In September 2020 Professor Hugh Possingham took over as Queensland’s Chief Scientist. Professor Possingham has a Bachelor’s degree with Honours in Applied Mathematics from the University of Adelaide and a doctorate in Ecological Modelling as a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University. He has worked for numerous universities as a professor, department head, and led several research centres. Most notably he co-developed the Marxan software for conservation planning, which has been described as “the most significant contribution to conservation biology to emerge from Australia’s research community”. His most recent role was as the Chief Scientist at The Nature Conservancy, which has protected more than 40 million hectares of land and thousands of kilometers of rivers worldwide.
Professor Possingham was kind enough to give NPAQ an insight into what national parks mean to him. Here’s what he had to say.
“National Parks Inspired My Love of Nature and Science”
My father was an avid birdwatcher. We would spend hours in national parks in South Australia learning to identify different species by sight and sound. His affliction rubbed off on me and we began to take note of where and how each species foraged, and had long discussions hypothesising why different species utilised different habitats. From those long walks with my dad, a passion for understanding our natural world was born, and a desire to protect it grew.
When I was 18 I was fortunate to win a small grant ($1,500) from the Reserves Advisory Committee in South Australia. My task was to create bird lists and vegetation maps for a suite of small conservation parks in the south-east of South Australia. While the money barely paid my petrol costs, I was delighted to spend my holidays over the next three years walking through the bush counting and mapping little known places such as Fairview Conservation Park, Glen Roy Conservation Park and Gum Lagoon Conservation Park. These lists and maps fed into a 1999 biodiversity plan for the south east of South Australia that I co-authored with state government scientists.
The south-east of South Australia is very different from Queensland. Only 13% of the native vegetation remains with the majority of that in parks and heritage areas, and approximately ten of the 200 terrestrial bird species are locally extinct or almost extinct.
When I moved to Queensland in 2000, I was struck by the amount of remnant vegetation; over 30% in South-East Queensland and over 75% for the whole state, and the abundance of species that had all but disappeared from my favourite parts of South Australia, including the Grey-crowned Babbler, Azure Kingfisher, Black-chinned Honeyeater and Spotted Quail-thrush.
Coming from an area that had already lost too much of its biodiversity, to an area with such diversity, helped me to appreciate the work undertaken to preserve them even more. Hence, I actively engaged in discussion on land clearing control leading to “The Brigalow Declaration” https://martinemaron.files.wordpress.com/2016/05/2003-brigalow-declaration.pdf.
I would hate to see Queensland suffer the same extinctions as have occurred in other areas of Australia, and in my work I have spread the message that we can all contribute to their protection.
The National Parks Association of Queensland has been an enthusiastic advocate for parks across the state for decades with many successes. I appreciate, for example, the Association’s promotion of UQ’s recent evaluation of the financial benefits of national parks in Queensland. The reported financial return on investment from national parks, a 6.3 to one ratio, is a truly compelling case (https://npaq.org.au/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/FINAL-Issue-30-Summer-2020-PROTECTED-web.pdf).
I am particularly interested in ensuring protected areas represent all types of habitat and species. One of the most challenging issues that Queensland will face over the coming decade is how we manage our protected areas, and who manages them. New pressures, new resources and new demands from the community will require that we continually re-evaluate and expand the types of protected areas we have and how they are managed. For instance, Indigenous Protected Areas have been very successful in delivering significant sustainable outcomes for both people and nature.
There are many examples of successful projects that we can learn from around the world. I was particularly impressed with the ‘docents’ (volunteer guides) who assist with the interpretation and management of parks in the USA. It is said that California has 30,000 docents alone. This sort of expert and dedicated support demonstrates the potential for engaging the public in the management and operations of our national parks. It also goes without saying that a more engaged and committed public is a powerful advocate for promoting best practice in our public resources.
The NPAQ has made significant contributions to those conversations and I look forward to having more of them in the future.
In the end, my goal is that more people can be introduced to our unique environment in a similar way that I was: experiencing the natural environment as nature intended.
*The birding tragics can find more information on my bird lists here: https://ebird.org/australia/profile/MjE0Njkx/AU