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Publications archive - International Activities and Commitments


Key departmental publications, e.g. annual reports, budget papers and program guidelines are available in our online archive.

Much of the material listed on these archived web pages has been superseded, or served a particular purpose at a particular time. It may contain references to activities or policies that have no current application. Many archived documents may link to web pages that have moved or no longer exist, or may refer to other documents that are no longer available.

Australia's report to the UNCSD - 1995

Implementation of Agenda 21
Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories, 1995
ISBN 0 6444 3152 0

Biological diversity

Chapter 15 of Agenda 21

Australia's biodiversity

The biological diversity of Australia is rich and unique. As a large island continent encompassing a number of biogeographic provinces, Australia has habitats which range from tropical rainforests to alpine heath, spinifex grassland, woodlands and coral reef. Of particular significance is the high percentage of Australian species which occur nowhere else. At the species level, 82 per cent of our mammals (excluding whales), 89 per cent of our reptiles, 70 per cent of our birds, 85 per cent of our southern temperate fish and 85 per cent of our higher plants are endemic. These high levels of endemism are primarily why Australia is considered to be one of the world's megadiverse countries.

Human activity has been changing Australian ecosystems for approximately 50 000 years, but the pace and extent of change have increased since European settlement, about 200 years ago. Australia's temperate zones and coastal ecosystems have been extensively altered, many wetlands have been degraded, and most other parts of the country have been modified to some extent by various factors, including introduced plants and animals. The result has been dramatic declines in the distribution and abundance of many species. Nearly 70 per cent of vegetation has been directly affected by agriculture, forestry and pastoralism. The proportion of Australia covered by forest or woodland has been reduced by more than one-third and nearly 90 per cent of temperate woodlands and mallee have been cleared. Research indicates that 50 per cent of rainforest and 43 per cent of open forest cover has been lost. Additional impacts on ecosystems arise from altered frequency and intensity of fire.

The greatest loss of vegetation has occurred in the last 50 years: in that time there has been as much land clearance as there had been in the preceding 150 years. Introduced species compound the effects of habitat fragmentation on native species, causing dramatic declines in distribution or abundance, and in some cases extinction. Twenty mammal, 9 bird and 83 plant species are known to have become extinct since European settlement. A further 57 species of vertebrate animals and 178 species of higher plants are likely to become extinct if present threats are not alleviated.

Australia's approach to biodiversity policy

Biodiversity conservation policy is a matter of high priority for the Australian Government. The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development has the protection of biodiversity and the maintenance of essential ecological processes and life support systems as one of its three core objectives. Recognising biological diversity as a cross-sectoral issue, the Strategy highlights the need for the development and implementation of coordinated strategies, policies and programs for the conservation of biological diversity; strengthening the practical skills and knowledge of land managers; completing strategies for the management of plant and animal pests, and conserving native vegetation, including encouraging off-reserve conservation. The Convention on Biological Diversity has also focused government activity on biodiversity conservation and its fundamental role in ecologically sustainable development. Australia is close to finalising its draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Biological Diversity . The draft Strategy is a major step to enhance cooperation within the Australian community in implementing the provisions of the Convention and ensuring the conservation of biological diversity.

A key means for coordinating Federal, State and Territory policies and activities relevant to biodiversity is the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC). This Council comprises all Government ministers responsible for the environment and conservation. ANZECC maintains links with a number of Ministerial Councils that have a role in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity.

At the Federal level, the Department of the Environment, Sport and Territories has a primary responsibility for formulation of national biodiversity policies. The Department is responsible for overseeing the development of the draft National Strategy, determining approaches to its implementation and meeting Australia's obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity. The Department raises awareness of and supports innovative approaches to biological diversity conservation issues. There are a number of areas within the Department and across the Federal Government which also play important roles in national approaches to biodiversity conservation. Policy coordination is carried out by consultation amongst relevant Government agencies, including through interdepartmental committees.

There are a wide range of legislative instruments at all levels of government that are relevant to biodiversity conservation. At a national level, for example, there is legislation for the protection of endangered species and national parks and wildlife conservation. At State level, legislative mechanisms, planning controls and policy instruments are applied to effectively conserve biodiversity. Federal, State and local governments also have planning schemes that provide a basis for negotiating with land owners to encourage nature conservation. Biodiversity issues, among a range of other issues, are also being considered under an extensive review of Federal impact assessment legislation (see chapter on Integrated Decision-Making ).

Draft national strategy for the conservation of australia's biological diversity

The draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity aims to provide a comprehensive approach to the effective identification, conservation and management of Australia's biological diversity. The Strategy was prepared by ANZECC in consultation with other Ministerial Councils that have a role in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. The draft Strategy recognises that a number of existing government programs contribute to the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity, but that they are only part of the overall approach required to implement the Strategy.

The involvement of all Australians is also vital to the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. For example, the contribution of industry, business, the scientific community and non-government organisations was particularly important to the development of the draft National Strategy. As part of the draft Strategy, a Biological Diversity Advisory Council comprising persons with relevant expertise from these groups will be established to advise government on biological diversity conservation issues, including the ecologically sustainable use of biological resources.

The draft Strategy outlines a number of priority actions to be implemented within established time frames. At a national level, ANZECC, in consultation with other relevant Ministerial Councils will be responsible for coordinating the implementation of the draft Strategy including monitoring outcomes and reporting on progress in implementation.

The draft Strategy outlines objectives and actions for six target areas. The remainder of this chapter will provide some examples of the initiatives currently in place to meet the aims of each area.

Conserving biological diversity across Australia.

This area focuses on identifying ecosystems and species variation; bioregional planning and management; conservation management; establishing protected areas; improving conservation off reserves; and recognising the contribution of indigenous peoples to the conservation of biological diversity.

A key element of the draft Strategy is the management biological diversity on a regional basis and it contains a number of actions to achieve this. This type of planning and management will facilitate the integration of conservation and production oriented activities and take biodiversity conservation approaches beyond the limited confines of reactive measures dealing with specific problems. The actions aim to address one of the key contributors to the erosion of our biodiversity - incremental loss as a result of resource use decisions made without awareness or adequate concern for the larger picture - the distribution of biodiversity and natural boundaries at the regional scale. These measures are intended to achieve the integration of biodiversity conservation into planning mechanisms at all levels, from property management and community activities to local, State and Commonwealth government processes.

The draft Strategy also recognises the importance of developing and improving integrated management techniques, extending across protected and other areas. Emphasis will be given to research into practical, cost-effective methods for the conservation of natural habitat, including remnants and corridors, and techniques for management at catchment and regional levels.

Central to the conservation of Australia's biodiversity is the establishment of a comprehensive, representative and adequate system of ecologically viable protected areas integrated with the sympathetic management of all other areas, including agricultural and resource production systems.

The establishment of protected areas has long been a focus of government activity in the sphere of conservation. The importance of these areas is reflected in actions outlined in the National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development, draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Biological Diversity and the Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment. Currently, protected areas cover about 6.4% of Australia's land area and 4.5% of the Australian marine zone. There are 3 225 terrestrial and more than 300 marine protected areas included in 33 terrestrial and 12 marine categories. Australia has 11 World Heritage Areas, 12 Biosphere Reserves and 40 Wetlands of International Importance under the Ramsar Convention. All categories of protected area, including multiple-use categories, are significant for biological diversity conservation. Those that have nature conservation as their primary goal are particularly important. However a number of gaps exist in the system, for example arid, semi-arid, grassland, wetland and many marine areas are poorly represented.

Recently, Federal, State and Territory agencies have been using ecological principles to plan the establishment of a more representative system of terrestrial reserves. The Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage, for example, is undertaking the task of achieving the maximum representation of biological diversity within the context of the State Government's commitment to doubling the protected area system of Queensland. In Tasmania where 25 per cent of the State has secure reserved status, an additional reserve system is being established to preserve a minimum of 5 per cent of eucalypt forest types and 30 per cent of rainforest.

To achieve the Federal Government's objective of having a national representative system of protected areas by the year 2000, the National Reserves System Cooperative Program (NRSCP) has been established. The program includes development and refinement of methodologies for identification of protected areas, incentives for State and Territory cooperation and development of nationally consistent management principles for protected areas.

Australia's biological diversity and the threats to it extend across tenure and administrative boundaries. At present more that two thirds of Australia (some 500 million hectares) are managed by private landholders, while about 40 million hectares are within the terrestrial reserve system. The conservation of biological diversity is best achieved in situ and requires integrated and consistent approaches across freehold and leasehold lands. The Government recognises that not all habitats are protected in national parks and other reserves and that those that are not still play a critical role in ensuring the future of many species of plants and animals unique to Australia and the protection of ecological processes. The Endangered Species Program and the National Landcare Program , amongst others, contribute to the off reserve management and rehabilitation of biological diversity.

A number of States have enacted legislation for the protection of endangered species, and in some cases, wilderness. Some States have also recently reviewed their vegetation clearance controls to include criteria relating to biodiversity significance. Land use controls exist which specifically protect components of biological diversity. In NSW, for example, these include controls on development in urban bush land, coastal wetlands and littoral forests. Regional and local government planning schemes exist in some States to ensure that land adjacent to protected areas is managed in a manner sympathetic to the conservation needs of the protected areas. A number of schemes exist which provide a basis for negotiating with land owners to encourage nature conservation on land outside public protected areas. For example, Brisbane City Council, Queensland, provides financial incentives such as a reduction in Local Government Levies where a landholder has set aside land for environmental purposes.

Examples of ex-situ measures include botanic gardens, seed/gene banks such as the network of plant genetic resource centres and the Australian Tree Seed Centre, aquaria, zoos, and microbial collections such as the CSIRO (Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation) Culture Collection of Microalgae. Networks such as the Australian Network for Plant Conservation and the Australian Species Management Scheme have been established to coordinate ex-situ conservation activities for threatened native plant and animal species, respectively.

Some ex situ conservation activities extend to captive breeding and reintroduction programs. Following a marked population decline and range contraction, the migratory Orange-bellied Parrot (Neophema chrysogaster) was targeted for such a program. They are bred in Tasmania and released into the wild in early summer. Some have been known to have returned to their mainland habitat on the east coast of Australia, stretching from South Gippsland in Victoria to the mouth of the Murray River in South Australia. Botanic gardens have also had a role in plant reintroduction activities.

Integrating biological diversity conservation and natural resource management

This area focuses on the development of national integrated policies for the ecologically sustainable use of biological resources. It seeks to achieve the conservation of biological diversity through the development and/or implementation of ecologically sustainable management practices in the agricultural and pastoral, fisheries, forestry, water resources, tourism and recreation sectors, in utilisation of wildlife, and through appropriate access to Australia's genetic resources.

The National Forest Policy Statement (NFPS) provides a framework for governments to take action to implement ecologically sustainable management of forestry in Australia. The Statement is a primary means by which the objectives of the draft National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity will be accomplished in forest habitats. Under the NFPS, a national working group has been developing criteria for a comprehensive, adequate and representative forest reserve system which will contribute to the broader NRSCP.

The Federal Government is currently working in cooperation with State and Territory Governments, traditional owners, industry, the farming community and conservation groups to develop a proposed National Strategy for Rangeland Management (NSRM). This draft Strategy will provide a framework for cooperative land use policy and planning. It will address vegetation management, including establishment and retention (see chapter on Desertification and Drought ).

New initiatives have been taken to enhance our knowledge of the role of biological diversity in sustainable rural production as well as the reverse. Extensive and intensive research programs have been established in universities, State Government agencies and CSIRO. This development of our knowledge base will be an essential component of off reserve management systems which are designed to achieve effective biodiversity conservation within sustainable and productive rural agricultural areas.

A working group comprising representatives from Federal and State Governments is currently considering a national approach to access to Australia's genetic resources.

Managing threatening processes

This area identifies the major categories of processes and activities which have significant adverse impacts on biological diversity and the need for better understanding, regulating and/or managing the process. It includes the following categories: the clearing of native vegetation, alien species and genetically modified organisms, pollution, fire, and climate change.

The Feral Pests Program (FPP) aims to reduce the impact of feral animal pests on native species and the natural environment, particularly in areas important for the recovery of endangered species. Currently priority is being given to projects which aim to control foxes, cats, rabbits and goats, although threats posed by other feral species are also being addressed. Educational activities to promote awareness of the impact of feral animals are also funded. The FPP complements the Vertebrate Pest Program (VPP) which has more of an emphasis on reducing agricultural damage but will also contribute substantially to biodiversity conservation.

A number of national strategies are currently being formulated including one for the management of weeds. A Cooperative Research Centre for Biological Control of Vertebrate Pest Populations also aims to reduce the size of rabbit and fox populations.

Improving our knowledge and understanding of biodiversity and its conservation

Full and effective implementation of many of the actions identified in the Strategy require considerable improvement in our knowledge and understanding of Australia's biodiversity in terrestrial, marine and aquatic environments. The Strategy recognises that major research initiatives are required in the areas of compilation and assessment of existing knowledge, conservation biology, achieving ecologically sustainable use in a range of sectors, rapid assessment and inventory, long-term monitoring and ethnobiology. A number of projects are already underway to help fill these gaps, including pilot testing of rapid biodiversity assessment techniques. In 1991, there were 9 400 life scientists and 2 052 other natural scientists employed in Australia. Descriptions of some of the major organisations, agencies and programs involved in research and documentation of biological diversity follow.

The Australian Biological Resources Study (ABRS) is a national government program to stimulate and guide studies in the taxonomy and distribution of Australia's flora and fauna. It does this by supporting the systematic biological community in Australia through a grant scheme for research and scientific writing and the production of scientific books and databases on the systematics, taxonomy and distribution of the Australian biota. These publications include the Flora of Australia, the Fauna of Australia and the Zoological Catalogue of Australia. To date, 16 volumes have been published on flora, two on fauna and 12 in the zoological catalogue series. These cover 25 per cent of Australia's vascular flora and 8 per cent of fauna.

The CSIRO has established a Multi Divisional Research Program aimed at providing management options to help make the draft National Strategy operational. There are, for instance, a number of newly established Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) concerned with management of tropical rain forests and with sustainable forestry.

In each State or Territory, there are government herbaria and museums, ranging in size from 100 000 to 10 000 000 specimens. In addition to these, there are a number of smaller regional, teaching or specialist collections associated with universities, and other public institutions.

With such a small number of collections with relatively well defined areas of geographic interest, it has been possible to establish and maintain a national environment of collaboration and cooperation in the management of biodiversity data. This is especially so with the herbaria which have set up a Council of heads of institutions that meets regularly. The result is an administratively functional network of Australian herbaria, coordinating programs of botanical activity, research, information exchange and specimen management. The museums have recently set up a similar Council for heads of fauna collections in the country. Linking of herbarium collections is achieved through the Integrated Botanical Information System (IBIS), the Australian National Botanic Gardens (ANBG) computer data base which also links the collections to an extensive photographic collection. In conjunction with ERIN (Environmental Resources Information Network) , the ANBG undertakes to catalogue the biodiversity of Australian plants by maintaining as an integral part of IBIS the Census of Australian Plants and the Australian Plant Name Index and making this information available to researchers.

The National Wilderness Inventory project has now almost completed the continental mapping of wilderness quality. The GIS (Geographic Information Systems) database which this has established allows the identification of wilderness areas, but by providing an indicator of land condition can also assist in a range of other management applications, including strategic level planning of reserve systems.

Data from these programs is stored in a variety of forms. Most agencies have recently set up and are running GIS programs for integrating and analysing the data. Many of the institutions involved in survey activities are making their data available mainly in the form of published papers and reports, although increasingly, through the resources of ERIN. ERIN coordinates the collation of biodiversity and other environmental data eg, information on endangered and vulnerable plant and animal species, important landcover taxa and other priority plant and animal species. In addition, the newly established national State of the Environment (SoE) reporting system includes biodiversity indicators. (For more information on reporting mechanisms, see chapter on Information .)

Promoting community involvement

Support for increased community involvement in biodiversity conservation activities and for the incorporation of biodiversity into educational programs is a major objective of the National Biodiversity Strategy. Media organisations, government agencies, educational institutions, scientific establishments and conservation groups have all been active in recent years in promoting the conservation of biological diversity. Increased community interest in the topic has resulted in greater coverage in media and educational programs.

Individuals and community groups have an increasingly important role in conserving biological diversity through activities such as tree planting, weed eradication, habitat restoration, surveying and monitoring. The Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union is the largest scientific society concerned with wildlife in Australia. It works to identify gaps in our knowledge about birds and their habitats and then advises government agencies or conducts its own scientific studies, analyses the data and publishes the results so that the most effective conservation action can be taken. Approximately 2200 Landcare community based groups now exist Australia wide, which are directly involved with practical conservation activities as well as promoting information on ecologically sustainable property management in the rural sector (see chapter on Land Resources ). Another community-based program is NatureSearch 2001 which surveys bush lands, parks, backyards, beaches, bays, rivers and farmlands of south-eastern Queensland for plants and animals.

The importance of the knowledge and participation of Aboriginal peoples and Torres Strait Islanders is increasingly being acknowledged with cooperative efforts between the communities and both government and non-government conservation organisations. Significant areas of land under Aboriginal ownership have been set aside as protected areas. Aboriginal involvement is achieved through representation on management bodies, participation in the ranger service and through the contracting of work. Aboriginal people are now involved in the joint management of the Kakadu and Uluru - Kata Tjuta National Park with the Australian Nature Conservation Agency (ANCA). The success of this model has led to similar developments being adopted in State and Territory Government jurisdictions. For instance, The Purnululu National Park in Western Australia has been established so as to have meaningful Aboriginal input into future management of the park, and New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia are taking similar steps. The Northern Territory has joint management arrangements in place in Nitmiluk (Katherine Gorge) and Gurig National Parks.

Identifying Australia's international role

Australia played an active role in the development of the Convention on Biological Diversity, signing it on 5 June 1992 and ratifying on 18 June 1993. Australia is strongly committed to ensuring the early and effective implementation of the Convention and is continuing to play a key role in its implementation, both internationally and regionally. For example, Australian activities in the South Pacific region include co-financing of the South Pacific Biodiversity Conservation Program, a US$10 million Global Environment Facility project. The Program is a five-year endeavour to facilitate identification, establishment and initial management of a series of Conservation Area Projects, which provide for the conservation of biological diversity while allowing communities to continue using their natural environment for their subsistence and economic well-being. The potential exists to significantly strengthen regional partnerships for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity. These are opportunities currently being explored by Australia.

Australia is also supporting a range of biodiversity related activities in South-east Asia through interagency cooperation and the development cooperation program, including bilateral programs, the ASEAN-Australian Economic Cooperation Program and the South- east Asia Regional Plan.

AIDAB has revised the guidelines for the 1994-95 Non-Government Organisations (NGO) Environment Initiative Program, giving priority, inter alia, to NGO projects which target the protection of species habitat and sensitive ecosystems, as well as meeting the objectives of international environment conventions.

Australia is involved in a number of projects with global significance. The Rapid Assessment of Biodiversity Resources project, for instance, will lead to several products that will aid countries (and others) to rapidly appraise areas and determine priorities for the management of biodiversity. It is being carried out by a consortium of Australian agencies - CSIRO, ERIN , the Australian National University Centre for Resources and Environmental Studies and the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority - under funding from the Global Environment Facility and the World Bank.

Case Study

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