The Australian Outback is one of the last immense regions of nature left on Earth, but its future health depends on having more people, not fewer, living in and actively managing it, a new study by global research and public policy organisation The Pew Charitable Trusts has found.
The peer-reviewed study ranks the Outback alongside the natural wonders of the Amazon basin; the boreal forests and tundra of far northern Alaska, Canada, Siberia and Greenland; and the Sahara.
The study, The Modern Outback: Nature, People and the Future of Remote Australia, represents the first major attempt to reach beyond many myths and to coherently define the Australian Outback as a tangible place with distinct needs.
Released today in Canberra, the report is the first of The Outback Papers, a landmark new series that will be commissioned and published by Pew.
This inaugural study highlights the need for immediate recognition of the Outback’s national and international importance and for action that addresses the serious threats degrading its natural and social values.
Dr Barry Traill, director of Pew’s Outback Australia program and co-author of the study, said the Outback stands out in a world where most of the land surface has been modified from its natural state.
“The Outback is one of the few remaining large natural regions where ecological processes function normally, where the rivers still flow and wildlife still moves across the landscape as it has done for millennia,” Dr Traill said.
“Increasingly, the best outlook for retaining nature will be in areas large enough to offer resilience to threats,” he said. “The Australian Outback is one of these places. Far from being desolate lands ‘beyond the black stump’, the Outback actually covers 73 per cent of the Australian continent.”
The report’s senior author and leading Australian ecologist, Professor John Woinarski, said the findings show that parts of the Outback are failing. “Its environmental values merit the attention and concern of the nation and the world,” Prof Woinarski said.
“Otherwise, we risk losing our irreplaceable natural heritage.” Development in some areas of the Outback is in the national interest, he said, but the scale of such efforts must be carefully managed and, above all else, be sustainable.
According to the report, current threats to the Outback are exacerbated by the lack of people actively caring for its lands. Much of the Outback has fewer people inhabiting and managing the land than at any time over the past 50,000 years.
“As a society we are losing our feel for our lands, our connection with nature,” said Prof Woinarski. “Ad hoc changes are chipping away at what is distinctive about the Outback and undermining opportunities for a sustainable future.”
Dr Traill agreed. “This study puts forward a unified vision for conservation and development of the Outback with people living and working on country at its core.”
For more information, visit pewtrusts.org/en/projects/outback-australia
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The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today’s most challenging problems. Learn more at www.pewtrusts.org.
- The report’s lead authors are available for interviews.
- Further background information and Outback case studies are available.
- High-quality photographs and video are available.
Key Facts from the First Outback Paper
- The Outback spans 5.6 million square kilometres, covering 73 per cent of Australia’s land area. This area would encompass more than half of the United States or Europe.
- The Outback covers all of the Northern Territory, most of Western Australia, South Australia and Queensland, and the north-western corner of New South Wales.
- Although it covers nearly three-quarters of the continent, the Outback supports only 800,000 residents, or less than 5% of the Australian population.
- Of these Outback residents, 25% are Indigenous Australians. In very remote areas of the Outback, the Aboriginal population is closer to 45%. In the Northern Territory, 70% of the non-urban population is Indigenous. There are about 1,200 small Indigenous communities across the Outback, of which almost 1,000 have fewer than 100 residents.
- The Australian Outback is an extremely old and tectonically stable landform. Unlike much of the Earth’s surface, it has experienced little or no dramatic change for at least 200 million years.
- Much of the Outback is recognised as being among the world’s most important global wilderness areas, characterised by extensive regions with low human population and generally intact ecosystems (defined as areas larger than 10,000 km2, greater than 70% intact, and with human densities of fewer than five people per km2).
- The Australian Outback is among the 10% of the Earth’s biomes that have been least affected by humans. The others are the boreal forests and tundras of far northern North America, Siberia and Greenland; the Sahara; the rapidly diminishing wild lands of the Amazon basin; and the Himalayas and Tibetan plateau.
- Australia is recognised as one of the 17 ‘mega-diverse’ countries – those with exceptional biodiversity – and is one of only two developed countries considered to be mega-diverse. Of 11 million species worldwide, about 570,000 are native to Australia.
- The Outback has the world’s largest remaining areas in natural condition for three global biomes: tropical and subtropical grasslands, scrublands and savannas; deserts and xeric shrub lands; and Mediterranean-type forests, woodlands and scrub.
- The largest remaining intact tropical savanna on Earth covers nearly 2 million km2 of northern Australia.
- The Outback’s 3 million km2 of deserts are among the least modified in the world.
- At 160,000 km2, the Great Western Woodlands around Kalgoorlie is the largest remaining woodland habitat in the world’s temperate Mediterranean climate zones.
- The Lake Eyre Basin covers almost one-sixth of the continent and is the world’s largest internally draining river system. The drainage basin has one of the few free-flowing arid river systems remaining on Earth.
- Underlying much of the eastern half of the Outback is the 1.7 million km2 Great Artesian Basin, the world’s largest groundwater basin.
- Offshore, the coastal seas of the tropical north and north-west are some of the world’s least disturbed coastal environments.
- Six Outback areas are listed as World Heritage sites based on their natural – and, in some cases, their cultural – values: Kakadu, Purnululu, Riversleigh (part of Australian Fossil Mammal sites), Shark Bay, the Ningaloo Coast and Uluru–Kata Tjuta. At least one other site, Cape York Peninsula, is considered to meet the World Heritage site criteria but has not yet been nominated.
- Pastoral leases occupy about 40% of the Outback – appreciably more than any other industry sector. In Western Australia at least 30%, and possibly up to 60%, of leases are no longer commercially viable as grazing enterprises.
- Mining occurs on less than 1% of the Australian landmass, although there are exploration licences across nearly three-quarters of the continent.
Indigenous Protected Areas
- The first Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was established in 1997–98. There are now over 30 Outback IPAs with ranger groups managing more than 500,000 km2 of land – an area more than twice the size of the state of Victoria.
- There are more than 700 Indigenous Rangers working on country.
Outback carbon opportunity
- In 2012, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions from all sources were about 550 million tonnes. Analysis by the Queensland Herbarium concluded that 9.8 billion tonnes of carbon are sequestered in the vegetation of the Outback.
- Improved land management practices – such as promoting vegetation regrowth and enhancing the management of fire, livestock and feral animals – have the potential to increase the Outback’s carbon storage by slightly more than a billion tonnes. Such enhanced management can also reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 30 million to 40 million tonnes per year in perpetuity.
- Feral animals now occupy virtually all the Outback. Those with the most environmental impacts include cats, foxes, pigs, cane toads, goats and camels. For example, the introduction of foxes and cats to Australia caused one of the world’s great conservation catastrophes: the extinction of about 20 species of Australian mammal fauna and the decline in many other species.
- There are an estimated 100,000 feral cats living in the Kimberley region alone, killing at least half a million native animals per night (on average, feral cats kill five to 12 native vertebrates per night).
- Cane toads were introduced from Central America in the 1930s and now occupy over 1.4 million km2 of Australia. They are spreading into Western Australia at a rate of 60 km a year.
- The Outback is now home to many of the world’s most invasive weeds. For example, the destructive gamba grass is spreading across Australia at a rate that is among the highest of any weed in the world.
- Australia’s tropical savannas have been recognised as possibly the most flammable ecosystem in the world. Grasses that grow rapidly during the wet season become like tinder during the dry season.