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The Outback Needs More People

The Outback Needs More People

By Patrick O’Leary

Fewer people now live in the outback than before European settlement, so conservation efforts are aiming to attract more people who can actively manage the landscape.

Australia’s vast outback landscapes have been actively managed since shortly after the first humans crossed into the continent. Our diverse native wildlife and plants evolved over tens of thousands of years in response.

Yet fewer people now manage the outback environment than before Europeans landed, and ecosystems are in decline. To ensure the survival of native plants and animals, we will need more people in the outback.

Early Indigenous Land Management Practices Supported Biodiversity

Crews on the first European ships that sailed around the mainland commonly reported seeing smoke from fires on the Australian continent. Some of these fires would have been the small campfires of Aboriginal people, while others undoubtedly started naturally by lightning. Many, however, were the product of customary burning of the landscape that had been practiced for tens of thousands of years according to traditional Aboriginal law.

Australia’s population size before European colonisation is unknown, but estimates range from 300,000 to one million people, with hundreds of language groups across the continent. Almost all of these groups were in constant motion, travelling over their traditional lands to utilise the natural resources available according to season and traditional law. Despite different languages and territories, fire was the common tool used by virtually all indigenous groups to manage the environment that surrounded them.

Burning was not haphazard but applied in a controlled manner according to strict tribal law that reflected thousands of years of detailed, first-hand knowledge of the local ecology. Often it was applied subtly as a key management tool to improve access, promote the growth of beneficial vegetation types, such as food plants, and to attract animals for hunting.

In Kakadu National Park today, local indigenous people have described how they avoid the nests of ground-nesting birds when burning. This kind of subtle and refined approach can only be applied with an intimate knowledge of the local environment obtained and retained by living on the land over many years.

The repeated and systematic burning of the landscape across the outback regions resulted in a co-evolved natural environment. Aboriginal practice led to regular small-scale, cooler fires – the equivalent of controlled burns – that were lit consistently throughout the year to create a patchwork of burnt and unburnt vegetation. This practice, in turn, created fire breaks and fuel reductions that helped prevent the catastrophic, larger and hotter fires often seen today.

The arrival of the first European settlers, however, altered this early and effective method of managing the outback.

Without Active Management, Outback Species Diversity Suffers

After Europeans claimed the continent for England, indigenous Australians were systematically prevented from living their traditional culture in remote areas. This had large-scale ramifications for indigenous people and the Australian environment that are still felt today. Only a tiny percentage of the population of outback Australia is now actively engaged in managing the landscape with a primary focus on the natural environment.

Simultaneously, cattle and sheep were introduced in large numbers to an environment that was not adapted to hoofed animals. These new species, combined with later introduced exotic plants and animals, would have a profound impact on the native ecosystem.

The impact of feral animals such as cane toads and rabbits are well known. But many other lesser known threats exist to native flora and fauna. Roughly a million feral pigs, hundreds of thousands of feral camels, and large numbers of feral water buffalo, horses and donkeys inhabit the outback. Large feral herbivores put intense pressure on fragile outback vegetation and wetlands.

Feral pigs have similar impacts but, as omnivores, they eat a wider range of food that includes threatened sea turtle eggs. Feral cats, which are up to four times the size of native cats, hunt small native mammals and reptiles that are increasingly rare.

Exotic weeds, many introduced for the benefit of cattle and sheep, have proved to be virulent invaders. For example, African gamba grass is more fire-tolerant than native species, causing hotter fires due to the huge fuel loads it supplies. Gamba grass quickly returns after burning, crowding out native trees and shrubs to leave a monoculture.

This single invasive species has the potential to take over much of our northern tropical savanna landscape, with huge implications for biodiversity as well as human safety. Against this backdrop of pressure from invasive species, our high rate of animal and plant extinctions seem easily understandable.

The loss of historic indigenous land management combined with the invasion of feral animals and weeds over widespread areas points to a clear conclusion: the outback’s natural landscape needs continual management to protect against widespread degradation threats. Preserving our iconic outback landscapes requires knowledgeable and active people on the ground to control these pressures and manage for conservation.

Formal legislated protected areas, such as national parks, will continue as an important tool to prevent large industrial threats, such as land clearing and mining, but alone these policy tools will not combat the more chronic and disruptive ecological problems cause by invasive animals and weeds and the lack of active fire management. Without well-trained and well-funded people in the outback, both inside and outside our protected area network, these chronic threats will persist. The good news, though, is that new management models are being implemented that show a way forward.

A New Model for Outback Conservation

Recently, indigenous people have led a resurgence in active on-ground biodiversity management. Recognising that contemporary problems must be addressed, local indigenous people are combining their traditional and local knowledge with conventional science to tackle modern conservation challenges.

Almost 50 million hectares have been declared Indigenous Protected Areas across the Australian landscape, where local indigenous people work together with scientists to apply strategic fire management, reduce feral animal numbers and halt invasive weeds. Currently the federal government supports more than 700 indigenous rangers nationally to protect native animals, regenerate large-scale landscapes and allow indigenous communities to support themselves.

Despite many successes, the conservation challenge ahead is the need to bring more people back to the landscape, using all the skills that both local knowledge and contemporary science can bring to tackle the scale of the threats facing the outback.

In many areas pastoralists are also taking steps to protect sensitive lands on their properties, such as wetlands. While some parts of the pastoral industry will continue to prosper, others are facing increasing economic challenges. Income streams derived from conservation management can help to keep both pastoralists and indigenous people on the land. Elsewhere, conservation groups have purchased and are managing properties for conservation. Much is being done, but more is needed.

These new models of conservation are delivering benefits for all Australians by reducing wildfires, extinctions, erosion, feral animals and noxious weeds. They bring together the lessons of indigenous conservation and land management science, and ask pastoral communities, indigenous communities, industry and government to work together to find a way forward and protect the heart of the country.

Our challenge now is to find ways of supporting indigenous and non-indigenous people so that a viable future for our outback environment and animals is inextricably linked to a viable future for its people. By embracing past conservation lessons and techniques, we can build a sustainable future that will benefit not only those living in the outback, but all Australians.

Patrick O’Leary has worked for the past 25 years in conservation and land and sea management across Australia, including 15 years in outback regions. Follow him on Twitter @Paddy_OL.