Southern Tanami: A Colossal Accomplishment for Conservation and Culture

Declaration in the Desert

Southern Tanami's Traditional Owners celebrate a major milestone as they announce Australia's largest protected area on land.

10.15 million hectares. 

That’s a huge area of land, equivalent to nearly 40,000 square miles. It’s 1.3 times bigger than Tasmania; it’s roughly half the size of Colorado.

It also happens to be the size of Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), Australia’s newest—and largest—land reserve.

In July 2012, The Nature Conservancy helped announce the launch of the IPA alongside the Central Land Council and government representatives from Australia’s National Reserve System and the Central Land Council. The Conservancy will support the Traditional Owners—mostly Warlpiri speakers—who will continue to live on their country and oversee day-to-day operations of Southern Tanami IPA.

“We’re incredibly proud to be involved with the Southern Tanami IPA declaration,” Dr Michael Looker, director of the Conservancy in Australia, says. “It’s an honor to support Traditional Owners across the Tanami as they seek to manage Warlpiri country, and we’re excited to work with them to care for their country in ways that protect its cultural and natural heritage.”

The People’s Choice

The decision to declare this expanse of the Tanami desert as an IPA ultimately comes from the Warlpiri people. The land’s Traditional Owners have managed it sustainably for thousands of years, and, working alongside Indigenous Warlpiri Rangers, they will continue to care for their country as custodians of the IPA.

It’s an area of immense conservation significance. Over 70 types of birds call this area of the Tanami desert home; so do roughly 100 reptile species, as well as threatened, uniquely Australian species such as the bilby, great desert skink and princess parrot.

But European settlement disrupted the region’s ecological balance.

“In the past our old people looked after country and kept it strong,” Madeleine Napangardi Dixon, senior Warlpiri ranger, says. “Now there are new problems coming in, like weeds, feral animals and big wildfires.”

Lending a Hand

Fighting those threats will require both Indigenous knowledge and conservation science, which is why the Conservancy will support Central Land Council Warlpiri rangers to manage the reserve. The Conservancy is contributing $500k toward the management of Southern Tanami IPA, including paying the salaries of some of the Warlpiri rangers who’ll be looking after the reserve, and we’ll offer ongoing advice on the IPA’s management through sitting on its advisory committee.

On the ground, we’ll help guide fire management activities facilitated by the Central Land Council's Fire Officer that forestall dangerous late-season wildfires through prescribed on-ground and aerial burns and also potentially create financial benefits for Indigenous communities under Australia’s new carbon trading guidelines. The Conservancy will also assist with limiting feral species and tracking threatened wildlife, including species such as the mulgara—a small, carnivorous marsupial.

The Conservancy’s support for Southern Tanami IPA is an extension of its long-standing commitment to the IPA concept, which is a robust model for both furthering the rights and livelihood opportunities of Traditional Owners and protecting ecologically important lands. In 2009, we helped establish the Warddeken and Djelk IPAs in Arnhem Land, and Dr Looker sits on the IPA subcommittee of the National Reserve System’s Indigenous Advisory Committee.

Linking Up

Southern Tanami IPA will protect important pieces of the Northern Territory’s natural legacy. Included in the reserve are much of Lake Mackay—Australia’s second-largest lake—and an enormous swath of the Tanami Desert. The IPA will link a variety of habitats that includes deserts and savannas, giving plant and animal species the space they need to maneuver around threats like wildfires and climate change.

The IPA will also link existing reserves. Southern Tanami IPA is a crucial piece of the Trans-Australia Eco-Link, an ambitious project seeking to create a 3,500-kilometre (or 2,170-mile) corridor of land managed for conservation. When completed, the Eco-Link will stretch from Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory to Port Augusta in South Australia, making it the largest conservation corridor initiative in the world.

“That Southern Tanami IPA fills in another piece of what’s becoming a continent-spanning conservation corridor just adds to its significance,” Looker says. “This new protected area is immensely important—for Australia, for its wildlife and for its people.”


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