Already at the extremes: climate adaptation for biodiversity conservation in arid Australia

November 3, 2023

Dr Katherine Tuft is Chief Executive of Arid Recovery, an independent not-for-profit running pioneering conservation science to help threatened species thrive across the Australian outback. Dr Tuft spoke at Climate Adaptation 2023 about the work that Arid Recovery does and how climate change is affecting conservation efforts. The Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that Australia has entered an El Niño event with a hot summer ahead. Arid Recovery already has experience responding to the effects of drought.

You can’t get much more extreme than South Australia’s arid north.

North of the Flinders Ranges is one of the earliest, and still the largest, predator-proof fenced reserves in Australia, where overgrazing and introduced species have changed the landscape.

Arid Recovery is a lab in the landscape, 12,300 hectares divided across six paddocks in Kokatha Country, experimenting with ways to protect endemic species or build back reintroduced native species.

With El Niño and a positive Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) underway, the landscape is about to become more extreme.

But the small team at Arid Recovery started preparing for a hotter, drier summer well before the Bureau of Meteorology confirmed the return of these important climate drivers.

“We have been preparing (for the next drought) for a number of years,” says Chief Executive Dr Katherine Tuft.

“It is something we’re getting ready for. The last El Niño and drought phase had a major impact on the conservation we do. Several populations of the reintroduced species we protect crashed dramatically during the extended dry period and series of heatwaves. We were caught off guard and weren’t ready for the intensity and level of importance.”

Arid Recovery learned a lot from that experience.

A project which started in 1997 primarily as a way of reintroducing species and protecting them from feral predators has had to shift focus to climate adaptation. The research site now provides an opportunity to understand the impacts of climate change and extreme conditions to arid ecosystems and develop strategies for conservation.

The Arid Recovery team burying ceramic burrows to test them as heat refuges. (Credit: Dr Katherine Tuft)

Arid Recovery’s first Climate Change Action Plan introduced in 2020 has four targets: working on reducing carbon emissions, implementing adaptive strategies, developing new research projects and sharing their climate stories.

In practical terms, adapting to the climate has meant things such as maintaining the fence when it is damaged by the movement and build-up of sand during extended dry periods, developing soaks by drip irrigating lower areas of the six fenced paddocks, providing supplementary water and building shelters for animals seeking refuge.

A bilby drinking at an improvised water fountain. (Credit: Arid Recovery, Jannico Kelk)

Over time, they have reintroduced animals including greater stick-nest rats, burrowing bettongs, greater bilbies, Shark Bay bandicoots, western quolls and kowaris.

But as an experimental research site in an arid zone facing the impacts of climate change, there have been salutary lessons.

The stick-nest rat is one of them.

The stick-nest rat was found on islands off the Eyre Peninsula in the 1970s and Arid Recovery was the first mainland site to attempt reintroduction. It was also the first species they introduced and did very well for the first 15 years.

But as herbivores that don’t burrow, they are vulnerable to drought and extreme and extended heat.

“As the (last) drought intensified, it’s clear looking back over our data that stick-nest rats really started disappearing over hot periods. But the nests they built above ground became refuges for smaller species, helping the ecosystem,” says Katherine.

“Some species we may no longer be able to support and we need to be clear eyed about making that call. We have had to do that already with the stick-nest rat.”

two line graphs with an silhouette of a bettong above the first and a bandicoot above the second

At top is a burrowing bettong and at bottom is a Shark Bay bandicoot. Lines showing track activity overlaid on rainfall bars.

The aim of the Arid Recovery Reserve remains to develop a healthy desert ecosystem which can be restored and serve as a safe haven for threatened species, while at the same time using the landscape-scale laboratory for conservation research. Long term, the aim is for those species to return to the outback in sustainable populations.

Arid Recovery is currently working with the Kokatha community, native title holders managing the land neighbouring the reserve, to get species like bilbies and quolls back on Country.

But it’s no longer a case of preserving or reinstating an ideal.

“‘Conservation’ implies keeping things as they are – it’s tricky, you set yourself up for failure if you’re hoping to keep things as they are or to return to some impossible historical state,” Katherine says of their experience at Arid Recovery.

“We are all slowly catching up in practical adaptation thinking. Climate change has been in the research consciousness for a long time and yet for a lot of that time maybe hasn’t been particularly applied. It is about how we frame our thinking, what we are able to do and what we can’t do.

“I’m all for moving our thinking about climate change from something abstract and existential to a pragmatic approach to doing what we can right now.”

Find out more from Dr Tuft’s presentation at Climate Adaptation 2023 available on the conference page of our website here.

(Feature image: The Arid Recovery team burying ceramic burrows to test them as heat refuges. Credit: Dr Katherine Tuft.)

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