Connectivity conservation - critical for nature's survival

30 July 2020

By Peter O'Rourke

For many of us, when we think about the natural world or ‘the environment’, it conjures up an image of the wilderness which is ‘out there’. It is seen as separate to our human built world of roads, cities and farms. This extends to the notion of the natural world being contained in a protected National Park, with minimal human interference.

Yet nature cannot thrive in isolated patches, and our existence is tied in with the natural world as well. How nature is inter-connected - and that includes us humans - is crucial for its ability to survive and thrive.

In ecological science, this is known as connectivity conservation. It describes the idea of a linkage – part of a landscape that provides suitable habitat connections for birds, reptiles, mammals and amphibians between two areas such as protected areas. These environments that support the movement of animals are preferably large and may be described as connectivity corridors and even ecological networks.

A new technical guideline provides direction on how to think about and implement connectivity conservation in ecological management.

Guidelines for conserving connectivity through ecological networks and corridors introduces a common definition and recommends formal recognition of ecological corridors as vital to build ecological networks between protected areas and other effective area-based conservation measures (OECM’s).

The publication is a practical guide, including 25 case studies that demonstrate current approaches to conserving ecological networks for different ecosystems and species, and at different spatial and temporal scales.

Dr Graeme Worboys from the Fenner School of Environment & Society at the Australian National University was a lead author on the international collaboration of writers and researchers.

Dr Worboys says this work brings together years of research by a large team of dedicated authors, and represents a dramatic shift in international thinking of the last twenty years - moving from initial skepticism of the idea to the creation of strategies and implementation of legislation to bring connectivity conservation ideas as part of ecological management.

“This is an important tool in international conservation efforts,” Dr Worboys said.

“The thinking is that protected natural areas are important, but you can’t have them as islands in the landscape alone. Unless they are absolutely huge, species will wither and die if they can’t move and interact. Connectivity conservation gives wildlife the opportunity to survive and to move, particularly in a climate change world.”

He said this book also reflects research from ANU Professor David Lindenmayer on the different types of connectivity conservation, including landscape connectivity, habitat connectivity, evolutionary connectivity, and ecological connectivity.

Dr Worboys believes that connectivity is more crucial than ever as the pace of human induced climate change speeds up with a wider impact on ecosystems. He says species need the opportunity to move to cooler and/or wetter spaces, particularly up mountains or polewards as systems change or are lost

“It sits as an alternative to the push by some groups to clear every bit of bush, and encourages people to keep some of the landscape intact with connectivity of vegetation.”

Connectivity conservation can be seen in spaces such as commercial native forests and nature belts in farmland, and areas of native bush between national parks of different ecosystems.

An example of a connectivity corridor initiative in Australia is the Great Eastern Ranges, connecting 3000 km of ecosystems from Cape York right down to East Gippsland in Victoria, along the Great Dividing Range and the Great Escarpment of Eastern Australia.

Dr Worboys says he views the release of these Guidelines as a turning point after years of work, international consultations and publications, and is pleased about the recent uptake of the thinking into international government policy.

“I feel this represents a major step forward, a milestone, in of what is a pretty basic concept really – keeping large interconnected parts of the planet intact. The fact that it has been recognized formally, advocated and trialed all around the world is such an important investment in the future of our planet.”