The reality of human-forced rapid climate change presents an unprecedented challenge to the conservation of biodiversity in Australia. In this paper we consider the role of Australia’s current protected area network in mitigating biodiversity loss across the continent. We do this by first examining the evolutionary history of Australia’s extant fauna and flora and, specifically, the reasons why species have persisted through major changes in climate during repeated glacial cycles, and through the massive climatic changes that occurred during the Miocene and Pliocene climate change events. We then review the current major threats to Australian native species, including inappropriate fire regimes, feral mammalian predators and herbivores, invasive plants, and habitat loss, fragmentation and degradation by land use activities (especially commercial logging, water impoundment and diversion, agricultural expansion, and the intensification of pastoralism). We argue that these current threats are interfering with the natural responses to climate change that native species have relied upon in the past, thereby undermining their resilience in the face of current, human-forced climate change. We predict that the current approach to conservation planning based on accumulating small amounts of protected lands across the continent, using a set of arbitrary conservation ‘targets’, will not be effective in mitigating the impacts of human-forced climate change on Australia’s biodiversity. We argue that an Australia-wide conservation strategy is needed that incorporates a larger adaptation agenda- one that recognizes the importance of protecting and restoring those natural processes and responses that have enabled species to persist through past environmental change. The following key elements are a crucial component of an effective conservation plan: identifying and protecting important climate refugia (both ecological and evolutionary); conserving the large-scale migration and connectivity corridors that operate at continent scales (including regional networks of habitat patches and habitat ‘stepping stones’); maintaining viable populations of all extant species to maximize intra-species genetic diversity and thus options for local adaptation; reducing all current threatening processes at the landscape scale across the continent; and protecting and restoring key large scale ecological processes (especially hydro-ecology and ecological fire regimes). Finally, underpinning climatic adaptation responses must be a thorough understanding of the special role Australia’s extensive intact landscapes will play in the future protection of Australia’s native biodiversity.
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