By Misty Herrin
Only a few rivers swirl across Australia’s central desert, ribbons of life in harsh terrain. And scientists predict that climate change means less and less rainfall in the future for this region.
This decrease in rainfall could have disastrous consequences for the species that depend on the rivers for life. So scientists at The Nature Conservancy are working quickly to ensure animals and plants have a place to go as climate change alters the ecosystem.
“One of the most important things we can do to help nature survive and adapt to the impacts of climate change is to give plants and animals room to move and, especially here in the desert, access to water,” explains Michael Looker, director of The Nature Conservancy’s Australia program.
Now, in the heart of this vast and sweeping desert, The Nature Conservancy has teamed up with the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) to purchase nearly 1.7 million acres of water-rich land that teems with some of the most unusual wildlife on the planet.
The recent establishment of the Kalamurina Wildlife Sanctuary ensures that almost 20 million acres of protected lands are now linked — filling in a critical gap that will allow desert wildlife to roam between five huge preserves.
By the standards of central Australia, Kalamurina has a lot of water. Three important desert rivers converge on this property.
“Protecting this land and the rivers on it provides a bit of health insurance for the adjacent government-owned protected areas,” explains Looker.
Here, where every drop matters, plants and animals have some creative tricks to make the most of scant water. Take for instance the alien-looking thorny devil — the sharp peaks that cover its body actually collect water into rivulets and direct them right into its mouth.
“One glance at a map and it’s clear how important Kalamurina is,” says AWC Executive Director Atticus Fleming. “In most parts of the world, a gap this large would look like too big a mountain to climb. But here, with just one acquisition, we were able to fill the gap.”
But even such ingenious adaptations to desert life can’t protect species when short-sighted human use topples these delicately balanced ecosystems.
A series of misguided attempts to harness Australia’s desert resources has triggered a chain reaction with tragic consequences: One third of the planet’s mammal species that have gone extinct in last 400 years have been in Australia, and the central desert has borne the brunt of this devastating loss.
“If you’re a small mammal native to central Australia, you’re either endangered or extinct,” says Fleming.
“That’s because you’re meal-sized for a predator you didn’t evolve with — and can’t defend against.”
A slew of little toy-like marsupials are facing dire threats from non-native species, including foxes that were introduced by English settlers for recreational hunting. Other feral species, including camels and rabbits, are out-competing natives for scant food and water. So are cattle.
As climate change reduces water and food supplies in the region, these invasive species could out-compete native animals, threatening the balance of this delicate ecosystem
Also, ranching — which is rarely economically viable in this harsh terrain — is stripping vegetation and trampling fragile wetland areas. This destruction of habitat brings a second problem: Swathes of degraded land act as barriers for nomadic species that cannot survive without options to move.
“Kalamurina had been unsuccessfully ranched for years, but much of the property is relatively undisturbed because it was not heavily stocked with cattle,” explains Fleming. “It’s really amazing that this refuge is here.”
With cattle ranching halted, The Nature Conservancy and AWC will collaborate address climate change adaptation and invasive species. While buying the land is a critical step, it’s just the first in what will be an ongoing campaign to restore and maintain this special place.
“These are huge challenges,” says Fleming.
But Australia boasts some of the most renowned conservation scientists in the world. And The Nature Conservancy brings decades of experience tackling these same problems in the United States and many other countries.
“This is a fantastic illustration of the wisdom of working with partners,” says Looker. “We have combined not only funding, but our unique expertise and relationships and the result is an astounding achievement for conservation.”
The AWC, with their strong local presence, found the land and negotiated the deal. The Conservancy will provide assistance with management. The partners are working on more acquisitions in the vast grasslands north of the central desert.
“We have a tremendous window of opportunity in central and northern Australia,” says Fleming. “This region is considered one of five last great wild places on Earth. Working together like this will enable us to move quickly, before that window closes.”
Misty Herrin is an Associate Director for The Nature Conservancy.September 30, 2011