Conservation Needs Re-Focusing on Our Backyards

Article excerpt

Conservation planning efforts apparently need radically re-directing to urban regions if the majority of Australia's native animals are to be protected for the longer term. According to Dr Gary Luck, an ecologist from Charles Sturt University, while many of our largest and best-known national parks encompass 'wilderness areas' such as deserts and alpine regions, which help protect a proportion of our unique wildlife, most native animals reside on Australia's east coast--in direct conflict with 80% of the country's human population.

'Animals aren't distributed evenly across the landscape,' Luck says.

'For example, deserts have relatively few animal species, while tropical rainforests are abundant in wildlife. What is crucial for conservation management in Australia is the issue that where we find lots of species, we also find lots of people; and in Australia, that's the east coast.'

Studies around the world have demonstrated a correlation between species richness and human population density. Recently, Luck conducted a similar study in Australia and North America, in collaboration with US-based researchers Dr Taylor Ricketts of the World Wildlife Fund, Dr Gretchen Daily of Stanford University and Marc Imhoff of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

The study compared the distribution of species richness for birds, mammals, amphibians, butterflies and reptiles, with human population density, and found a positive correlation for them all, except reptiles.

'Most reptiles live in sparsely populated desert regions, but all other taxa are strongly correlated with human settlements in both countries,' Luck says.

This correlation arises because both people and animals are attracted to the most productive landscapes. Luck says early settlers were probably initially drawn to sites with fertile soil and easy access to water, later spreading outwards from these hubs. So what does this mean for conservation?

Current and future issues

According to Luck, the challenge now is to manage the impacts that current and future settlements have in the regions supporting our most productive ecosystems.

In terms of our current settlement patterns, it could be argued that it is too late for conservation. Skyrocketing land prices in high-density areas have made conservation an expensive exercise. And even if land were secured close to human communities, conservation efforts could be affected by pollution, recreation, firewood collection, and domestic animals, among other influences.

However, Luck's research has shown that limited conservation goals could be met.

'We could conserve a representative sample of almost all species, while avoiding areas of high human population density, because many species occur in sites of low as well as high density,' he says.

'But conserving a single representative sample of each species is a poor substitute for the protection of ecosystem processes, viable species populations and other elements of biodiversity. …