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Places We Protect: Northern Grasslands

Today this area is threatened by development, unsustainable ranching, fire and invasive species.

Covering more than 247 million acres — an area larger than California, Colorado and New Mexico combined — Northern Australia is one of the few remaining large-scale natural areas left on Earth. But today, it's threatened by development, unsustainable ranching, fire, mining and invasive species.

Rare and Disappearing

While Northern Australia has rainforests, scrublands and mangroves, most of the region is blanketed by tropical and sub-tropical savanna — vast plains of tall, dense grass with pockets of woodlands.

Tropical savanna once covered about 12 percent of the planet, but more than 70 percent has been lost and little of what remains is protected, making the savanna of Northern Australia — four times larger than any other on Earth — a high priority for the Conservancy.

Far from empty, the grasslands teem with wildlife, from kangaroos to parrots. The region harbors:

  • 460 bird species
  • 110 mammal species
  • 225 freshwater fish species and
  • 40 percent of Australia’s reptiles

This rich animal and plant life was critical to the livelihoods of Aboriginal people and Torres Strait Islanders who — while possessing very distinct cultures and histories — lived sustainably in balance with the landscape for over 40,000 years. Over millennia, the Indigenous populations shaped the landscape with their cultural practices and active management of the land.

For example, most tribal groups used controlled fires to flush out game, to rejuvenate aging vegetation, and to keep tree and shrub species from taking over grasslands. Controlled early season fire burns are a highly effective conservation technique that has only recently been embraced in the United States.

Unforeseen — Often Disastrous — Consequences

Over the past 200 hundred years, new settlers brought new designs for the landscape. Ranching and mining quickly spread throughout the region. The unintended and often adverse ramifications of these land use changes are still being felt today.

Indigenous peoples bore the most catastrophic consequence of colonization — a pandemic of Old World diseases, such as small pox, decimated populations and in some instances, completely wiped out local tribal groups. Not only were Australia’s amazing natural areas drastically altered, the landscapes simultaneously lost their caretakers.

Today, heavy pressure from ranching and poor land management on some of Northern Australia’s most significant conservation areas continues:

  • Cattle are too great in numbers in many areas and are often left on fields too long — stripping grasses to the root and causing erosion. Large herds churn up and spoil delicate rivers and wetlands.
  • Invasive species are crowding out native plants and animals. Feral animals are gobbling up defenseless native species, contributing to the worst rate of mammal extinction in the world. Birds and small marsupials are particularly vulnerable to invasive species like foxes.
  • Mining operations are bringing roads and other infrastructure that destroys or fragments habitat.
  • Agriculture that is heavily dependent on irrigation is expanding and drought-stricken areas in the south are looking northward for water.
  • Fire suppression is enabling woody species to move into grasslands and causing vegetation to accumulate to dangerous levels. Australia is a country that burns, and when fires inevitably come, they are now larger, more intense and more destructive.
  • Climate change is driving up temperatures and worsening a catastrophic drought that has gripped Australia for close to a decade — the worst in living memory. The burden on finite water resources is rapidly approaching a breaking point.

To solve these urgent problems, the Conservancy is sharing resources and expertise with Australian partners, such as the Australia Wildlife Conservancy and the Bush Heritage Foundation. By finding the best ways to bolster the work of local partners, we can get maximum conservation results from limited resources — and ensure that we tackle the right issues, the right way.

The Power of Partnerships

While conservation science is well established in Australia, the enormous size of the country, the diversity of its landscapes and the relatively small population means that applying that science to on-the-ground solutions can be challenging. The Conservancy is helping partners bridge that gap.

We are providing guidance on how to minimize herd damage to fragile wetlands, and how to design grazing rotations that will help keep invasive plant species at bay, while protecting native grasses.

We are also helping local conservation partners acquire high priority private lands from willing sellers. We are sharing expertise on combating invasive species, and implementing science-guided fire programs that align with indigenous land use practices.

Along with partners, including PEW Charitable Trusts, we are providing funding and land management expertise to the Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) program, an initiative by the Australian government to help indigenous peoples effectively conserve their land. With 25 IPAs covering more than 20 million hectares, supporting this initiative enables the Conservancy to affect conservation on a massive scale.

For millennia, Northern Australia was home to about 100 distinct tribal language groups. Torres Strait Islanders and Aboriginal populations fished, hunted wildlife, and harvested wild plants — a diet which required an extensive knowledge of plants, animals, the land and seasonal changes.
Though some of this knowledge has been lost, today in Australia there is a large-scale and growing movement to restore indigenous land rights and enable people to reconnect with their cultural heritage. The Conservancy is proud to be a conservation partner to Indigenous communities in the grasslands and elsewhere in Australia.



Saving a Cultural Landscape

Teaming up to protect over 5 million acres of land in Australia.


Science, Fire and People in Fish River Station

Traditional land management practices in Northern Australia have included burning the landscape to replenish the land and reduce the chance of devastating wildfire.

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