Protected areas

Protected areas are defined as’ places of safety for species and ecosystems’. (Caughley and Gunn, 1996) national parks, other conservation estate such as reserves, covenanted private land and sanctuaries fall into this category. Sanctuaries provide the highest levels of protection due to control of exotic pests either through conservation fencing or intensive management.
Biodiversity needs to be separated from threatening factors (Hayward, 2009) and conservation fences can ameliorate most key threatening processes identified on the IUCN Red List (Hayward and Kerley, 2009) which would make them a key feature for reintroductions of threatened wildlife species.

Close to 13% of Australia’s terrestrial vertebrate species are listed as threatened under the EPBC Act 1999 (Kingsford et al, 2009) even though protected areas cover more than 19 % of the continent. (Taylor, 2017) Terrestrial protected areas  increased between 2010 and 2016 from 13.5% to 19.1% of Australia’s land area but the more strictly protected areas (e.g. national parks) still remain at 7.7% of national land area. (Taylor, 2017)

The existing reserve network obviously fails to provide adequate protection (Watson et al, 2011).

The Australian states and territories operate their separate systems of terrestrial protected areas with their own legislation but in 1994 the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) classification and system of management categories was adopted. (Craigie et al, 2015)

Not all protected areas are managed with the primary purpose of nature conservation in mind and restrict human activities.
Threats to the protected area system are also currently increasing with strong government pressure to allow extractive industries, such as mining, logging and grazing, and damaging recreational uses such as hunting on land that is currently protected. (Ritchie et al, 2013)
In WA conservation reserves have been used for timber harvesting, agriculture, and mining. (Rundle, 1996, Pouliquen-Young, 1997) Only national parks seem to be safe from mineral exploration.

However, national parks were usually placed in areas with little commercial value and under little threat from clearing anyway.
They are nevertheless of utmost importance as biodiversity refuges. Strangely only 6 of our more than 500 National Parks actually deserve the name as they are managed by the Commonwealth Government and not just by state or territory governments. (Ritchie et al, 2013)

Australia is a signatory to the Convention on Biological Diversity, which is an international, legally binding treaty and puts Australia under pressure to achieve a number of conservation targets. (Craigie et al, 2015) However, measuring the effectiveness of protected areas in conserving biodiversity is difficult. At least the abundance of key species should be stable if not increasing, but  performance has so far not been well researched and the all-important long-term systematic population monitoring is so lacking that steep population declines often stay undetected (e. g. Leschenault Peninsula, Karakamia Sanctuary).  

After investigating 3 important areas including one in Western Australia (Upper Warren Region) newly published research has concluded that conservation reserves may not be able to protect some of the biodiversity they were established to protect. If even reserves with some management interventions and threat abatement fail, it can be concluded that unprotected areas show even sharper declines. (Wayne et al, 2017)

Western Australia still seems to perform comparably well in protection of biodiversity as it contributes the highest percentage of all states/territories to the Australian National Reserve System (33.9%). Closer scrutiny however disappoints as 5.2% of those protected areas are in remote regions and 92.1% in very remote regions and only 2.6% are regional. (Craigie et al, 2015)

Ecosystems with a significant commercial value – such as our foreshore areas – are the most threatened by human needs/wants and therefore with the highest need of protection, but they are of course the least protected. 

The highest numbers of western ringtail possums can be found in completely unprotected areas and this trend is worsening.

On the bright side, conservation covenants on private lands seem to be increasing in the South West of WA.
As about 60% of Australia’s land is privately owned, extension of the National Reserve System would be difficult or very costly. Protection of private land through conservation covenants can overcome the shortfall.
The potential to subdivide and sell a part of the property seems by far the most important financial and legislative incentives through state based covenant programs. Management support for fencing or weeding is at best an added bonus.
Use of the covenanted land is quite limited and in particular clearing/pruning is heavily restricted. However predator control on those properties is only advised, not compulsory. As predation seems to be the most serious threat to wildlife, the covenant might not lead to the protection of the species that are present if external threats and in particular predation are not actively managed and monitored. (Laurance et al, 2012)

Protection of private land could increase coverage of currently under-represented regional ecosystems and species but every ‘oasis’ would still be surrounded by areas without protection, which could limit benefits particularly if predator incursion is large. Small ‘islands’ in an unprotected landscape will not save our declining wildlife.

The focus on economic growth instead of on conservation in general and on protection of wildlife habitat in particular might not only lead to more extinctions but also to a loss of the broad social benefits associated with the preservation of wildlife and their habitats.

After a boost in Australian Government funding under Caring for Our Country 2008–2013, the National Reserve System grants program was terminated in 2012-13 even though performance audits identified a need for a seven-fold increase in funding for the National Reserve System to provide adequate services. (Taylor et al, 2011)
The latest WWF Report (Taylor, 2017) concludes that restoring $170 million per year in funding to the National Reserve System Program would make it possible to fulfil obligations.

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