Australia’s Outback: One of Earth’s Last Wild Places Needs Protection

  • March 20, 2017

Since 2008, Pew has been working with Indigenous people, Outback-based businesses, and Australian lawmakers to protect tens of millions of acres of critical wildlife habitat and foster broader appreciation for the region.

In a conversation with Trust, Pew’s Australia director, Barry Traill, a conservationist and zoologist, details those efforts.

Australian Outback

What shocks people most about the Australian Outback?

The scale. The size of it is very hard for many—including a lot of Australians—to grasp. It’s the same size as the United States’ West and Midwest combined. The diversity is difficult to comprehend as well. Sure, it has the famous red rock and sand, which is what many people know about, but it also has rainforests, great green rolling plains, the world’s largest tropical savanna, and a desert country full of plants and wildlife, with thousands of species found nowhere else on Earth.

But human life there is scarce.

True. Most Australians live in cities on the coast in the southeast of the continent—in Brisbane, Sydney, and Melbourne. The Outback has a population not much larger than the city of Tulsa, Oklahoma. Outside Antarctica, Australia has the lowest population density of any continent.

Why focus time and resources on an area where so few people live?

Like the Amazon and Canada’s boreal forests, the Outback is one of the very few wild, natural places remaining on a planet that is very crowded, with more than 7 billion people. The Outback is also one of the largest and most natural of those wild systems. Australians sometimes don’t view it as a distinct and singular region, but it is—and it takes up more than 70 percent of the continent. Here, the land has been cared for by Indigenous Australians for some 50,000 years. In the Outback, people and the land are inextricably connected.

What are the benefits of protecting the Outback?

A well-managed Outback will support a range of industries and put people in jobs, including in land management. But this special place will lose its ecological health if it succumbs to the threats it faces.

What is threatening such a remote place?

European settlers introduced all manner of animals, from feral cats, foxes, and other small mammals to cows, goats, water buffalo, pigs, and camels. These invasive species eat Australian plants, and native animals haven’t adapted to compete well with the newer arrivals. Other threats to the health of the land include invasive noxious weeds and wildfires.

What are some ways to manage invasive animals?

When the feral cats and foxes were introduced, for example, we began to lose small native mammals, wonderful species such as pademelons—they’re very small kangaroos—quolls, and bandicoots. Researchers have found that retaining Australian native dogs—our dingoes—in an area can keep cat and fox populations in check, because dingoes are apex predators. They’re about the size of a lean Labrador but are so fierce that they’ve kept rampaging feral pigs and goats in check, and stopped our native kangaroos from overpopulating.

Dingoes are one way to keep the Australian landscape healthy.

Humane baiting and trapping programs, run by Indigenous Rangers and other land managers throughout the Outback, also help control invasive pests.

Australian Outback

Tufts of spinifex and a native grasstree glow at sunset in South Australia's Flinders Ranges, terrain that epitomizes the Australian Outback. (Dan Proud)

How are Outback residents dealing with invasive plants?

Invasive plants are a huge problem. Some can take over and destroy an ecosystem. West African gamba grass, for example, grows 10 to 13 feet (3 to 4 meters) tall. Where it is uncontrolled, it overwhelms our diverse northern savannas of eucalypts and native grasses, turning those areas into monocultures of gamba grass. But if a ranger is there, he or she can recognize it and kill it.

And the wildfires?

Australia is very fire-prone because parts of it are so dry. Just as in California, people need to be proactive. Here, Aboriginal people have managed fires in different ways for many thousands of years.

However, in large areas of the Outback where no resident managers live, large, fierce, uncontrolled wildfires are a major threat to nature. Much of our work involves getting a foundation of support for Indigenous Rangers to get back on their land so they can actively manage fire. This is often done by lighting smaller, less intense flames in the cooler or wetter seasons, which thins out the available fuel and helps slow and stop the big fires. Controlled burns can also create a mosaic of areas of bush that are different ages, which helps support a variety of plant and animal habitats, and more of them.

How does Pew protect the land and support the Indigenous people who live there?

We have helped advocate for consistent federal and state government funding to support the creation of Indigenous Protected Areas and to pay the Indigenous Rangers who will manage them. These areas are created through an agreement between Aboriginal landholders and the Australian government and have been a great success story of conservation here.

Now, 63 Indigenous Protected Areas cover more than 150 million acres of the continent, an area larger than the state of California. In addition, nearly 800 Indigenous Rangers use a combination of traditional cultural knowledge and science-based techniques to manage these lands, which have been in their families for more than 50,000 years. Other countries, including Canada, are beginning to emulate this program.

But while we need these new protected areas, we also need to create a vibrant economy in the Outback to support people who can manage the threats. One of the fundamental challenges is maintaining communities both socially and economically.

How is land that’s being used for grazing faring?

Separate from the land that is fully Indigenous-owned, about 40 percent of Australian land is under lease, similar to the way the Bureau of Land Management operates in the American West. Some of these areas are no longer commercially viable for ranching sheep, goats, and cattle, but there are restrictions on what alternative enterprises are possible. We need to encourage new enterprises that will bring dollars, jobs, stronger communities, and better land management back into many districts.

Do Australians who don’t live in the Outback visit the area?

Generally, yes, at some point in their lifetime. It’s part of the ethos of Australia to travel around the country.

Is there enough infrastructure to support a vibrant tourism industry in the Outback?

There is a thin web of settlements and roads across the Outback. And the more popular tourism destinations like Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, and Kakadu have extensive and modern tourism facilities. We are also very lucky to have services similar to those in a modern state but modified for remote living, like a flying doctor service available for emergency ambulance calls.

Does the ranger program have longevity?

Those who grew up in the bush developed extraordinarily detailed knowledge of the land and have an especially acute eye for wildlife and the landscape. This is hard-won knowledge earned by making a living, every day, in often harsh country. Part of the job of the ranger programs is to pass this knowledge on to the younger rangers who have grown up in modern Australia and spent much of their lives at school or in small towns.

The people of the Outback are part of the solution to protect it, then.

Yes, and the development and support of our Indigenous Ranger program has been an outstanding success. These rangers are living in protected areas doing work that looks after the environment—something that benefits all Australians and helps sustain communities in the long run. These are hard jobs in often very remote places, but for them—it’s home.