Review of the National Strategy for the Conservation of Australia's Biological Diversity

Australian and New Zealand Environment and Conservation Council
Environment Australia, 2001
ISBN 0 6425 4734 3

Chapter 4: Improving our knowledge

Significant advances have been made over the last few years in knowledge of biodiversity but there is still a long way to go. It is estimated that more than 90 per cent of Australia's mammals, birds, reptiles and frogs and some 70 per cent of Australia's flowering plants, conifers, ferns and other vascular plants are identified and described, but only about 50 per cent of the invertebrates and lower order plants are identified. Scientists know even less about other organisms such as fungi and bacteria. Considerable research is needed to understand ecosystem processes particularly those in the soil and in marine, estuarine and fresh water habitats.

The Strategy recognises the need to:

  • collate and synthesise current knowledge as a basis for assessing research needs and priorities;
  • carry out rapid assessment of Australia's biological diversity;
  • advance the development of information and modelling tools;
  • develop biodiversity indicators to measure the effectiveness of policies and management;
  • research conservation biology; research the taxonomy, distribution and relationships of plants, animals and micro-organisms, giving priority to the least known groups including non-vascular plants, invertebrates and micro-organisms;
  • facilitate and support the development of collaborative taxonomic training programs; establish a national coordinated program of long-term ecological monitoring;
  • recognise the value of the knowledge and practices of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and incorporate this in biological diversity research and conservation programs; and
  • ensure that information about Australia's biological diversity is readily accessible.

There is a need to monitor and assess the effectiveness of management techniques so that these can be modified to achieve biodiversity conservation goals.

In terms of establishing a nationally coordinated long-term monitoring program, there is a need to develop a list of high priority themes for long-term and broad-scale monitoring within an adaptive management framework. Monitoring needs to be targeted and should be undertaken in the context of informing management practices or policy related to threatening processes.

Key results

4.1 Knowledge and understanding

Provide the knowledge and understanding of Australia's biological diversity essential for its effective conservation and management.

Assessment: Partially achieved

Significant progress has been made in identifying ecosystems and threats to biodiversity. More work is needed to understand ecosystem processes and to adapt management regimes. Biodiversity needs to be monitored over the long term in order to understand natural changes and the nature and extent of threats to biodiversity. Management regimes need to be monitored and assessed for effectiveness in conserving biodiversity so these can be adapted in the light of new knowledge and understanding. New understanding about biodiversity conservation needs to be integrated into planning processes in a more transparent way.

The national knowledge base of Australia's biological diversity and its functions is incomplete and fragmentary and resources are needed to fill the knowledge gaps. The existing data are scattered between institutions and resources need to be applied to mobilise and integrate this information so that it is nationally accessible and easily disseminated. Internet solutions should be explored.

We need to use the strategic value of indigenous ethnobiological knowledge to increase our understanding of Australia's biodiversity. We need to work out how to access this knowledge in an appropriate way that is culturally sensitive and directs benefits back to indigenous communities.

In short, whilst there is significant knowledge and understanding about biodiversity, this needs to be readily accessible to decision-makers.

  • A number of processes are in place to collate and synthesise current knowledge, mainly the National Land and Water Resources Audit, the National Framework for the Management and Monitoring of Australia's Native Vegetation, the State of the Environment reporting process and the National Reserve System Program. These are covered in Chapter 1: Conservation of Biological Diversity across Australia. Other processes include the Australian Biological Resources Study (see details below on research taxonomy activity).
  • In December 2000, ANZECC agreed to the publication of national biodiversity research priorities recommended by the Biological Diversity Advisory Committee. The report, Biodiversity Conservation Research: Australia's Priorities, is expected to be published by mid-2001.
  • The Key Centre for Biodiversity and Bioresources has produced Biotrack, a system that provides survey, monitoring, inventory, diagnostics, educational displays and data management integration and distribution capabilities.
  • In December 1999 ANZECC directed its State of the Environment reporting taskforce, in consultation with the National Land and Water Resources Audit, Australian Biological Resources Study and other relevant authorities, to seek a coordinated approach to the long-term monitoring of Australia's biodiversity and to report to the Biodiversity Strategy Executive Group on action taken.
  • Victoria maintains several large databases (over 1.5 million records) on the distribution of flora and fauna, with the BioSites database able to locate all threatened species occurrences across the State.
  • The Virtual Australian Herbarium will provide live Internet access to the country's major collections of preserved plants. Currently in the development stage, CSIRO, Environment Australia and the Council of Heads of Australian Herbarium are developing a framework for enhanced electronic access to information relating to Australia's flora. This is the first stage in developing Australia's Virtual Herbarium. Funding is also being sought via ANZECC for a full-scale project.
  • Biodiversity indicators have been recommended in the 1998 report, Environmental Indicators for National State of the Environment Reporting: Biodiversity and in other reports in the seven-part series. These indicators provide the basis for future State of the Environment reports, which will also include a section on the expected implications for governments of particular aspects of the reports. For further information on the indicators and the State of the Environment process see chapter 1: Conservation of Biological Diversity across Australia.
  • A range of institutions are carrying out research into conservation biology across Australia. For example, the Australian Museum is one of the largest research institutions in Australia, dealing with systematics and taxonomy of Australian fauna. Through the Centre for Evolutionary Research and the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Research, the museum is now a major contributor to biodiversity assessment and monitoring.
  • Other institutions carrying out such research include the CSIRO Division of Wildlife and Ecology, the Australian Institute of Marine Science, State museums and herbaria, wildlife agencies, research and development corporations and academic institutions.
  • A number of mechanisms are in place to progress research on basic taxonomy including the Australian Biological Resources Study, Cooperative Research Centres (CRCs) CSIRO and other institutions such as museums, herbaria and universities.
  • The Australian Biological Resources Study is a program of Environment Australia. It was initiated in 1973 by the Commonwealth Government to address the lack of adequate knowledge of the flora and fauna of Australia. The aim of the Australian Biological Resources Study is to provide the underlying taxonomic knowledge necessary for the conservation and sustainable use of Australia's biodiversity.
  • Universities, museums, herberia, botanic gardens, and other research institutions, such as the CSIRO, undertake a range of research into issues and priorities underlying the conservation and use of biodiversity. Current areas of research include conserving and monitoring biodiversity, integrating biodiversity with resource management, and managing environmental pests, weeds and diseases.
  • CSIRO has developed and maintains the Australian National Insect Collection.
  • Australia participates with other countries in the Global Taxonomic Initiative (an initiative under the Convention on Biological Diversity).
  • Bushcare has supported national research projects including a national bird atlas, which describes the status and distribution of Australian birds and their habitats, and Euclid, an interactive identification guide to Eucalypts.
  • The EPBC Act outlines a range of measures available to the Minister for the Environment and Heritage to cooperate with, and give financial assistance or other assistance to, any person for the purpose of identifying and monitoring components of biodiversity.
  • There has been a significant advance over the last few years in using indigenous knowledge and cooperating with indigenous people in land management and cultural heritage activities, especially on sites with significance for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (for specific examples see chapter 1: Conservation of Biological Diversity across Australia).
  • In the Northern Territory from 1993 to 2000, biodiversity surveys were undertaken in five biogeographic regions and catchments as well as in parks and poorly known areas. Research was carried out on the taxonomy and biogeography of terrestrial, marine and aquatic wildlife; plant taxonomy; landscape processes; the impacts on biodiversity of fire, feral animals and grazing; the control of ferals; and the management of threatened species. Long-term monitoring of Northern Territory populations of dugong and magpie geese was maintained. Feral animals continue to be monitored across the Territory. Mangrove habitats are being mapped.
  • In New South Wales, knowledge of biodiversity has been gained through the comprehensive regional assessments that were undertaken to establish a comprehensive, adequate and representative reserve system. Marine bioregional assessments are still under way. Substantial information on the environmental, cultural heritage, social and economic aspects of forests was collected through this process. The New South Wales Government is conducting a Natural Resources Research Review, which aims to provide better coordination between agencies and more strategic and successful approaches to gaining funding for research. A State biodiversity research strategy is also in preparation and a working group of research agencies and universities is meeting regularly to progress this.

For activities related to identifying biodiversity and threatening processes see Chapter 1, Objective 1.1.

For activities related to recording traditional knowledge and practices see Chapter 1, Objective 1.8.