Australia

Australia's great natural secret comes out of hiding

Snubfin dolphins Image copyright Alex Brown, MUCRU/WWF
Image caption Snubfin dolphins are found in the Kimberley region, off Australia's northern coast

As Unesco considers listing the Great Barrier Reef as "in danger" from development, on the other side of Australia one of the country's great natural secrets is finally attracting scientific scrutiny and government protection.

Within the next few months the government of Western Australia is expected to release more details about its much-heralded plan for a series of marine parks stretching along the stunning and remote Kimberley coast.

Conservationists will be watching to see how many sanctuary zones - which exclude activities such as mining and fishing - will be included in the parks.

Remote from large human populations and difficult to access except by sea, the Kimberley coast is recognised as one of the world's most pristine marine environments. Its rich sea life includes recently discovered dolphin species unique to Australia, and a coral diversity that arguably surpasses that of its east coast rival.

The region's best known geographical feature, Horizontal Falls, has been described by naturalist and broadcaster David Attenborough as one of the world's great natural wonders because of the way massive tidal movements create a waterfall that moves horizontally.

Image copyright Cathy Zwick
Image caption The Horizontal Falls are a major tourist attraction in the region
Image copyright WA Department of Parks and Wildlife
Image caption The falls are created by a fast tidal flow through two narrow gorges

Public desire to protect the region has grown gradually, say environmentalists. But in recent years, now abandoned plans by Australian oil and gas company Woodside Petroleum to build a giant gas hub about 50km (31 miles) north of Broome, combined with the relentless march of the poisonous cane toad across Australia's Top End, have prompted conservationists and politicians alike to take action.

The region's isolation has protected it until now, says Kimberley Manager at PEW Charitable Trusts, Tim Nicol. But, he says, that is not enough to protect it against new threats.

"A Great Kimberley Marine Park with highly protected marine sanctuaries is key to securing the future for the unique marine diversity of the Kimberley coast," says Mr Nicol.

"Australia's only two unique dolphin species, Australian snubfin and Australian humpback dolphins, live in the Kimberley, with the biggest known population of snubfins in Roebuck Bay near the coastal town of Broome," he says.

"The Kimberley coast is also the nursery for the world's largest population of humpback whales, with an estimated 22,000 whales visiting each year before heading away to their feeding grounds in Antarctica."

Image copyright Alex Brown, MUCRU
Image caption The Kimberley region is also home to the Australian Humpback dolphin

The state government announced a A$63m ($55m; £34m) Kimberley Science and Conservation Strategy in 2011 and topped up that investment two years later with another A$18.5m to support the expansion of the existing Great Kimberley Marine Park and create a national park at Horizontal Falls.

The strategy's centrepiece is the creation of the Kimberley Wilderness Parks, which will include the state's largest interconnected system of marine and terrestrial parks covering five million hectares.


Marine parks on the Kimberley coast

  • Four new Kimberley marine parks will be created: North Kimberley, Roebuck Bay, Horizontal Falls and Dampier Archipelago (further south, not shown on map)
  • The parks will protect 48% of Kimberley coastal waters and almost treble the state's marine parks to 4.1m hectares.
  • The Kimberley's resident population, which is expected to double by 2031, numbers around 34,000, of whom nearly half are Indigenous Australians.

State Environment Minister Albert Jacob said at the time the initiative would "protect one of only two bioregions in Australia that has had no recorded extinctions of mammals since European settlement".

"Together, the new national parks and Great Kimberley Marine Park will form one of the largest interconnected protected areas in the world and significantly enhance the region's international profile as a premier tourism destination," he said.

'Critical habitats'

The parks' importance has been highlighted by recent research into dolphins living in some of these coastal waters.

The remoteness of their habitat and the fact that few people live nearby has meant there was very little information about local dolphin species.

The snubfin was identified as a distinct species unique to Australia in 2005, and it was not until this year that researchers confirmed the Australian Humpback dolphin was distinct from the Indo Pacific dolphin.

The isolation of these two species, and what appears to be a lack of inter-breeding between groups in different locations, puts them at risk, says PhD candidate at Murdoch University's Cetacean Research Unit, Alex Brown.

"If you lose animals from one area they are unlikely to be readily replaced with animals from another area," says Mr Brown, who has conducted two dolphin surveys in the Kimberley's proposed Roebuck Bay Marine Park.

"Marine protected areas can provide benefits to marine mammals and other marine species when carefully designed and managed to protect critical habitats," he says.

"Designating a marine park is a positive step but the real benefits come from management plans that restrict certain threatening activities and enforce those restrictions."

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