[Editor's note: The following post is written by Peter Taylor, Senior Policy Advisor for The Nature Conservancy’s Australia Division. Listen to his interview with PRI's The World and read his first-person account of the recent Southern Tanami IPA declaration.]
Last Tuesday night, I was stretched out on a swag in the middle of Australia’s Red Centre, tired eyelids slowly shuttering over a night sky studded with more stars than seemed possible. Drifting off to sleep in that wide-open country, contemplating the vast cosmos above me, I admit that I started to feel a little insignificant.
But then I remembered why I was there. The Nature Conservancy had been invited out to the Tanami Desert to help announce the formal declaration of the Southern Tanami Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). At 10.15 million hectares — roughly the size of Portugal, or half of Colorado — Southern Tanami was signed into law as Australia’s largest protected land area.
This was surely an event of some significance. The announcement was perhaps most important to the 200-plus Indigenous Australians who traveled to the declaration site to camp out and celebrate their accomplishment. Forming the IPA was their decision: it came about because local clans had demonstrated a long-standing dedication to sustainably managing the region and because they made a commitment to the Australian Government to continue conserving their lands.
The Conservancy views IPAs as an incredibly strong model for protecting Australia’s landscapes. Not only do IPAs conserve high-value ecosystems, but they also provide Traditional Owners with livelihoods and a way of transferring Indigenous knowledge from one generation to the next. Dr Michael Looker — the director of the Conservancy’s Australia division — sits on the IPA subcommittee of the National Reserve System’s Indigenous Advisory Committee, and we support other IPAs — like Warddeken-Djelk in Arnhem Land — as well.
In the case of Southern Tanami, the Conservancy will contribute $500,000 toward a variety of crucial conservation activities. We’ll assist with early-season fire abatement activities that stave off dangerous late-season fires; we’ll help track threatened species like the bilby, mulgara and great desert skink; and we’ll support the management and removal of invasive species — including weeds and feral animals — that have damaged the Tanami Desert.
The Indigenous Rangers responsible for the day-to-day care of Southern Tanami will combine Indigenous and non-Indigenous knowledge, using satellite imagery and GPS units to direct and measure their time-tested management techniques. Getting out and keeping their country healthy is essential to continuing the centuries-old conservation traditions that have kept Warlpiri culture and country strong.
But Southern Tanami will bring benefits for all Australians. The new IPA is a crucial component of the Trans-Australia Eco-Link, a string of protected areas that will eventually create a conservation corridor stretching from the South Australian coast to the top of the Northern Territory. That corridor will give biodiversity the room it needs to thrive and adapt to environmental threats; it also includes other Conservancy-supported sites such as Fish River Station and the Warddeken-Djelk IPAs.
Getting out on country is often the best part of my job, and I’m incredibly thankful to the Warlpiri Traditional Owners for inviting the Conservancy out to share in their celebration. We’re also grateful to the Central Land Council and Australian Government for the opportunity to partner with them and play a role in such a staggering achievement.
That achievement helped put everything in perspective. Yes, our little campground was dwarfed by the surrounding desert — but we were helping to protect an enormous chunk of that habitat. The Southern Tanami IPA will protect a significant portion of Australia and continue a cultural legacy that’s centuries in the making. Not so insignificant, if you think about it.
[First image: Indigenous Ranger Neville Poulson; Image source: Peter Taylor/TNC. Second image: Peter Taylor (center) speaks at the declaration event, flanked by Ranger Madeleine Dixon (left) and Eddie Robertson; Image source: Jake Cohen/TNC]