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'The Painted Desert' on Evelyn Downs is located on Yankunytjatjara and Antarkirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara  Country, SA. Photo: Annette Ruzicka
'The Painted Desert' on Evelyn Downs is located on Yankunytjatjara and Antarkirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Country, SA. Photo: Annette Ruzicka

Protecting a painted beauty

Words by Will Sacre
Location : Yankunytjatjara and Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Country, South Australia
Published 25 Mar 2024

Many paint our arid regions with a broad stroke and by doing so, obscure their vital intricacies. Thanks to our generous supporters, we can appreciate the diverse desert landscape of Evelyn Downs – our largest-ever reserve and newest acquisition.

Many paint our arid regions with a broad stroke and by doing so, obscure their vital intricacies. It's thanks to our generous supporters that we can appreciate the diverse desert landscape of Evelyn Downs – our largest-ever reserve and newest acquisition.

Travelling from north to south on Evelyn Downs, it transforms. The soil moves from blood red to light yellow. Green plains of saltbush and mulga turn into the sprawling flat desert that is interrupted by kaleidoscopic, mineral-rich plateaus. At the southern end of Evelyn Down lies the Painted Desert; a windswept shale that burns orange, yellow and white against the open, blue sky.

Located 150km north of Coober Pedy, Evelyn Downs was previously a cattle station, but it wasn’t always this way. Yankunytjatjara and Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara have been connected to this land since time immemorial.

“It’s powerful Country. It’s not my Country, but I’m glad to have been welcomed onto this land by the Yankunytjatjara and Antakirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara people,” says Bruce Hammond, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Leader and Partnerships Manager South Australia.

Bruce Hammond on Evelyn Downs Reserve, Yankunytjatjara and Antarkirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Country, SA. Photo: Annette Ruzicka

Bruce spent time on Country observing different parts of the reserve; along a dry creek bed, he found old Red Gums flowering after rain and tuned into the curious calls of Willie Wagtails. His work will focus on developing relationships with Traditional Owner groups and supporting their aspirations for Country.

“The Painted Desert, the breakaways. It’s no coincidence that a beautiful bit of land that looks like a painting just happens to be culturally significant. We’re really fortunate. We’ll have the ability to demonstrate true right-way science, listening, and understanding.”

At 235,000 hectares, Evelyn Downs is close to the size of the Australian Capital Territory.

Its impressive scale is an important addition to private protected areas for both the state and the nation. Currently, the South Australian Arid Rangelands Priority Landscape is under-represented, with only 8.64% protected in the National Reserve System. This acquisition ensures the region’s ecosystems – that exist nowhere else in the world – are protected, now and in the future.

Graeme Finlayson, Healthy Landscape Manager South Australia Arid Rangelands, sees the incredible potential for partnership within the region, and scalable conservation efforts.

“It’s such a unique part of Australia. It’s quite fragile and so important to protect. Evelyn Downs is to the east of Mount Willoughby Indigenous Protected Area,” he says. “Across the highway is Tallaringa Conservation Reserve. Looking at that as a whole conservation area, which amounts to 1.9 million hectares, really provides scale for action in this area for conservation management,” he says.

The reserve will provide potential habitat for over 60 conservation-significant species of plants and animals. Chantal Fowler, Head of Region West and South Australia, admires its rare abundance of life.

Evelyn Downs will provide potential habitat for over 60 conservation-significant species of plants and animals. Photo: Annette Ruzicka

“To have the opportunity to protect the biodiversity at Evelyn Downs is so important; a landscape that contains critical habitat for many native species including the endangered Arckaringa Daisy and the vulnerable Bronzeback Snake-Lizard.”

For Chantal, the acquisition is a big step not only for Bush Heritage but, more broadly, for conservation in Australia. “Our management of Evelyn Downs contributes significantly towards Australia’s global obligation to protect 30% of land and sea by 2030,” she says.

Currently, 22% of Australia is protected for conservation. We're on the right track, but still have a lot of work to do if we want to achieve the minimum of ‘30x30’. 

The United Nations and leading scientists state that protecting biodiversity is our best natural defence against the dual climate and biodiversity crises.

If we collectively protect 30% of the earth’s terrestrial lands and marine areas by 2030, we'll balance projected emissions from human activities and halt the planet’s rising extinction rates. The protection of Evelyn Downs is an example of how we and our incredibly dedicated supporter community are on the front line of fighting two of our globe’s greatest threats.

In line with global initiatives, we've set an ambitious goal to double the land we own and manage for conservation by the close of the decade. Just two years into our 2030 Strategy, this acquisition moves us 20% closer towards that goal.

While the excitement of the new reserve continues to ripple through the organisation and among our supporters, our focus has already shifted to understanding the landscape’s needs and the plan for managing this large reserve. It will take a concerted effort to establish a reserve of this scale for conservation.

A mature Myall at Evelyn Downs Reserve, Yankunytjatjara and Antarkirinja Matu-Yankunytjatjara Country, SA. Photo: Annette Ruzicka

“Firstly, we've built an on-ground team to look after the reserve and have started to map how we'll drive change at Evelyn Downs. This will be done through baseline ecological monitoring and identifying the key biodiversity values that we wish to improve,” says Graeme.

At the same time, Bruce and the South Australia team will work with Traditional Owner groups to further nurture relationships and create space for Indigenous and Western knowledge systems to protect Country.

Bruce explains, “It’s not just about weeds and ferals. It’s about how the Country talks to you and how we interact with it. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to demonstrate how it can happen from day one. This is our way, and we're obligated to this important place. Together we'll preserve and grow this significant environment.”

The work has started, and will remain ongoing to help this part of the world to thrive and provide for future generations.

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