Biodiversity conservation research: Australia's priorities

Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council and Biological Diversity Advisory Committee
Commonwealth of Australia, 2001
ISBN 0 6425 4742 4


The need to identify biodiversity research priorities was identified as a priority action in the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biodiversity. Signed by the Commonwealth, States and Territories in 1996, the strategy includes in Objective 7.1.1 the goal that by the Year 2000 Australia will have conducted an analysis of existing scientific knowledge about Australia's biological diversity and identified knowledge gaps and research priorities.

In 1999, the Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council (ANZECC ) Standing Committee on Conservation and the Commonwealth Minister for the Environment and Heritage, Senator the Hon. Robert Hill, recognised that there was no system in place for identifying areas of biodiversity research that have national priority. The Biological Diversity Advisory Council was requested to develop a framework for determining national biodiversity research priorities and to make recommendations to address any significant gaps in priority biodiversity research.

A high level National Biodiversity Research Priorities Strategic Planning Workshop was held on 10 April 2000. This workshop brought together experts (Appendix 1) in a broad range of biodiversity conservation fields including ecology, taxonomy, land and marine area management, research and development, informatics and economics. The States, regional and catchment management authorities, local government, industry and the community were also represented.

The Biological Diversity Advisory Council reported to the Commonwealth Minister in June 2000, drawing on the expert advice received. Based closely on the report, a discussion paper, Biodiversity Research: Australia's Priorities, was circulated for public comment in August and September 2000 to stakeholders including research institutions, industry, non-government conservation organisations and government agencies involved in natural resource management. Responses were received from some 50 organisations and six individuals (Appendix 2).

In mid-2000, the Biological Diversity Advisory Committee was established as a statutory body under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and continued the work of the previous Council. The Committee reviewed the discussion paper, considered the comments received during the public consultation and prepared this report in November 2000.

Endorsed by the ANZECC , this report identifies highest priority and nationally important research needed to underpin the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of Australia's unique biodiversity.


To identify national priorities for research over the next ten years into the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of biological diversity, recognising the framework provided by the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biodiversity (see National Agreements below).

Biodiversity issues

By asking some fundamental questions, we can gain direction when considering the research needed to underpin the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity in Australia.

  • What is Australia's biodiversity?
  • Where does our biodiversity occur?
  • When and why?
  • How does our biodiversity function?
  • What is the value of our biodiversity?
  • What is changing and why?
  • What are the risks and the management options?

The issues that these questions raise recur in documents addressing biodiversity conservation and ecologically sustainable use. Key documents include the:

  • United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity 1992;
  • National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biodiversity 1996;
  • Core Environmental Indicators for Reporting on the State of the Environment 2000 and four volumes in the series Environmental Indicators for National State of the Environment Reporting 1998; and
  • Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.


The last decade has seen a series of major international and national developments in biodiversity conservation as environmental issues have gained political prominence.

International Agreements

In June 1992, the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro adopted the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). This was the first international comprehensive agreement to address all aspects of biological diversity: genetic resources, species and ecosystems. The Convention highlights the need for research to support the integration of conservation measures and ecologically sustainable use.

In the same year, the Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC) and the Food and Agriculture Organization International Plant Protection Convention (IPPC) were adopted. Two years later in 1994, the Convention to Combat Desertification and the World Trade Organization agreement concerning quarantine measures, the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS ), were adopted.

National Agreements

The Intergovernmental Agreement on the Environment was signed on 1 May 1992 by the Commonwealth, States, Territories and Australian Local Government Association. It laid the basis for a cooperative national approach to the environment, a better definition of the roles of the respective governments, greater certainty of government and business decision-making and better environment protection. The parties recognised the need for national cooperation to ensure that research initiatives are coordinated.

The National Strategy for Ecologically Sustainable Development (ESD) was endorsed at the Council of Australian Governments meeting in Perth in December 1992 by all Heads of Government. A core objective is to 'protect biological diversity and maintain essential ecological processes and life-support systems'. The strategy stresses the need to consider in an integrated way the long-term economic, social and environmental implications of our decisions and actions for Australia. Chapter 30 identifies the research challenge to provide the knowledge, techniques and technologies needed to achieve the goals of ESD and recommends that research funding and performing agencies include ESD in their criteria for research and development priority setting. Objective 30.5 highlights the specific need to continue research to develop and implement national integrated policies for biodiversity, including research into natural ecosystems and the development of indicators of ecological sustainability.

The National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biodiversity (National Biodiversity Strategy) built on the Convention on Biological Diversity, the Intergovernmental Agreement and the National ESD Strategy. Agreed to in 1996 by the Commonwealth and all State and Territory Governments, the National Biodiversity Strategy aims at 'the effective identification, conservation and management of Australia's biological diversity'. In Objectives 4.1.2-4.1.5, it calls for research into taxonomy, information and modelling tools, indicators of management performance and aspects of conservation biology including: criteria for the identification and configuration of protected areas, biodiversity rehabilitation techniques, population biology, standards for the use of genetic markers, consequences of changed landscape patterns and other environmental change on biological responses, populations and ecological processes. The strategy is being reviewed in order to develop a set of biodiversity objectives and actions which will provide targeted goals for on-going and practical action over the next 5-10 years.

In 1998, the National Local Government Biodiversity Strategy was endorsed by a unanimous vote at the National General Assembly of Local Government. Natural resource management is a logical extension of land use planning and development control which, in most parts of Australia, is a core function of local government. Two key objectives of the strategy are to encourage biodiversity conservation through catchment and regional planning, and to establish a nationally coordinated information and monitoring system. Research is needed to provide Councils with a description and map of ecosystems in their area, an assessment of the value of the biodiversity, tools to support community decision-making, an evaluation of the outcomes of on-ground action and guidance in adapting management strategies.

In November 2000, Commonwealth, State and Territory Governments and the Australian Local Government Association agreed to implement a National Action Plan for Salinity and Water Quality in Australia. The initiative is expected to help reverse the decline in the health of ecosystems and catchments and to conserve biodiversity in areas affected by dryland salinity. Central to the action plan will be funding for affected regions to implement integrated catchment and regional management plans with specific targets based on a new national framework for natural resource management standards. Initially standards will be developed on salinity, water quality and associated water flows. By the end of 2002, further standards are anticipated including for stream and terrestrial biodiversity. As this report goes to press, an Intergovernmental Agreement to implement the action plan is being progressed.

Commonwealth Legislation

Some areas of research are required by legislation such as the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. This Act focuses Commonwealth interests on matters of national environmental significance, puts in place a streamlined environmental assessment and approvals process, and establishes an integrated regime for biodiversity conservation and the management of protected areas. The Act recognises the responsibility of the States for delivering on-ground natural resource management. Two of the objectives of the Act are 'to promote the conservation of biodiversity' and 'to promote ecologically sustainable development through the conservation and ecologically sustainable use of natural resources'.

Under the Act, where existing information is inadequate research may be needed in order to:

  • identify and monitor species and their habitats, genes, ecosystems and ecological processes;
  • list threatened species and communities, migratory and marine species and to update surveys (sections 171-174);
  • support the recovery of listed threatened species and ecological communities (sections 270-271) and the survival of migratory, marine, cetacean and conservation dependent species (section 287);
  • support the establishment and management of World Heritage properties, Ramsar wetlands, Biosphere reserves, Commonwealth reserves and conservation zones (Part 15);
  • report on changes to the state of the environment (section 516B);
  • identify threatening processes and activities (sections 171, 301A);
  • assess potential environmental impacts and strategies and techniques for conservation and sustainable use (section 171); and
  • provide scientific advice to the Minister (sections 189, 207A, 251, 274, 282, 285-300, 504-505).

National Programs

A series of on-ground programs have made progress in implementing the objectives of the international and national agreements outlined above. A decade of Landcare has transformed the awareness and attitudes of many farmers and other community members to sustainable use of natural resources. More recent targeted programs include Bushcare, Rivercare, Waterwatch Australia, the National Wetlands Program, Coastcare, Fisheries Action, the Endangered Species Program, the National Reserve System Program and Murray-Darling 2001 – all of which are funded under the Natural Heritage Trust. Some programs are industry funded, for example Ocean Watch, or are State Government initiatives, for example the NSW Phosphorous Education Program which addresses the cause of algal blooms. Catchment management authorities across Australia are putting integrated management into practice and taking on the role of educating the public on a wide range of issues including dryland salinity. Many community groups such as Greening Australia are taking effective action to conserve biodiversity. Much of the work done through these programs relies on information derived from the scientific research effort being directed at describing species through the Australian Biological Resources Study. A more coordinated, integrated and targeted approach to national programs is required to meet the increasing threats to biodiversity.

Environment Audit and Reporting

The first comprehensive assessment of Australia's environment was reported in Australia: State of the Environment 1996. In their overall assessment, the State of the Environment Advisory Council reported that the issue of biodiversity loss was probably the most urgent environmental issue in Australia. The next State of the Environment report is due at the end of 2001.

In 1998, environmental indicators which could be used to track the condition of Australia's environment and the impact of human activities were published in Environmental Indicators for National State of the Environment Reporting. The seven volumes addressed biodiversity, the land, inland waters, estuaries and the sea, human settlements, natural and cultural heritage, and the atmosphere. In the volume on biodiversity, potential indicators were evaluated against the objectives and actions of the National Biodiversity Strategy. The authors stressed that for most of the indicators proposed, further research was needed to develop the methodology and determine baseline biodiversity data. The more recent ANZECC publication, Core Environmental Indicators for Reporting on the State of the Environment (March 2000), includes 13 biodiversity indicators. When the core indicators were selected, the methodology for only three of the indicators was fully established.

The National Land and Water Resources Audit report, due in the second half of 2001, will provide a national appraisal of Australia's land, water and vegetation natural resource base. The audit is adding value to pre-existing land and water data by developing a national information system of compatible and readily accessible data. It will provide an interpretation of the economic, environmental and social costs and benefits of changing the use of resources and remedial actions to overcome degradation. The audit will include the extent and condition of Australia's native vegetation cover and how this is changing. Vegetation cover does not necessarily indicate ecosystem complexity or health. Some work to assess biodiversity is expected to be carried out under the audit. Further work will be needed to comprehensively appraise Australia's biodiversity.


The Biological Diversity Advisory Committee wishes to thank:

  • Members of the Biological Diversity Advisory Committee who formed the Biodiversity Research Priorities Working Group:
    • Prof. Hugh Possingham Chair, population biology
    • Dr Nancy Bray Member, marine science
    • Mr Alistair Graham Member, conservation organisations
  • Members of the Biological Diversity Advisory Council and others who formed the National Biodiversity Research Priorities Working Group:
    • Dr Judy West, Member, botany, Working Group Convenor
    • Prof. Roger Kitching, Chair, entomology and ecology
    • Dr Denis Saunders, Member, wildlife and ecology
    • Dr Howard Wildman, Member, microbiology
    • Dr Bob Inns, Department for Environment and Heritage, South Australia
    • Mr Norm McKenzie, Department of Conservation and Land Management, Western Australia
  • Participants at the Strategic Planning Workshop on National Biodiversity Research Priorities held on 10 April 2000 in Canberra and those who were unable to attend but subsequently provided advice and comment on drafts of the report (see Appendix 1).
  • The Centre for Plant Biodiversity Research, Canberra for generously providing the workshop venue and Suzie Dietrich and Louisa Lo for administrative support.
  • Those who prepared the 55 written submissions received in response to the discussion paper, Biodiversity Research: Australia's Priorities (see Appendix 2).

This report and the discussion paper on which it was based were prepared for the Biological Diversity Advisory Council and Committee by Lyndel Sutton.

February 2001