Australia's IBAs provide the first nationwide conservation blueprint
Birds Australia (BirdLife in Australia) has published Australia’s Important Bird Areas, a major contribution to conservation planning in a country where the sheer scale of the landscape has held back the identification of sites of high importance for biodiversity conservation.
“In the 314 IBAs we have a national network of globally significant sites for bird conservation, providing a focus for research and conservation efforts”, said Graeme Hamilton – CEO of Birds Australia.
Australia is home to 803 bird species, of which 312 are endemic. But many of these birds are under threat. Australia and its Territories are ranked fourteenth in the world for the number of Globally Threatened and restricted-range bird species. Four Australian bird species are Critically Endangered, 18 Endangered and 25 Vulnerable. In addition, ‘common’ birds are also at risk: the 2008 State of Australia’s Birds report suggests that about two-thirds of bird species are showing significant long-term declines in the country.
“The IBA project is the first national site-scale conservation analysis for the country” —Graeme Hamilton, CEO of Birds Australia
Between 2005 and 2009, with contributions from over 1,000 volunteers and funding from Rio Tinto, the IBA project designated 314 Australian sites of global significance for bird conservation. These sites encompass almost 44 million hectares of land, which include IBAs in all Australian States and most Territories. But almost half of the area covered by Australia’s IBAs has no existing formal protection.
The Australian Government aims to reserve at least 10% of all bioregions, and to protect key habitats for nationally listed threatened species and migratory species. Although more than 9,000 formally protected areas cover 11% of the Australian landmass, many bioregions are under-represented, and many threatened and migratory species are poorly protected. Moreover, even in Protected Areas some species are declining. This highlights the need for conservation in the almost 90% of Australia’s landmass that is outside the formal conservation estate.
“In countries such as the United Kingdom, all sites of conservation significance have been identified”, Graeme Hamilton explained. “Until now, the scale of the task and the inadequacy of baseline distributional data have discouraged such projects in Australia, and the lack of mapped priority areas, especially those off-reserve, has been a hindrance to effective and cost-efficient conservation. The IBA project is the first national site-scale conservation analysis for the country.”
Many of Australia’s small islands support large concentrations of nesting seabirds, especially on the Great Barrier Reef and around Tasmania. Some of these seabird colonies and IBAs are very small: 20 IBAs are less than one hectare in size.
At the other extreme, some IBAs have been designated for species that occur at low population densities over very large areas. These include the South-west Slopes IBA for breeding Superb Parrots Polytelis swainsonii, and Arnhem Plateau IBA for White-throated Grasswrens Amytornis woodwardi, both Vulnerable.
“… a national network of globally significant sites for bird conservation …” —Graeme Hamilton
A number of Australian birds, such as Endangered Mallee Emuwren Stipiturus mallee are endemic to low, fire-sensitive vegetation such as mallee (important in 22 IBAs) or heathland (11 IBAs). Appropriate fire management is critical if these IBAs are to keep their value. At the wetter end of the scale, the designation of IBAs is triggered by rainforest species (28 IBAs) or specialist mangrove species such as Chestnut Rail Eulabeornis castaneoventris or Mangrove Honeyeater Lichenostomus fasciogularis (17 IBAs). For the birds that inhabit these IBAs, climate change is now the biggest threat.
All major forms of land ownership are represented among the identified sites. Almost a third of the IBAs are privately owned, about eight per cent are under the ownership of traditional Indigenous people, and fewer than 60% owned by local, State or Federal government.
Graeme Hamilton says this breadth of ownership provides a wealth of opportunity for communities, organisations, industry and all levels of government: “To become involved in the conservation and monitoring of Australia’s birds - in the places where it matters most”.
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