When it Comes to Conservation, Australia and Canada Aren’t So Different After All

This post was written by Jeff Wells

At first glance, Australia and Canada could not be more different. They are separated by more than 7,500 miles (12,000 km). One country is known for its hot, dry lands and kangaroos, and the other is known 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.

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, “Saving 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 $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.

The Little Sandy Desert in western Australia, Pew photo by Paul Sheridan

The Little Sandy Desert in western Australia

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

Photo Credit: Valerie Courtis


Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Mark Donner
Mark Donner4 years ago

If it was up to Harper the psychopath, not only would Canada be a dead wasteland covered by filthy tar sands and dead seal pups, but the entire world would be destroyed and devoid of life for the greed of Canada's government supported criminal corporations. The same is happening since the hypocrites in Australia's government who like Harper has done, recently tried to sabotage climate talks since Australia is one of the biggest exporters of dirty coal. Australia has gained a notoriety for such things as mass murders of kangaroos, dingos and camels, among other wildlife and environmental crimes.

Dale O.

An interesting article. Yes, there are con-servative governments in both nations that care less about conservation. Canadians soon tire of con-servative governments as it doesn't take them long to wear out their welcome.

Very true Annelies H, the term Eskimo is rather frowned upon. Certainly, just relations with the First Nations, Inuit and Métis is a necessity. Will R, many Canadians could care less about what is an irrelevant monarchy and many of us simply ignore it.

"...the other is known for its cold, wet forests and caribou." Only part of the year. Tell me that one during July when in the eastern part of Ontario it is very hot and humid and there are times when we can be hotter than Cuba or L.A. The West at least has dry hot summers.

Seth Behr
Seth Behr4 years ago

Thanks to Paul Sheridan at PEW. He used to work here: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/features/iron-fist-of-irony/story-e6frg6z6-1111116426964

JoAnn Paris
JoAnn Paris4 years ago

Thanks for this article.

Fred Hoekstra
Fred Hoekstra4 years ago

Thank you The Pew Charitable Trusts, for Sharing this!

Gloria picchetti
Gloria picchetti4 years ago

What about the stupid pipeline and all the harm it has caused and will cause?

Dmitry Nikiforov
Dmitry Nikiforov4 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Dmitry Nikiforov
Dmitry Nikiforov4 years ago

Thank you.

Monique R.
Monique R4 years ago

We all need to share ideas and findings on how to protect our planet and its inhabitants!