Conservation covenants – an agreement forever or not worth the paper they’re written on?

LandforWildlife copyConservation covenants are an increasingly popular strategy for conserving biodiversity on private land but how effective are they? New research involving CEED, RMIT and The Nature Conservancy has revealed there’s much to commend these agreements in Australia but there’s also some work we need to do to ensure their effectiveness.

“There’s a growing trend in many parts of the world for land owners to enter into conservation covenants,” says Mat Hardy, the RMIT scientist leading the research on covenants.

“These are often permanent and legally binding agreements that place restrictions on what activities can take place on the land; for example they often prevent the clearing of native vegetation from parts of a property. Landowners enter into these agreements because it helps them preserve the natural values of the land they love, and governments like these agreements because it helps them meet their obligations to conserve biodiversity.”

The first conservation covenant in Australia was a wildlife refuge on private land established back in 1951 (in New South Wales). Since then the number of covenants has grown considerably to around 7,500 across Australia, with most of those being established in the last 25 years.

“From a conservation policy perspective, the permanence and security of these agreements with private landholders are central issues,” observes Hardy.

“In theory, most conservation covenants in Australia are permanent in that the conditions they impose are passed on to the new owners when the land is sold. However, there was little information available on the permanence and security of covenants in Australia. So we asked the 13 major covenanting organisations that operate in this country whether the covenants they oversaw were still in place and whether the obligations they prescribed had been observed.”

Although security provisions vary between programs, all covenants in Australia are backed by legislation, with release (i.e., the removal of the covenant) usually requiring approval from multiple parties including the landholder and the relevant government Minister. The exception is the Wildlife Refuge program, which is only available in New South Wales and is unique amongst Australian covenants for only requiring approval for release from a single party (i.e., the land holder can choose to opt out voluntarily).

The information collected by the researchers showed that of the 6,818 multi-party covenants created across Australia, only eight had been released (0.12%). Of the 673 single-party (NSW Wildlife Refuge) covenants formed, 130 had been released.

“Based on these figures, very few covenants have been released, and multi-party covenants are clearly a better agreement in terms of permanence,” observes Hardy. “Part of that would relate to the greater difficulty of exiting a multi-party agreement.”

“We also asked what’s happening with covenant breaches. Are landholders abiding by the terms of the covenant?”

Unfortunately, the researchers found that detailed breach data was hard to get hold of, making it very difficult to accurately determine the number and types of breaches that had occurred. It was also difficult to assess what impact the breaches were having on the natural values the covenants had been established to protect (if any). This relates to the bigger issue of needing improved monitoring and recording of conservation covenants.

“Our study showed the agreements are, on the whole, relatively secure and enduring but we need ongoing monitoring and reporting to assess the true contribution of these agreements,” says Hardy.

“What’s more, some organizations suggested that the turnover of conservation covenants to ‘successor landholders’ may be developing into a policy issue, requiring agencies to engage with the new landholders and ensure they are as committed to the terms of the covenant as the original owners.

“Keep in mind that the majority of existing covenants were created in the last 25 years so we would expect to see a growing number of these agreements being transferred to new owners in the coming years.

“Given this, coupled with a growing enthusiasm by governments to encourage new conservation covenants, the need for ongoing and effective monitoring has never been greater.”

More information: Mat Hardy This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


Hardy MJ, JA Fitzsimons, SA Bekessy & A Gordon (2016). Exploring the permanence of conservation covenants. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12243

Bright spots shine light on the future of coral reefs

reef fish 2Researchers including University of Queensland and Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) scientists have discovered a handful of “bright spots” among the world’s embattled coral reefs, offering the promise of a radical new approach to conservation.

In one of the largest global studies of its kind, the researchers conducted more than 6000 reef surveys in 46 countries, and discovered 15 ‘bright spots’ – places where against all the odds, there were a lot more fish on coral reefs than more





Photo: Tane Sinclair-Taylor.

Trade-offs between biodiversity, carbon and agricultural development in our northern savannas

Agriculture GarryDCookThere’s a lot of talk about developing Australia’s north, of doubling the agricultural output of this region and pouring billions of dollars into new infrastructure such as irrigation. But what about the natural values of this region and it’s potential for carbon storage today and into the future? Can we develop the north and still retain these other values?

A new analysis by spatial ecologists including CEED researchers has found agricultural development could have profound impacts on biodiversity OR a relatively light impact, it all depends on how and where it’s done. If managers and decision makers want our sweeping northern savannas to serve multiple purposes then they need to plan strategically for them.


Measuring impact of Kenya’s ivory burning ‘urgent’ say UQ scientists

FOS ivory 90616 African Elephant Duan BiggsPress Release - for immediate release 9 June 2016. 

Nature Paper link - text version link 

Gathering evidence on the impact of Kenya’s record-breaking ivory burn on elephant conservation should be an urgent priority according to four University of Queensland scientists. 

Dr Duan Biggs from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) said the ivory burns and stockpile destruction had increased by more than 600 per cent since 2011, with Kenya burning a record-breaking 105 tonnes of ivory on 30 April, valued at up to US$220 million on the black market.


Decision Point special issue: Marine conservation

DPt96bThe June issue of Decision Point  (#96) is a special issue on marine conservation – it’s all about making decisions (trade-offs) in the marine realm. 

Read online, or download a PDF, from 

New methods developed to assess climate model predictions

Ponds on the Ocean ICESCAPEEvaluating the predictions associated with climate change just became easier with the development of new statistical methods designed to assess the performance of models producing many of these predictions.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) research involved collaboration with CEED scientists at The University of Queensland (UQ) and the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Boulder, Colorado.

CEED Chief Investigator Dr Eve McDonald-Madden of UQ’s School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, said the new methods would help ecologists, managers, and policy makers examine the quality of predictions produced by individual or sets of climate models.


Mixed policies can meet multiple expectations in Kalimantan's tropical forest landscapes

Liz Law studyarea page 1Land-use planning in complex landscapes is a major challenge. Meeting the needs and desires of multiple stakeholders competing for the same area of land is never easy. Some focus on the production values of the landscape, others on the conservation importance of the land. However, new CEED research just out on how to achieve the biggest biodiversity benefits in mixed tropical forests has shown it is possible to meet production expectations and conservation targets simultaneously.

"Tropical forest landscapes face competing demands for conserving biodiversity, sustaining ecosystem services and accommodating production systems such as forestry and agriculture," says Dr Elizabeth Law, the researcher leading this investigation on multifunctional tropical forests in Indonesia.


What can extinct species do to help conservation?

Passenger Pigeon Wikipedia Louis FuertesThe dodo, the passenger pigeon and the Tasmanian tiger are well-known victims of extinction caused by human behaviour, but could their status be used to help conservation efforts from beyond the grave?

CEED Researcher Dr Vanessa Adams, from The University of Queensland, and Dr Peter Kyne from the Charles Darwin University believe so.


Victoria’s flower-strewn western plains could be swamped by development

Vic West Plains Wildflowers Georgia Garrard smallerAs part of the Conversation's EcoCheck series, Assoc Prof Sarah Bekessy & Dr Georgia Garrard discuss the conservation fate of Victoria's grasslands.  @ConversationEDU

CEED Director joins National Academy of Sciences

HP profile picture July 2015 croppedCEED director Hugh Possingham has received formal recognition for his contribution to original research, elected as a foreign associate to the National Academy of Sciences alongside a small cohort of distinguished researchers.

The National Academy of Sciences, a not-for-profit institution established under President Lincoln in 1863, recognizes outstanding achievements in science by electing researchers to membership (US citizens) or foreign associate status (if a non-citizen). The Academy was established to provide science policy advice to the American federal government.

Professor Possingham was one of twenty-one scientists to be accepted as a foreign associate in the latest intake, and is the first Queensland-based academic to receive the honour.

"I am humbled to be recognized by such an illustrious institution. I would like to thank everyone I have worked with, and I hope I can use the election to further the cause of environmental science globally," Professor Possingham said.

Twenty Australian scientists are members of the Academy as a foreign associate.