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Tracks in sand at Pilungah Reserve. Photo Amelia Caddy.
Tracks in sand at Pilungah Reserve. Photo Amelia Caddy.

Science & knowledge

Highlights from 2021-22 of our investments in research and partnerships that expand our understanding of the natural world and improve our capacity to look after it.

Mapping conservation futures in changing environments

Conservation Futures is a project with ambitious goals: to consolidate vast amounts of complex landscape information from many sectors and sources into one open-source knowledge system.

The system will apply at local, regional and national levels, and will incorporate the priorities and knowledge of collaborators around Australia, including First Nations people.

The online system will support land managers and decision makers to make more informed and culturally relevant plans for work on Country. Australia’s current systems have significant gaps or inconsistencies in the availability of robust, cross-cultural knowledge for land management planning in Australia. Even where relevant datasets exist, they are stored in different forms and across disparate platforms.

With critical seed support from The Ian Potter Foundation and led by Bush Heritage and the University of Melbourne, the Conservation Futures project is highly collaborative and creates a space to bring all of this knowledge together for better environmental management decisions.

Enhancing our Priority Landscapes

Climate change is forcing conservationists all over the world to reassess not just what they protect, but where and how they protect it.

Since 2016, Bush Heritage’s Priority Landscapes framework has guided where we work based on the need for representative protection of different ecosystems and the likely threats to these areas. In 2021, we added a climate change overlay to this framework using published research and data from our partners at CSIRO. Three priority landscape categories emerged from this work.

Map of our Priority Landscapes.

Resilient landscapes’ contain large, intact areas of high conservation value that could be highly adaptable to climate change. In these areas, we’ll prioritise large reserve acquisitions and collaborations with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander partners.

Reconnection landscapes’ are more likely to be fragmented landscapes in areas that are likely to experience moderate-to-medium climate change impacts. Improving connectivity using future-focused restoration is a critical management objective in these areas.

And, finally, ‘Strengthen landscapes’ are areas that may experience significant transition under a changing climate. In these, we will collaborate with Traditional Owners, researchers, other land managers and philanthropists to innovate, invest and bring new tools to mitigate threats and build resilience.

“Knowledge is power. I don’t think we’ve got nearly enough knowledge about the impacts of climate change yet, but we do have enough to start acting. We need to build our toolbox now, so it’s ready when it’s really needed.”
-Rebecca Spindler, Executive Manager of Science and Conservation.

Preserving traditional knowledge and language

For the past two years, Rembarrnga and Dalabon Elders have been leading a community-wide effort to revive their languages and preserve knowledge through the creation of seasonal calendars.

With the support of Bush Heritage staff, they have run a series of workshops attended by members of their communities, young and old, to share and consolidate knowledge, and pass it down to the next generation.

“There are changes in our community and globally, and we are working together with the rangers. Teaching and learning is our goal; it’s to educate everyone so we can control what we’re doing nowadays.”
-Annette Miller, Rembarrnga Elder and Mimal Land Management Board Director

This seasonal calendar project was supported by John T Reid Charitable Trusts. Learn more in an episode of our Big Sky Country podcast below.


Burning the incense at both ends

With its distinctly earthy smell, sandalwood is widely used in candles, perfumes, incense and aromatherapy products around the world.

Australia’s native sandalwood, Santalum spicatum, is one of the most-prized of the world’s 15 sandalwood species – it has been harvested almost exclusively from the wild in Western Australia and exported to Asia for almost 180 years in an industry that’s today worth about $20 million a year.

But PhD candidate Richard McLellan is calling for wild harvesting of Australian Sandalwood to stop.

Richard McLellan monitoring Sandalwood. Photo Shayne Thomson.

Richard’s research, which was published last year and received in-kind support from Bush Heritage, has revealed that Australian Sandalwood populations may have declined by as much as 90% over the last 175 years. With almost no new trees regenerating, the species is on track to go extinct in the wild if more isn’t done to protect it.

As well as its economic value, Australian Sandalwood is also a culturally significant plant for many Aboriginal communities, and a significant food source for many arid zone species – often flowering and fruiting when other plants are not.

It’s found throughout South Australia and Western Australia, including on Bush Heritage’s Hamelin, Eurardy and Charles Darwin reserves where Richard has been studying its ecological importance for the last two years.

The slow-growing sandalwood trees are harvested when they’re between 90 and 115 years old, but decreased rainfall, grazing, and the loss of seed dispersers such as Burrowing Bettongs means very few young trees are growing up to replace them.

Despite new legal protections and the establishment of commercial plantations, Australian Sandalwood is being harvested from the wild at more than six times the recommended sustainable rate.

To save this species, the industry must transition to plantation-only harvesting and land managers will need to work closely with Aboriginal people to restore wild populations.

“You lose those seed dispersers and suddenly you’ve lost 80 years of regeneration of sandalwood. What’s next?”
-Richard McLellan, PhD Candidate, Charles Sturt University.

Supporting the next generation of scientists

During National Science Week in 2021, Bush Heritage announced that it was expanding its science program to support more young scientists and better cross-institutional collaboration.

The increased investment is occurring across three focus areas:

  1. a Scientist in Residence program,
  2. Healthy Country Fellowships for PhD students and
  3. more internships to give future scientists invaluable practical experience.
Science intern Hayley Sime. Photo Amelia Caddy.

The Scientist in Residence program will allow experts from a range of disciplines to become a ‘resident scientist’ for an extended period of time with expenses, project costs, cultural competency training and access to reserves provided by Bush Heritage.

Healthy Country Fellows will have the opportunity to do their PhD on Bush Heritage reserves or partnerships, co-supervised by Bush Heritage staff.

Interns will be able to gain paid hands-on experience in fields such as ecology, GIS mapping and communications.

In 2021, Bush Heritage welcomed six PhD students, eight interns and ten placement students.

We are grateful to the numerous individuals, trusts and foundations including Vincent Fairfax Family Foundation and Chris and Gina Grubb who have contributed to this work.

Watch a webinar on Careers in Conservation with intern Hayley Sime and Dr Rebecca Spindler (Executive Manager, Science and Conservation).

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