World Heritage Sites: Australia - Great Barrier Reef and Wet Tropics
World Heritage Sites are internationally recognised as places of outstanding universal cultural and natural value. The World Heritage List includes 851 sites in 141 countries, all of which are of outstanding archaeological, natural, architectural, historical, religious, artistic or scientific importance. The list features such unique treasures as the Galapagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef, Stonehenge, The Pyramids of Egypt and the Great Wall of China.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) aims to encourage the identification, protection and preservation of cultural and natural heritage around the world. To date, 184 countries have signed UNESCO's 1972 Convention on World Heritage, formalising their commitment to protecting their important cultural and natural sites and to work with the other parties of the convention to protect them all for future generations.
Under the Partnerships for Conservation Initiative (PACT), Earthwatch and UNESCO signed a memorandum of agreement in 2004, outlining a collaboration to protect and promote World Heritage Sites and in particular the cultural and natural World Heritage Sites where Earthwatch supports projects - currently 16 projects in 10 World Heritage Sites. You can do your bit towards protecting the world's heritage; participating on one of the Earthwatch projects based in a World Heritage Site provides a unique opportunity to carry out direct conservation research in some of these remarkable and inspirational locations.
The Great Barrier Reef is a site that can only be described in superlatives; it is the world's largest natural feature and the largest World Heritage site. Larger than the entire area of Italy, it covers 35 million hectares of the north-east continental shelf of Australia stretching over 2,300km along the coast. It is the best-known marine reserve in the world, the most extensive reef system on the planet, and is home to a staggering diversity of life, with more than 1,500 species of fish, 400 types of coral, and more than 4,000 species of mollusc. In addition to coral reefs, it supports a range of habitats such as seagrass beds, mangroves, and island communities. Rather than forming a continuous barrier, the reef system is a patchwork of coral reefs and coral cays, featuring more than 2,800 individual reefs ranging in size from smaller than a hectare to over 100,000 hectares.
Critically endangered hawksbill turtles are undergoing a worrying decline in the Pacific as a result of hunting. Initial studies have indicated that fewer female hawksbill turtles are returning to breeding beaches each year. Volunteers on the Earthwatch project Hawksbill Turtles of the Great Barrier Reef join Queensland Parks and Wildlife Services Turtle Research Programme and lead scientist Dr. Ian Bell in some of the Great Barrier Reef's most pristine and remote areas to try to establish exactly what is happening to the area's hawksbill population. Volunteers on this project are at the coal-face of hawksbill conservation, carrying out a range of hands-on conservation activities including catching, tagging and measuring turtles, recording data on nesting and foraging habitat, counting eggs and recording hatchling success.
The Wet Tropics World Heritage Area (WTWHA) in northern Queensland is one of just a few sites in the world that meet four of the World Heritage criteria: it represents a major stage in the earth's evolutionary history; is an outstanding example of ongoing ecological and biological processes; contains superlative natural phenomena; and contains the most important natural habitats for conservation of biological diversity.
The Wet Tropics represent Australia's largest area of remaining wet tropical rainforest, covering an area of around 900,000 hectares and including several national parks. This rainforest is a remnant of the forest that once covered the whole of northern Australia. It forms an almost continuous belt of rainforest and the area has spectacular scenery featuring dramatic mountains, sweeping beaches and lush rainforest. The forest supports a staggering diversity of plant life with more than 2,500 species of vascular plants, including over 1,000 species of tree. The area has the highest animal diversity in Australia, with over one third of all Australia's vertebrate species (about 700) in an area that covers just 0.1 per cent of the country. Many of these species are found no where else in the world. The combination of this spectacular and unique biodiversity and amazing scenery makes this World Heritage site a world-class destination.
Climate change is the most serious threat facing Earth's ecosystems and human society. The predicted future temperature increase is potentially catastrophic for the faunal biodiversity of Australia's tropical forests; it is estimated that over 50 per cent of the unique endemic vertebrate species in this region may face extinction, and that the habitat range of the survivors will be dramatically reduced. To protect this unique area the Earthwatch project must be able to predict the future impacts of these changes and design management policies that will aim to minimise these impacts in a changing climate. Preparing to conserve the rainforest species in the face of this process will require a deeper understanding of the current patterns of vertebrate biodiversity. The data and analyses resulting from this project will enable more efficient and informed decisions on the allocation of scarce management resources across the region.
The Earthwatch teams concentrate on intensive sampling over the altitudinal gradient in the two most important biodiversity hotspots for the region: the Central Wet Tropics, ranging from the coastal lowlands south of Cairns up to the Atherton Tablelands and on to the highest part of the region - the Bellenden Ker/Bartle Frere mountain ranges; and the Douglas shire, ranging from the Daintree lowlands to the tops of the Carbine Range. Volunteer activities include taking temperature and humidity measurements, assisting in bird transects, searching for reptiles, installing and clearing insect traps, carrying out frog surveys, ant collecting, weighing and drying leaf litter samples and extracting invertebrates, conducting night-time spotlighting of possums, tree kangaroos, frogs, owl and geckos, and the all important data entry.