Tag Archives: savanna

The Conversation: EcoCheck – Australia’s vast, majestic northern savannas need more care

Storm season in the Australian tropical savanna.

Storm season in the Australian tropical savanna.

By Euan Ritchie (Deakin University) and Brett Murphy (Charles Darwin University).

Australia’s Top End, Kimberley and Cape York Peninsula evoke images of vast, awe-inspiring and ancient landscapes. Whether on the hunt for a prized barramundi, admiring some of the oldest rock art in the world, or pursuing a spectacular palm cockatoo along a pristine river, hundreds of thousands of people flock to this region each year. But how are our vast northern landscapes faring environmentally, and what challenges are on the horizon?

Above 17° south, bounded by a rough line from Cairns, Queensland, to Derby, Western Australia, are the high-rainfall (more than 1,000 mm a year) tropical savannas. These are the largest and most intact ecosystem of their kind on Earth. With the exception of some “smaller” pockets of rainforest (such as Queensland’s Kutini-Payamu (Iron Range) National Park), the vegetation of the region is dominated by mixed Eucalyptus forest and woodland with a grassy understorey.

There is a distinct monsoonal pattern of rainfall. Almost all of it falls during the wet season (December-March), followed by an extended dry (April-November). Wet-season rains drive abundant grass growth, which subsequently dries and fuels regular bushfires – making these landscapes among the most fire-prone on Earth. The dominant land tenures of the region are Indigenous, cattle grazing and conservation.

These savannas are home to a vast array of plant and animal species. The Kimberley supports at least 2,000 native plant species, while the Cape York Peninsula has some 3,000. More than 400 bird and 100 mammal species call the region home, along with invertebrates such as moths, butterflies, ants and termites, and spiders. Many of the latter are still undescribed and poorly studied.

Many species, such as the scaly-tailed possum, are endemic to the region, meaning they are found nowhere else.

The general lack of extensive habitat loss and modification, as compared to the broad-scale land clearing in southern Australia since European arrival, can give a false impression that the tropical savannas and their species are in good health. But research suggests otherwise, and considerable threats exist.

Fire-promoting weeds such as gamba grass, widely sown until very recently as fodder for cattle, are transforming habitats from diverse woodlands to burnt-out, low-diversity grasslands. Indeed, the fires themselves, which are considered too frequent and too late in the dry season at some locations, are now thought to be a primary driver of species loss.

Notable examples of wildlife in trouble include declines of many seed-eating birds, such as the spectacular Gouldian finch, and the catastrophic decline of native mammal species, most prominently in Australia’s largest national park, Kakadu.

It is likely some threats may also combine to make matters worse for certain species. For instance, frequent fires, intensive cattle grazing and the overabundance of introduced species such as feral donkeys and horses all combine to remove vegetation cover. This, together with the presence of feral cats, makes some native animals more vulnerable to predation.

New threats

This globally significant ecosystem, already under threat, is facing new challenges too. Proposals to use the region as a food bowl for Asia are associated with calls for the damming of waterways and land clearing for agriculture.

This is against a backdrop of climate change, which among other effects may bring less predictable wet seasons, more frequent and intense storms (cyclones) and fires, and hotter, longer dry seasons. Such changes are not only likely to harm some species, but could also make those much-touted agricultural goals far more difficult to achieve.

Great opportunities do exist in northern Australia, including carbon farming and expanded tourism enterprises. In some cases this might require difficult transitions, as already seen in parts of Cape York Peninsula, where often economically unviable cattle stations have become joint Indigenous and conservation-managed lands.

A key priority for the Great Northern Savannas should be to maintain people on country. It’s often thought that the solution to reducing environmental impacts is removing people from landscapes, but as people disappear so too does their stewardship and ability to manage and care for the land.

Importantly, and finally, we must also learn the historical lessons from southern Australia if we are to avoid making similar mistakes all over again, jeopardising the unique and precious values of the north.

The Conversation’s EcoCheck series takes the pulse of some of Australia’s most important ecosystems to find out if they’re in good health or on the wane.

Are you a researcher who studies an iconic Australian ecosystem and would like to give it an EcoCheck? Get in touch.The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article, including reader comments.

The Conversation
The Conversation

Stemming the tide: progress towards resolving the causes of decline and implementing management responses for the disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia

Authors: Mark R Ziembicki, John C Z Woinarski, Jonathan K Webb, Eric Vanderduys, Katherine Tuft, James Smith, Euan G Ritchie, Terry B Reardon, Ian J Radford, Noel Preece, Justin Perry, Brett P Murphy, Hugh McGregor, Sarah Legge, Lily Leahy, Michael J Lawes, John Kanowski, Chris N Johnson, Alex James, Anthony D Griffiths, Graeme Gillespie, Anke S K Frank, Alaric Fisher and Andrew A Burbidge.

Abstract

Recent studies at some sites in northern Australia have reported severe and rapid decline of some native mammal species, notwithstanding an environmental context (small human population size, limited habitat loss, substantial reservation extent) that should provide relative conservation security.

All of the more speciose taxonomic groups of mammals in northern Australia have some species for which the conservation status has been assessed as threatened, with 53% of dasyurid, 46% of macropod and potoroid, 33% of bandicoot and bilby, 33% of possum, 31% of rodent, and 24% of bat species being assessed as extinct, threatened or near-threatened.

This paper reviews disparate recent and ongoing studies that provide information on population trends across a broader geographic scope than the previously reported sites, and provides some information on the conservation status and trends for mammal groups (bats, larger macropods) not well sampled in previous monitoring studies. It describes some diverse approaches of studies seeking to document conservation status and trends, and of the factors that may be contributing to observed patterns of decline.

The studies reported provide some compelling evidence that predation by feral cats is implicated in the observed decline, with those impacts likely to be exacerbated by prevailing fire regimes (frequent, extensive and intense fire), by reduction in ground vegetation cover due to livestock and, in some areas, by ‘control’ of dingoes. However the impacts of dingoes may be complex, and are not yet well resolved in this area.

The relative impacts of these individual factors vary spatially (with most severe impacts in lower rainfall and less topographically rugged areas) and between different mammal species, with some species responding idiosyncratically: the most notable example is the rapid decline of the northern quoll Dasyurus hallucatus due to poisoning by the introduced cane toad Rhinella marina, which continues to spread extensively across northern Australia. The impact of disease, if any, remains unresolved.

Recovery of the native mammal fauna may be impossible in some areas. However, there are now examples of rapid recovery following threat management. Priority conservation actions include: enhanced biosecurity for important islands, establishment of a network of substantial predator exclosures, intensive fire management (aimed at increasing the extent of longer-unburnt habitat and in delivering fine scale patch burning), reduction in feral stock in conservation reserves, and acquisition for conservation purposes of some pastoral lands in areas that are significant for mammal conservation.

Ziembicki MR, Woinarski JCZ, Webb JK, Vanderduys E, Tuft K, Smith J, Ritchie EG, Reardon TB, Radford IJ, Preece N, Perry JP, Murphy BP, McGregor H, Legge S, Leahy L, Lawes MJ, Kanowski J, Johnson CN, James A, Griffiths AD, Gillespie G, Frank ASK, Fisher A, Burbidge AA (2015) Stemming the tide: progress towards resolving the causes of decline and implementing management responses for the disappearing mammal fauna of northern Australia, Therya 2015 6(1) 169-225 PDF DOI