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Of Kangaroos and Caribou

The Human Footprint Index measures the relative human influence in each terrestrial biome. Copyright 2008: The Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution.
The Human Footprint Index measures the relative human influence in each terrestrial biome. Licensed under Creative Commons 2.5 Attribution. Copyright 2008: Trustees of Columbia University.

At first glance, Australia and Canada could not be more different. Separated by more than 7,500 miles (12,000 km), one country known for its hot, dry lands and kangaroos and the other for its cold, wet forests and caribou.

But at a symposium at the International Congress for Conservation Biology last July, which I co-chaired with my colleague Barry Traill, who directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conservation work in Australia, presenters explored some interesting similarities and new ideas in conservation approaches between Australia’s Outback region and Canada’s Boreal Forest region.

One of the reasons Traill and I were interested in comparing these two areas is because both are among the global areas identified as having the smallest “human footprint”—areas with the fewest roads, least number of people, and other human-related disturbances. Another is that science and scientists have played a major role in both countries in ensuring that policymakers and the public have a clear understanding of the likely consequences that different policies could have on the biodiversity and ecological values of a region.

The Outback and the Boreal forest represent one of the last opportunities for the protection of very large examples of relatively pristine ecosystems and the full complement of species that call them home. But the scale of conservation planning and action is consequently much larger than customarily encountered in most parts of the world, which struggle to save the relatively small fragments of remaining habitat.

Of course, there are significant ecological differences between Australia’s Outback and Canada’s Boreal forest region. The diversity of species is greater in Australia and includes a multitude unique to that area. Sadly, many are now very rare, endangered, or possibly extinct. Mammals in Australia have been particularly hard hit, with about 25 percent of the native mammalian fauna now threatened or extinct. Among these are marsupials whose names hint at their uniqueness—the golden bandicoot, crescent nailtail wallaby, and the brush-tailed rabbit-rat among them. Canada’s Boreal Forest region, unfortunately, has its own share of threatened species, including the federally-listed woodland caribou and the likely extinct Eskimo curlew.

Amazingly, though, a few species actually breed in the boreal forest regions of Siberia and Alaska and migrate south to coastal wetlands in Australia, linking the two parts of the globe even more directly. These include shorebird species such as the Bar-tailed Godwit and the Pacific Golden-Plover.

Migration route of the Bar-tailed Godwit. Credit: USGS/USFWS
Migration route of the Bar-tailed Godwit. Copyright: USGS/USFWS

In Australia, the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists has produced a number of reports and papers since their “Blueprint for a Living Continent” was released in 2002. Likewise, the International Boreal Conservation Science Panel has released a number of science policy briefs about specific conservation issues since its formation in 2008. The panel released its most recent science policy paper in conjunction with the International Congress for Conservation Biology where Traill and I held the symposium. The document, “Conserving the World’s Last Great Forest Is Possible: Here’s How,” provided a set of key recommendations including:

  • Protecting at least 50 percent of the boreal forest region from further development to maintain current ecological processes and existing wildlife species.
  • Ensuring that industrial activities on boreal lands outside of those where development is prohibited are carried out using leading edge environmental sustainability standards, to protect biodiversity and the ecosystem.
  • Ensuring that land-use planning precedes decisions regarding industrial development in the boreal and empowering local communities to lead, with particular attention paid to the views and concerns of Aboriginal communities in the region.
  • Rigorously and regularly monitoring the impact of development and other industrial boreal land use and making certain this is carried out by independent experts.

Perhaps the most important similarity in issues and approaches between Australia and Canada is the recognition of the leadership of Indigenous peoples and the support of their right to decide the future of their lands. In Australia, there have been 38 Indigenous Protected Areas established since 1997, resulting in 48 million hectares (118 million acres) now managed as IPAs. In addition, the Australian government has invested roughly A$90 million (US$84 million) over five years in its Indigenous Ranger program. There are now over 650 Indigenous Rangers employed chiefly in management of habitat and invasive species, which are the greatest immediate threats to biodiversity in these areas.

Likewise, in Canada’s Boreal forest region, First Nations and Indigenous communities are at the forefront of conservation and sustainable development. Land-use plans developed by the Deh Cho in the Northwest Territories, the communities of the Pimachiowin Aki proposed World Heritage site in Ontario and Manitoba, the Grand Council of the Cree in Quebec, the Inuit and Innu in Labrador, and many others have demonstrated how to achieve a balance between conservation lands and lands available for carefully planned and managed development.

There is much to be learned in comparing approaches and perspectives between two of the world’s largest still-wild regions. Hopefully, the knowledge shared will also help to keep them that way.

Jeff Wells is a science adviser for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ international boreal forest protection work. He received a doctorate in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell University, where he is a visiting fellow.