Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Site, Australia
The Wet Tropics of Queensland (15°39'-19°17'S, 144°58'-146°27'E) make up a World Heritage Site that extends along the north-east coast of Queensland from just south of Cooktown to just north of Townsville. A detailed description of the boundaries is given in Appendix 1 (revised version of 18.1.88) of the nomination for inclusion in the World Heritage List.
Date and History of Establishment
About 185,000 hectares (ha) is reserved in 41 national parks designated by the Queensland State Government over the last 50 years. They have been managed by the Queensland National Parks and Wildlife Service since its inception in 1975. Previously, they were managed by the Queensland Forestry Department. State forests, timber reserves and reserves were established over a similar period. Yarrabah Aboriginal and Islander Reserve was created in 1892. Details for individual protected areas are appended. Inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1988.
894,420 ha. The area borders on the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site (34,870,000 ha).
Apart from 3,250 ha of privately-owned freehold titled blocks, land is publicly owned and comprises 250,318 ha under national parks, 331,215 ha under state forests, 73,882 ha under state forest timber reserves, and 205,000 ha of leasehold and vacant crown land or federal-owned land used mostly by the defense forces.
The main distribution of rainforest in northern Queensland straddles three major geomorphic regions: the tablelands of the Great Divide, the lower coastal belt and the intermediate Great Escarpment. The undulating tablelands are remnants of an elevated and warped landscape. To the east, the Great Escarpment marks the limit of headwards erosion of these tablelands from the coastal plain. It is a zone of rugged topography, rapid geomorphological processes and diverse environments, with deeply incised gorges and numerous waterfalls. Wallaman Falls has the longest single drop (278 m) of any waterfall in Australia. The geological history can be divided into three parts: formation of a relatively rigid and impermeable continental basement in the Palaeozoic; initiation of a north-west drainage in the Mesozoic; and intensified doming to the east in the late-Mesozoic-Caenozoic culminating in continental rifting, ocean formation, and partial foundering of the new continental margin, causing retreat of the coast to its present position by the late-Tertiary. Stepwise coastal retreat and formation of the present juvenile upland coast has led to stream reversal and slope failure. The bulk of underlying rocks (slates and greywacke to greenschist facies) are marine Silurian, Devonian and Carboniferous sediments of the Hodgekinson Basin and Broken River Embayment. The Barnard Metamorphics of largely schist and gneiss, which outcrop in the south-east, may be part of this Basin. Their distinctness is emphasized by the presence nearby of the rare Babalangee Amphibolite, invariably indicative of fundamental dislocation and junctions. The greatest concentrations of volcanics and granite occurs at the southern end of the Basin at its intersection with the trend of the Broken River Embayment. This area in the vicinity of Innisfail lies west of the Barnard Metamorphics, making it the most complex in the region. One of the most striking elements of the landscape is the Great Escarpment, which has retreated to its present position as a result of catastrophic erosion. It is breached only by basalt flows, as in the case of the Johnstone River valley system. The volcanism of the Atherton Tablelands and adjacent volcanic provinces is characterized by scoria cones, lava cones and maars of irregular distribution. Lakes Eacham and Barrine occupy the youngest maars. The tablelands and some coastal areas were greatly disturbed by basalt flows throughout the Pliocene-Pleistocene. The high nutrient status of the developing basalt soils may have proved advantageous to the rainforest in resisting stresses during the fluctuating climatic conditions associated with the Pleistocene glacial cycles.
Soils are diverse, reflecting the wide range of parent rocks, derived alluvial and rainfall gradients. Parent material consists of acid igneous rocks, low-grade metamorphics, basalt and alluvium derived from these materials. The alluvium of larger streams is of mixed origin but that of smaller streams may be from a single source. The oldest metamorphic rocks have given rise to moderately deep medium-textured red or yellow loams; granite rocks and acid volcanics to deeper red podzolic soils and xanthozems; and basalts to deep to very deep krasnozems. Soils of the alluvial coastal plains vary as the drainage becomes poorer from gleyed podzolics to humic gleys to acid peats. Moisture is the predominant influence on soil morphology. All major soils in the high rainfall tropics are chemically impoverished, even under virgin rainforest. A number of soils have extremely low contents of exchangeable calcium, magnesium and potassium which usually are associated with relatively high amounts of extractable aluminium. Many of the soils are poor in humus and significant erosion occurs even under undisturbed rainforest.
Fringing reefs occur in the northern section of the region and are most extensively developed between Daintree and Bloomfield rivers. The association between coastal rainforest and fringing coral reef to the extent it occurs Cape Tribulation and environs appears to be undocumented elsewhere in the world. The reefs are part of the Great Barrier Reef World Heritage Site.
A feature of the wet tropics of north-east Queensland is a high rainfall that is concentrated within a four-month period. Compared with tropical rainforests elsewhere in the world, the wetter parts of the north-east Queensland region lie at the 'wet' to 'extreme wet' end of the hydrological spectrum. Widespread overland run-off, even on steep slopes, is a common phenomenon that is uncharacteristic of other wet tropical rainforests in the world. It results from the high rainfall intensity combined with saturated soil profiles. Mean annual rainfall ranges from 4,000 millimeters (mm) near the coast to 1,200 mm at the western extremity, over 60% of which falls in summer (December-March). It is much higher on the mountain ranges with, for example, 9,140 mm recorded on the summit of Mt. Bellenden Ker for the period 1972-1979. Mean daily temperatures range from a maximum of 31 degrees Celsius (°C) to a minimum of 23°C on the coast, and are about 5°C lower in winter. The tablelands and uplands are cooler, with mean daily temperatures ranging from a maximum of 28°C to a minimum of 17°C in summer and from 22°C to 9°C in winter. Coastal humidity averages 78% in summer but often reaches into the high nineties.
The main vegetation type is wet tropical rainforest but this is fringed and to some extent dissected by sclerophyll forests, woodlands, swamps and mangrove forests. The rainforests of the wet tropics of Queensland have been classified into 13 main structural types, including two that have sclerophyll components (Eucalyptus and Acacia). These have been mapped at a scale of 1:100,000. The main types have been divided into 27 broad communities, all of which are present and range from multi-storeyed vine forests on richer soils in warmer wetter areas to more simple vine forests on poorer soils in drier areas, and fern forests at higher, wetter altitudes. On the slopes and summits of the high peaks occur vine fern forests and thickets, in which the canopy is low and dense and shows the streamlining effects of persistent, strong winds. Regional endemism is high and localized with, for example, floristic differences between the simple microphyll vine fern forests of the Bellenden Ker Range and those of the Mt. Lewis/Mt Spurgeon area. This type of rainforest , which has affinities with Australian temperate rainforests at higher latitudes and with montane rainforests of New Guinea and Indonesia, is restricted within tropical Australia to a few small sites on exposed mountain tops, all within the region. In contrast, remnant stands of complex mesophyll vine forest occur on basalt-derived soils in the wet lowlands between Innisfail and Cape Tribulation. Of all Australia's rainforests, this structural type is considered to be closest to the humid tropical lowland forests of South-east Asia. One of the most striking rainforest types is that dominated by the endemic fan palm Licuala ramsayi. It is restricted to small patches on poorly drained lowland soils. Most of this forest type has been cleared for sugar-cane farming and little more than 500 ha remain, mainly within the Yarrabah Aboriginal Reserve. Very little is protected within national parks. Adjacent to the rainforest margins on the western edge of the nominated area are tall open forests (or wet sclerophyll forests) dominated by flooded gum Eucalyptus grandis. The striking contrast in structure between the adjoining rainforest and wet sclerophyll forests of northern Queensland is considered unique to Australia, being very different from the rainforests-'campos cerrados' of Brazil and the moist evergreen-dry deciduous forests of India. The narrow strip of tall open forest is crucial for the conservation of the northern populations of three species of mammals that are restricted to this forest type, namely: yellow-bellied glider Petaurus australis, brush-tailed bettong Bettongia penicillata (E) and swamp rat Rattus lutreolus. Medium and low woodlands consist predominantly of Eucalyptus spp., Acacia spp., Lophostemon suaveolens, Syncarpia glomulifera and Casuarina spp. This forest type, which is widespread in Australia, is found along the western extremity, in the Daintree Valley system and on the western slopes of the upper Mulgrave Valley. Paperbarks Melaleuca spp. occur as the dominant tree species in poorly drained, lowland coastal areas where the water table is near to or above ground level for most of the year, such as the mouth of the Daintree River. The understorey comprises mostly sedges. Characteristic species of paperbark communities include the epiphytes Dischidia, Hydrophytum and tea tree orchid Dendrobium canaliculatum. The mangrove forests comprise some 30 species of trees and shrubs, comparable in diversity to those of New Guinea and South-east Asia which are acclaimed as being among the richest mangrove areas in the world. The region of highest diversity lies between Ingham and Innisfail. The most common genera are Rhizophora and Bruguiera, as well as Ceriops in some areas. Rainforest intergrades with the mangroves, sharing many species at the interface including Diospyros littorea, which occurs only on the landward side of mangroves. The mangroves are rich in salt marsh plants and epiphytes, the latter including the ant plant Myrmecodia beccarii.
Some 1,161 species of higher plants have been recorded from rainforests in the area, representing 523 genera and 119 families. Of the genera, 75 are endemic to Australia and 43 are restricted to the region. Of the species, about 710 are Australian endemics and 500 (43%) occur only in this area. A characteristic of these rainforests is the much higher diversity at genetic than species level, with 66% of 516 genera represented by only a single species. Of the 43 monotypic genera recorded to date, 28 are locally endemic to the area. The area is a stronghold for Australian members of the Proteaceae, with 13 genera and 40 species locally endemic, including Placospermum coriaceum, one of the most primitive members of this family.
Many examples of isolated populations of tree species are present. Species on the lowlands include Storkiella australiensis and Noahdendron nicholasii, which are restricted to near Cape Tribulation. Idiospermum australiense and Lindsayomyrtus brachyandrus have a disjunct distribution between the Cape Tribulation area and the Harveys Creek-Russell River area. On the uplands Sphalmium racemosum and Stenocarpus davalloides are restricted to the Mt. Carbine Tableland in the northern section of the nominated area, whereas Lomatia fraxinifolia, Darlingia darlingiana and Cardwellia sublimis are widespread. Much remains unknown of species distribution patterns. The rainforests have a rich orchid flora with some 90 species present; about 59 of these have a restricted distribution, with 43 having an extremely small range. One of the world's largest cycads is present, as well as one of the smallest. Lepidozamia hopei may grow to a height of about 20 m. The small Bowenia spectabilis is locally endemic and common in the understorey of rainforest-associated communities. The richest concentrations of ferns and their allies in Australia are found in the area. Of more than 240 species recorded in these rainforests, 46 are entirely restricted to the area and some 17 species are confined to single locations. Of the five Australian endemic fern genera, four are present. Pteridoblechnum, the only locally endemic fern genus, is represented by P. acuminatum at Mt Spurgeon and Mossman Gorge and by the widely distributed P. neglectum.
Further details of the vegetation and flora are given in RCSQ (1986). The conservation status and distribution of rare and threatened plants is summarized in DASETT (1987).
The wet tropical rainforests of north-east Queensland have the richest fauna in Australia. Although the region represents about 0.1% of the land surface of the continent, it contains 30% of marsupial species, 60% of bat species, 18% of bird species, 30% of frog species, 23% of reptile species and 62% of butterfly species in Australia. Some 54 species of vertebrates are unique to the area.
The mammal fauna includes 2 monotremes, 37 marsupials, 16 rodents and 34 bats. Nine species are endemic to the region's rainforests. These include four species of ringtail possum (Petauridae), Australia's only two tree-kangaroo species Dendrolagus lumholtzi and D. bennettianus, and the musky rat-kangaroo Hypsiprymnodon moschatus, which is the smallest and in many respects the most primitive of the macropods. The last two of the endemics, namely Thornton Peak rat Melomys hadrourus and Atherton antechinus Antechinus godmani, have very restricted distributions which have been used as the basis for defining two centers of endemism for flightless mammals. Several species of mammals present are isolated from the major occurrence of the species, in two cases by over 2,000 kilometers (km). Of these isolated species, spotted-tailed quoll Dasyurus maculatus, is one of the largest and most ferocious of the carnivorous marsupials. Of the 33 species of bats present, nine are Australian endemics and one is locally endemic. This is the tube-nosed insectivorous bat Murina florium, considered to be the "rarest mammal recorded alive in Australia".
The avifauna of the rainforests of northern Queensland is the most diverse in Australia. More than 370 species have been recorded, of which 137 species principally inhabit the closed forests, including mangroves. Twenty-three species are either endemic to the region or have their Australian distributions largely confined to this area. The majority of the 13 endemic species are confined to the upland rainforests. These include northern logrunner or chowchilla Orthonyx spaldingii, little treecreeper Climacteris minor, Atherton scrubwren Sericornis keri, Australian fernwren Crateroscelis gutturalis, mountain thornbill Acanthiza katherina, bridled honeyeater Lichenostomus frenatus, Bower's shrike-thrush Colluricincla megarhyncha, tooth-billed catbird Ailuroedus dentirostris and golden bowerbird Prionodura newtoniana. Notable is the presence of the flightless Australian cassowary Casuarius casuarius, one of the largest birds in the world. It is the only one of three species of cassowary in the world found in Australia.
There are about 47 species of frogs, of which the Australian distributions of 20 species are restricted to this area. Included are some species regarded as rare, such as Litoria lorica, Cophixalus neglectus, C. bombiens, C. hosmeri, C. infacetus and Taudactylus rheophilus, a representative of a primitive endemic genus.
Of the 160 species of reptiles, 16 are restricted to the region with respect to their Australian distributions. Several species have primitive characteristics, such as chameleon gecko Carphodactylus laevis and northern leaf-tailed gecko Phyllurus cornutus.
The skinks are a particularly diverse group, represented by 54 species within the area. Several species are rare and very restricted, including the Bartle Frere skink Leiolopisma jigurru, which has been found in the cool montane habitat near the summit of Mt. Bartle Frere. This is the first record of a temperate 'relict' species among the vertebrates of the area.
A recent survey of five sites along a 10 km transect yielded over 5,000 species of insects and over 300 species of spiders. The study indicated a high diversity of insects, but low populations for many species. Of particular biogeographic interest is the insect fauna preserved in the upland rainforests of the area, where the climate is relatively cool and commonly moist. There are many primitive, relict species that are isolated from their nearest relatives by at least 1,500 km. One species, the large stag beetle Sphaenognathus queenslandicus, which is found only on Mt. Lewis and Mt. Windsor Tableland, has its closest relatives in South America. The highly diverse and numerous moth fauna of the area includes many rainforest endemic species, including the brilliantly-coloured Aenetus monabilis, one of the largest moths with a wing span up to 18 centimeters (cm), and the very restricted Douea xanthopygs and Polyeuta callimorpha which are only known from several collections. The widespread Hercules moth Coscinocera hercules, one of the largest moths in the world with a wingspan up to 25 cm, is also present. Butterflies are also well represented in the area and include many restricted species such as purple brown eye Chaetocneme porphyropis, Australian hedge blue Udara tenella and Cairns birdwing Ornithoptera priamus euphorion (Australia's largest butterfly).
The fauna of the freshwater streams is largely unstudied. However, three species of blue crayfish Euastacus are restricted to the area. E. fleckeri is found only on Mt. Carbine Tableland, E. robertsi on Mt. Finnigan and an undescribed species on the Bellenden Ker Range and Atherton Tableland. The highly restricted distribution of these 'temperate' relicts parallels similar distributions among plants and other fauna, reflecting a long history of isolation on these mountain summits.
Aboriginal occupation in the area between Cooktown and Cardwell is thought to date back to at least 40,000 years ago. The northern tribes (Barrineans) are considered to represent the first wave of the Aboriginal occupation of Australia, making theirs the oldest rainforest culture in the world. Rainforest culture differed markedly from that of most other Australian Aboriginal tribes, with its heavy dependence on arboreal skills, everyday use of toxic plants and unique weapons. Major centers of survival of this culture are at the Bloomfield River and Murray Upper. A detailed resumé of the history of Aboriginal occupation is given in RCSQ.
Local Human Population
The first European to explore the wet tropics of Queensland was Edmund Kennedy in 1848. After further exploratory forays, notably by George Elphinstone Dalyrymple in 1873, pioneering graziers and later red cedar Toona australis cutters moved in, the latter working up the coast and reaching the Daintree and Mossman Rivers by 1875. Tin mining began to have an impact on the region in the 1880s. At the same time, rainforest was progressively cleared from the lowlands to make way for sugar cane plantations that spread along the entire northern coast to beyond Cooktown. The economy of the region has remained almost entirely dependent on primary production, but tourism has grown steadily since the 1950s. The Wet Tropics region is the most populated of northern tropical Australia with around half a million residents. While there are no urban centers within the Area, most of the inhabitants live within 50km of the Area boundaries in the expanding communities of the major cities Townsville and Cairns, smaller coastal towns and the closely settled farming areas of the Atherton Tableland.
Visitors and Visitor Facilities
Visits to the World Heritage Area occur throughout the year, with 2.4 million visits during the dry season (April to September) and 2.36 million during the wet season. Commercial tours account for about 1.5 million of the visits to the Area, with at least 100 tour companies offering trips to the region.
Scientific Research and Facilities
A Co-operative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management began operations in August 1993. Participants are Wet Tropica Management Authority, CSIRO, and James Cook, Queensland and Griffith Universities. A range of research projects, structured under six programs involving 84 scientists, encompass biodiversity, resource dynamics, socio-economic studies, integrated data exchange, education and technology transfer.
The Biodiversity Program will identify, document and monitor biodiversity of tropical rainforests including genetics, species and landscape diversity. Research presently is focusing on primitive families of plants, forest canopy and floor arthrops, stram and vertebrate fauna.
The wet tropics of north-east Queensland is regarded as one of the most significant regional ecosystems in the world, being of outstanding scientific importance and natural beauty. Regarding concentration and diversity of primitive flowering plants, the ecosystem is the most important in the world. The area contains in its biota elements that relate to eight major stages in the earth's evolutionary history: the 'Age of the Pteridophytes', 'Age of the Conifers and Cycads', 'Age of the Angiosperms', break-up of Gondwanaland, biological evolution and radiation during 35 million years of isolation, origin and radiation of the songbirds, mixing of the continental biota of the Australian and Asian continental plates, and the extreme effects of the Pleistocene glacial periods on tropical rainforest vegetation. The level of endemism is exceptionally high due to long isolation of ancient floras. In terms of the number of endemic genera conserved per unit area, the Australian wet tropics is second only to New Caledonia. There are many features of outstanding natural beauty, including the combination of tropical rainforest, white sandy beaches and fringing reefs between Daintree River and Cedar Bay that is probably unique in the world. Other features include some of the best gorge scenery and the highest waterfall in Australia. The area affords often the only habitat for numerous species (354 plants, 9 amphibians, 3 reptiles, 7 birds and 16 mammals) regarded as rare, threatened or endangered, based on the criteria by Leigh et al. The only recognized Australian Aboriginal rainforest culture is preserved within the area. It is the only example of a non-literate, indigenous culture in the world with an oral prehistory dating back 10,000-15,000 years. Further consideration of the importance of the area is given elsewhere.
The main legal instruments for protection of the Area are the Queensland Wet Tropics World Heritage Protection and Management Act 1993, which was proclaimed (apart form sections 56 and 57) on 1 November 1993, and the complementary Commonwealth Wet Tropics of Queensland World Heritage Area Conservation Act 1994. In the absence of the statutory protection of Section 56 of the State Act (which prohibits destruction of forest products), if World Heritage values are threatenedthe Commonwealth has the power to proclaim a regulation under the World Heritage Properties Conservation Act 1983, or the State may impose an interim conservation order under part 6 of the Nature Conservation Act 1992. The Wet Tropics Plan, which will provide additional statutory protection, was released for public opinion on October 1995.
State forests and timber reserves in the Area are presently managed by the Queensland Department of Primary Industries/Resource Management, while the national park estate is managed by the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage (DEH). Management of state forests is being transferred to DEH.
A range of activities are undertaken through the Heritage Conservation program to increase knowledge and protection of the Area's natural values. The Wet Tropics Management Authority (WTMA) is a partner in the Co-operative Research Centre for Tropical Rainforest Ecology and Management whose research program is to benefit management of the Wet Tropics Area. The WTMA funds weed eradication programs by the DEH and the Department of Lands and provides financial support to DEH and the Department of Primary Industries/Resource Management to undertake fire management programs in the area. Fourteen professional trappers are now working on a pilot feral pig trapping program in the Area and on adjacent properties. There are more than 200 traps in operation with materials purchased for the construction of up to 100 new traps. More than 1,000 pigs have been destroyed as a result of this program.
WTNA is now a referral agency providing terms of reference for Environmental Impact Statements for developments on properties inside or having a common boundary with the World Heritage Area.
In 1994/95, the WTMA finalized the acquisition of eight parcels of land from five willing vendors in and around the Area. Six of these have been gazetted as national parks with the remaining two vested in the Crown for national park status. These represent a variety of forest types to create a cassowary corridor in the Hull River area at Mission Beach.
The multi-tenure and ownership nature presents many challenges for implementation of consistent management across such a large area. Rainforest Aboriginal peoples have asserted native title over a substantial proportion of lands and filed for joint management of the Area. It may be several years before all native title claims are determined, but the WTMA is working closely with government agencies and Aboriginal peoples to develop strategies consistent with the aspirations of traditional inhabitants.
The present national park system is considered inadequate, with less than 5% of many rainforest types protected. These include some of the rarest types, among which the mesophyll vine forest and notophyll vine forest that occur on beach sand are totally unprotected. Survival of rainforests in state forests and timber reserves is not assured in view of the Department of Forestry's continuing policy of 'sustained yield' logging. For example, Mount Windsor Tableland and Downey Creek, two of the last remaining areas of virgin forests, have been logged. Although the limited empirical data available from northern Queensland indicate that its rainforests can withstand selective logging without incurring major losses of species or ecosystem instability, considerable uncertainty surrounds the reliability of current estimates of sustained yield. The integrity of the region's national parks is not inviolate, as illustrated by the construction of a highly controversial road through Cape Tribulation National Park and reports of illegal logging within the park. Other areas are threatened by tin mining, agriculture and real estate developments.
Other threats include: invasion of cleared and disturbed forests by Lantana camara and tobacco Solanum mauritianum; tree deaths caused by the woody vine Thunbergia grandiflora, introduced from northern India; and outbreaks of soil fungus Phytophthora cinnamoni in logged areas, causing patch deaths of trees and shrubs.
A very controversial commercial development known as 'Skyrail' was constructed in the area in 1995. Its effects on the free movement of canopy-dwelling species across the line of the cableway is unknown as are other impacts of tourism in area of the cable development. A proposal to augment the hydroelectric facility at Tully-Millstream is under consideration .
As of June 1995, there are 35 positions across the five programs of heritage conservation, management planning, community relations, corporate services and Daintree rescue. Of these positions, 19 were permanent and 16 temporary.
In 1994/95, the Authority had a total operating budget of about A$16.4 million, including A$6 million for the Daintree Rescue Programme. This included funds provided by the Commonwealth and Queensland governments (together with allocations carried forward from the previous years).
IUCN Management Category
- National parks are mostly Category II (National Park) but some do not merit inclusion in this category due to their small size. Several of these small sites are Category III (Natural Monument). State forests and timber reserves are not assigned to any category.
- Natural World Heritage Site - Criteria i, ii, iii, iv
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