The Outback is Australia’s beating heart© The Pew Charitable Trusts

Find out more about Outback Australia, the country’s national network of marine sanctuaries, and the success of Indigenous conservation.

Outback Australia

The Outback is Australia’s beating heart—not merely a place of mythology, but the living, thriving core of the nation. With an area of 5.6 million square kilometres, it covers more than 70 per cent of the continent. Only a few largely intact expanses of nature remain on Earth, and the healthy, biologically diverse Outback is one of them, along with the Amazon rainforest and the vast conifer forests of northern Canada and Siberia. The Outback represents one of the greatest conservation challenges and opportunities in Australia’s history.

For more than 50,000 years, people have lived in and shaped the landscapes of the Outback. From the time that humans first inhabited the continent, much of the region’s nature has benefited from hands-on management, particularly in the use of fire.

Today the heart of Australia is at a crossroads. The Outback’s health is vulnerable to the expansion of industrial activities, particularly mining, and the impact of uncontrolled bush fires, noxious weeds and feral animals.


Pew is producing a series of peer-reviewed science studies—The Outback Papers—to raise awareness about the area’s value and importance as an interconnected whole and to generate a national conversation about potential opportunities to create a modern Outback that sustains its people and values its nature.

Some of the iconic places that that make up the vast Outback are the Kimberley, Arnhem Land, Kakadu, the Channel Country of western Queensland, the rainforests and rivers of Cape York, and a total of 10 deserts. Protecting these areas from exploitation and destruction is essential for the preservation of Australia’s shared natural heritage.

Pew is partnering with Traditional Owners, pastoralists, conservation groups, scientists, industry and local communities to ensure that all Australians can continue to visit, explore and enjoy these special places, which are important ingredients for the nation’s well-being.

Australia’s network of marine sanctuaries

In southwest Australia, underwater mountain ranges 7000 metres in height and vast submarine canyons support an extraordinary range of unique marine life. In some areas, as much as 90 per cent of this life is found nowhere else. Marine sanctuaries, stretching from Kangaroo Island in South Australia to Geraldton in Western Australia, safeguard two of only three places in the country where the endangered blue whale comes to feed.

Buffering the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Sea is one of the last remaining places on Earth supporting healthy populations of big fish such as marlin, deep-water sharks, whales and other ocean giants. The new Coral Sea Marine Reserve, almost half the size of Queensland, includes a huge sanctuary for marine life and one of the largest recreational fishing zones in the world.

Sanctuaries off the Kimberley shore provide an insurance policy for untouched reefs and a vital migratory pathway for humpback whales and majestic whale sharks. Across the Top End in the Northern Territory, sanctuaries protect fish feeding and breeding areas and buffer marine life from potential oil spills.

Protection for some of the country’s special places, such as the Great Barrier Reef, and Ningaloo Reef in Western Australia, has enjoyed bipartisan support since 1990. Australia has also historically been a global leader in marine conservation: For example, in 2005, a third of the Great Barrier Reef was protected in a marine sanctuary, and in 2012, the world’s largest network of marine sanctuaries was created.


Pew is working to secure the long-term health and future of Australia’s oceans through the establishment of a national network of marine sanctuaries to protect the diversity of life beneath the waves. We have already led a coalition of conservation, community and scientific groups to secure diverse ecosystems in the Coral Sea, the country’s southwest waters, and the tropical seas off the Kimberley coast.

In 2014, however, Australia’s new Federal Government suspended the operation of the nation’s network of sanctuaries and ordered their review.

Pew is taking an evidence-based approach to demonstrate the importance of marine sanctuaries and the economic, environmental and social benefits they provide for all Australians. Working alongside dive tourism operators, anglers, local communities, businesses and marine scientists, we aim to ensure that the nation’s network of marine sanctuaries is effective well into the future.

Indigenous conservation and culture

A great conservation success story has been unfolding over the past decade across northern and central Australia. Australia’s Indigenous peoples, often in extremely challenging situations, are actively expressing their living culture and strong desire to be living on and managing their land and sea country.

Indigenous Australians are increasingly choosing to safeguard their native title lands as Indigenous Protected Areas—the equivalent of a national park. This involves a partnership not just with the Commonwealth Government but with all Australians: Training and jobs on country are secured, and the shared natural heritage is cared for and protected.

Underpinned by federal funding of over 700 positions across the country, ranger jobs provide secure employment and are the front line in combating threats to nature, including uncontrolled wildfires, feral animals and invasive weeds.

Land fully owned by Indigenous people now represents around 22 per cent, or 1.7 million square kilometres, of the continent. This includes some of the nation’s most biodiverse areas, which have been identified by scientists as of high importance for conservation.

Combining traditional knowledge of the land and modern science, Indigenous Rangers are caring for the country in a way that not only sustains their cultural heritage but also creates a lasting legacy for the nation’s natural heritage as well.


Pew actively supports Indigenous communities and organisations in their desire to have their people live on their country and manage it for environmental, cultural and economic benefit.

We are working with a range of partners to support increased and more secure funding for Indigenous Ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas across Australia.

Pew contributed to the establishment of the Karrkad-Kandji Trust, which provides necessary resources to manage the Warddeken and Djelk Indigenous Protected Areas on the Arnhem Land Plateau and adjacent coast.

Pew has actively supported the land and sea management work of Dhimurru Aboriginal Corporation, Central Desert Land and Community Team and the Ngadju Nation, among others.

We have partnered with the Kimberley Land Council to assist it in supporting Traditional Owners to develop new Indigenous Protected Areas, such as the 2,479,700-hectare (6,127,254-acre) Karajarri IPA.

Senior Karajarri Ranger Jessica Bangu explains it this way: “Indigenous Protected Areas let us look after and protect our country the way our old people want us to. It provides the right cultural match, as having an IPA is not just about looking after the environment but making sure our people, our culture and our heritage are strong as well.’’

In 2011, Pew partnered with the Indigenous Land Corporation, The Nature Conservancy and the Australian Government to purchase Fish River Station for conservation management by Indigenous Rangers via a co-operative partnership with the Traditional Owners of the property.