Opinion / Daintree’s Iconic Ecosystem Is Under Threat


THE World Heritage Listed Wet Tropics of Queensland are one of 19 Australian iconic ecosystems under threat, according to a new peer-reviewed article published in the top international journal Global Change Biology, that is described as being one of the most comprehensive evaluations of the environmental state of play in Australia, according to an article published in the The Conversation.

The Conversation only publishes articles from recognised academics.

“We show major and iconic ecosystems are collapsing across the continent and into Antarctica,” report authors say. The report lists the 12 threats facing the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area.

Nine of those twelve threats are apparent in the Daintree Rainforests:

  • Urbanisation
  • Climate change
  • Extreme weather and climatic events (heatwaves, floods, cyclones, extended dry seasons)
  • Invasive plants and animals
  • Habitat fragmentation and destruction
  • Logging and land clearing
  • Altered fire regimes (more frequent and severe fires)
  • Erosion, sediment runoff and pollution
  • Inappropriate tourism development

Other threats identified in their study are:

  • Chytrid fungus
  • Species interactions (such as snake losing prey due to flooding)
  • Overgrazing

The “brains trust” behind the report comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment.

As I stated in an earlier article in DouglasNews.Network, the Daintree Coast is said to be the “Jewel in the crown” of Wet Tropics World Heritage, and existing and impending threats pose a significant threat to its World Heritage status.

Concerns I raised about the future of the Daintee Coast are further emphasised in the 2020 outlook report from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), which states the conservation outlook for the Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area has been assessed as “significant concern” and “deteriorating”. The report cites the overall threats to its world heritage status as “very high” and includes many of the threats listed above.

However, the report does state “some [current and potential threats] can be mitigated with effective planning and good management, such as the pressures associated with development, increased permanent population and visitor numbers”.

All up the wet tropical ecosystems span around 450 kilometres, with rainforest covering around 1.85 million hectares. The region contains extraordinary diversity, with more than 3,000 plant species and over 60 vertebrate species found nowhere else on Earth. Although tropical rainforests make up only 0.1% of Australia’s landmass, they’re also home to over 50% of its ferns, butterflies and birds, and over 20% of freshwater fish, mammals, orchids, frogs and reptiles. 

Dr Steve Turton

According to the article in The Conversation article the 19 iconic ecosystems “….experience a range of pressures, many of which compound each other. These include habitat fragmentation, fringe livestock grazing, increased urbanisation, more frequent and severe fires and invasive plants and animals. Climate change poses perhaps the greatest threat overall.

“Many of the Wet Tropics region’s plants and animals live in discrete elevation bands: a “Goldilocks” combination of the right habitat and microclimate. As air temperatures increase and extremes in weather worsen, species’ areas of suitable habitat shrink. Some species have already moved to higher elevations and/or experienced striking local population declines. For example, in November 2018, a heatwave killed one-third of all spectacled flying foxes. And two possum species have disappeared from habitat under an altitude of 600 metres.

“There have been four major storms or cyclones in 13 years. One event brought up to 2 m of rain, and the storm surge (seawater) inundated coastal rainforest. In 2006, Cyclone Larry killed 35% of the regional cassowary population, and cars and dogs killed many more as the birds left the destroyed forest.

“The wet tropics are visited by around 5 million tourists per year, contributing over A$400 million to the region’s economy. In 2015, the wet tropics were valued at over A$5 billion per year, due to ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, biodiversity protection, and soil and water resources.

Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, the report asks the question: what can be done? It devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As: 

  • Awareness of what is important 
  • Anticipation of what is coming down the line
  • Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts

As we look to post-COVID-19 recovery of local and regional economies, it is more important than ever to value our world heritage sites and to ensure that adequate funding is secured for their ongoing management and to deal with current and emerging threats to their outstanding universal values. The 3As should inform policy and decision making.

About The Author / Dr Steve Turton DFIAG is Adjunct Professor of Environmental Geography at Central Queensland University

Related Article / Professor warns not to endanger World Heritage area


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