said.

The Murray Valley National Park in NSW is also at risk of being de-gazetted, with the local Nationals MP Austin Evans campaigning to turn the area into a state forest open to logging.

Oisin Sweeney, science officer for the National Parks Association, said that as a wealthy nation, Australia "could be doing a hell of a lot better" in preserving its rich biodiversity.

"Massive" budget cuts to the National Reserve System had also weakened "the biggest single tool to acquire national park land", while states such as NSW had deliberately been reducing the numbers of experienced park rangers, Dr Sweeney said.

Dr Trezise said NSW, Victoria and Tasmania had also been accelerating efforts to open up national parks to development such as resorts and projects such as a cable car up Mt Wellington near Hobart.

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Peter Hannam

Peter Hannam is Environment Editor at The Sydney Morning Herald. He covers broad environmental issues ranging from climate change to renewable energy for Fairfax Media.

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