Value of national parks confirmed

By Marina Kamenev 1 February 2011
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National parks are one of few strategies actively helping to save species from extinction, says a new study.

NATIONAL PARKS ARE ONE of Australia’s biggest tourism draws, bringing in $19 billion annually. Recent studies have questioned the role they play in saving endangered species, but a new report says that evidence is stacking up for the conservation benefits.

More than 70 per cent of Australia’s threatened species are in decline; these include the Carpentarian rock-rat (Zyzomys palatalis) and the yellow-spotted bell frog (Litoria castanea), says the report from WWF Australia and the University of Queensland.

However, it also reveals that species with habitats in national parks are more than twice as likely to be stable or recovering than species living in habitats not protected by national parks.

Growing scepticism

“There has been growing scepticism about the value of national parks for biodiversity,” says co-author Professor Hugh Possingham at UQ in Brisbane. “This is one of the few papers in the world to shows that national parks really deliver outcomes.”

Not only are they saving species, but national parks and other strictly protected areas seem to be the only effective strategy to do so, he adds.

“Other recovery measures didn’t alleviate the rates of decline,” says co-author Dr Martin Taylor, WWF’s protected areas policy manager, based in Sydney. “There have been huge investments in natural resource management and recovery activities like feral pest and weed controls, but we were unable to detect any consistent … association with population stability or recovery for these activities.”

The researchers analysed data which mapped the population trends of 841 threatened terrestrial species: 698 plants and 143 animals. They then juxtaposed them with four different measures of conservation effort. These included a total of 7,632 ”natural resource management” tactics, such as using national parks.

Overall, 641 species were found to be dwindling, but the populations of those living in national parks were significantly more likely to be recovering.

Best option

One of the species saved by a protected area is the northern hairy-nosed wombat (Lasiorhinus krefftii), a marsupial with a distinctive muzzle and backwards-facing pouch, which is also the world’s largest burrowing herbivore. The population was rapidly declining until 1971 when the Epping Forest National Park, Queensland, was created to save the last 30 individuals. Today a colony of 140 wombats is found there.

Martin says that the report should make the government re-evaluate where threatened-species funding is invested: “National parks look like the best option for threatened species recovery in this analysis. Anything else which doesn’t change the basic land use doesn’t have strong empirical support.”

Land clearing, primarily to make pasture for livestock, is the largest threat to species. The three States that have suffered the most land clearing – Queensland, NSW and Tasmania – were also those with the largest numbers of declining threatened species. “We have to locate the critical habitats of these species and make sure it is completely protected,” he says.

Land clearing

“This is a valuable study, showing important conservation outcomes for Australia’s National Reserve System,” comments Peter Cochrane, the director of national parks, at Parks Australia in Canberra. “The Australian Government is committed to extending the National Reserve System to protect representative examples of our ecosystems and habitats across our remarkable continent.”

Today, Australia has 71.9 million hectares of strictly protected areas (mostly national park), but this is likely to increase. The Federal Government has promised to add 25 million hectares to the National Reserve System by 2013.

The findings are published in the journal Biodiversity and Conservation.