Kwongkan: WA’s Remarkable Biodiversity Hotspot
By Freya Hall.
Until recently I had no idea that Western Australia is home to one of the richest biodiversity hotspots in the world, and that we have appallingly nutrient-poor soils to thank for this.
It is because of Western Australia’s unparalleled ecological diversity that the Kwongan Foundation, headed by UWA Professor Hans Lambers, is seeking to have vast stretches of the southwest declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
‘Kwongkan’ is a Noongar Aboriginal word for sand. Botanists commonly adopt this language to describe the vast, sandy plains demarcated by shrubby vegetation common to the southwest of Australia. The adoption of this name serves as an acknowledgment, and gives priority to, the language of the Aboriginal people who lived in this area for more than 50,000 years.
More specifically, this name has come to refer to a stretch of land, the size of England, between Shark Bay and Israelite Bay. This area, which is both climatically-buffered and largely infertile, contains 70% of the 8000 higher plant species found in the Southwest Australian Floristic Region. By comparison, England has only 1,500 higher plant species in total. Furthermore, half of the 8000+ species found in the Kwongkan are endemic, and cannot be found anywhere else on earth.
This high level of endemism is due, in large part, to the region’s harsh weather conditions and nutrient poor soils. This phenomenon is explained aptly in MinuteEarth’s Youtube video entitled Why Poor Places Are More Diverse.
Professor Lambers explained that in order to survive, plants must adopt superior mechanisms for extracting nutrients from the soil, or, alternatively, innovative ways to extract nutrients from ulterior sources. This explains the disproportionately large number of carnivorous plants found in the Kwongkan.
The Kwongan Foundation was established in 2006 and was primarily concerned with conservation efforts and raising funds for student scholarships. However, inspired by Brazil’s expansive number of World Heritage Listed parks, the Foundation’s aims have now expanded to include a focus on obtaining UNESCO World Heritage Listing for the Kwongkan area.
The significance of having the Kwongkan area protected is based on both ecological and cultural considerations. Professor Lambers said:
‘…some people would say the cultural heritage is even more important than the biological value, which in that case it would be absolutely incredibly important because the biological value itself is already major’.
The Noongar, Nhanda and Gubrun People occupied the Kwongkan area from more than 45,000 years prior to European colonisation, and as such many of the plants native to this area hold great cultural significance. For example, the hemiparasitic tree found in the Kwongkan are considered to be sacred sites where the spirits of the newly dead can be found.
In order to be successful in this bid the proposal must first gain approval from the State Government. In order to do this the Kwongan Foundation has embarked on a fervent publicity campaign, which Professor Lambers has described as ‘the percolation approach’.
This approach focuses on promoting awareness of the cause through maintaining a consistent social media presence, by initiating and sustaining dialogue with government officials and other concerned parties, and through education.
Professor Lambers hopes that the potential for greatly increased eco-tourism will be a motivating factor for the State Government to consider the proposal:
‘What will happen is exactly what happened with the Great Barrier Reef and Ningaloo and all those National Parks in Brazil; people will come in droves because all of a sudden you’ve lifted the profile of these National Parks, and many more people will come to visit them… lots of little towns in the Wheatbelt could benefit from that enormously.’
The Nationals were the first political party in WA to throw support behind the Kwongan Foundation’s UNESCO bid, but other parties, including Labor and the Greens, have since followed suite. The Foundation has also received support from the State Governor, the Wildflower Association of Western Australia, the Conservation Council of Western Australia.
Although the state Liberal Party has yet to publicly show its support for the cause, Professor Lambers said that there have been ‘positive noises’ emanating from the Government. The Foundation will be meeting with the Environment Minister, Albert Jacob MLA, to discuss the proposal next month.
If the State Government approves the Kwongkan proposal, it will then be sent to the Federal Government for consideration and, if successful, to the United Nations for approval.
Motivated by a desire to promote the Kwongkan, Professor Lambers, in conjunction with a number of other esteemed scientists, have recently published a book entitled Plant Life on the Sandplains In Southwest Australia – A Global Biodiversity Hotspot (UWA Press).
Professor Lambers explained that the book is intended to function both as a scientific text, as well as an educational tool that can be readily understood by the general public:
‘People outside WA are far more aware of how special this environment is…so it was really time to start telling the message. We have done that via workshops and public lectures… but you are basically preaching to the converted, you meet the people who already know all this and just want more details. But we want to go further and that’s why we’ve made this book.’
If you are interested in supporting the Kwongan Foundation, or just learning more, you can follow them on Facebook here, or buy Plant Life on the Sandplains In Southwest Australia – A Global Biodiversity Hotspot (UWA Press) from here.
Authors note: ‘Kwongan’ was believed to be the correct spelling in 2006 when the Kwongan Foundation was established. Since then the spelling has been revised to ‘Kwongkan’ but as the Foundation still goes by the original name, I have used both in this piece.
Photography via Hans Lambers