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Scientists, teachers, warriors

For 60 years Jamie Kirkpatrick has ruffled plumage – in the field, in the classroom, in the boardroom – in fearless advocacy for biodiversity and conservation.

Study | Research

Over the course of a long and dynamic academic career, now in its sixth decade, geographer and conservation ecologist Professor Jamie Kirkpatrick has focused increasingly on changes to the natural world from human – usually economic – activity.

From a global perspective, this has been a sorry tale of habitat and species loss, spurred in recent decades by runaway climate change. The Earth is enduring, as Kirkpatrick rather grimly puts it, a “mass extinction event”.

This has been “...largely fuelled by the swamps that fed the dinosaurs, the combustible remnants of which have allowed an exponential expansion in our numbers and our imprint on the planet, with an almost vertical rise in both since the mid-19th century. Our rise has been mirrored by the departures of our relatives, squeezed out by our transmogrification of the planet, or killed off by our witting and unwitting breakdown of biotic movement barriers as we transport species like the European fox from continent to continent.”

The global problems in keeping other species on the planet were highlighted in 2022 at the UN Ocean Conference in Lisbon and the UN Biodiversity Conference in Montreal, where governments around the world agreed on new goals to halt and reverse habitat loss. By late that same year, more than 100 countries, including Australia, had pledged to protect 30 per cent of their land and oceans by 2030.

Australia is close to both targets but has one of the worst records for nature loss, with more than 1,900 listed threatened species.

“Australia has been an epicentre of the extinction of the forms of life we tend to care most about: mammals, birds and plants,” says Kirkpatrick.

“We have a particularly bad record with mammals, mostly our pouched marsupials, a large proportion of which are presumed extinct or listed as threatened. Destruction of habitat and the deliberate introduction of two predators, the fox and the cat, are the main contributors to this Australian crisis.”

But the story is much more cheering and nuanced in Tasmania, observes Kirkpatrick, the University’s Distinguished Professor in Geography and Environmental Studies at the School of Geography, Planning, and Spatial Sciences.

“A lot of Tasmanians are deeply attached to the natural landscape and they’ve been prepared to fight for it. And not only Tasmanians: the island’s environment has often benefited from far-sighted decisions taken by Commonwealth governments.

“As things stand, Tasmania is one of the biotic jewels of the planet, rich in plant species that are largely unchanged since the Cretaceous era, tens of millions of years ago.”

“We still have many small fungivorous - and larger carnivorous - marsupials who have been victims of the fox on the north island.”

Thanks largely to the work of environmental advocates such as Kirkpatrick – and activists such as those who four decades ago blockaded the Franklin River – about 42 per cent of the state is now protected in reserved lands, national parks and world heritage sites. The Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area is more than a million hectares in total or one-fifth of the main island of Tasmania.

“It was a very different situation when I first came to Tasmania in 1972,” he recalls. “Back then only five per cent of the state was in reserves. Although the marine situation today is pretty bad, the forest reserves we have are well distributed. In fact, we’ve lost very few species. The Tasmanian emu is the main loss. Of course, everyone knows about the Thylacine [Tasmanian Tiger], but we may not have actually lost it. So we’re unusual in that respect. Of course, keeping it that way is a bit difficult.

Kirkpatrick is the originator and coordinator of the University’s Bachelor of Natural Environment and Conservation. It’s a popular degree, attracting about 400 students from Tasmania and the mainland. In addition, he runs field studies in this and other degrees.

The state’s nature reserves, which Kirkpatrick has had a hand in shaping, become an open-air classroom as students learn how to observe and study the wonders of the natural world, and how to conserve and manage them.

Kirkpatrick was an early adopter of satellite imagery to map bush loss. Using this technology, he discovered that a quarter of a million hectares of Tasmanian native bush was destroyed between 1972 and 1999. Most of the destruction was on private land. It wasn’t enough for Kirkpatrick to survey the habitat loss. He ran the satellite mapping exercise several times, conveyed his results to state and federal governments, and eventually convinced the political class to take up the cause. Kirkpatrick and his team from the University turned science into advocacy and, ultimately, concrete action.

“I came to Tasmania, saw this amazing place, knew Learning about the socio-economic impediments it was worth fighting for, and decided to dedicate the rest of my life to doing just that,” he says.

His scientific work has earned him a Eureka Prize for Environmental Research, but it’s his Order of Australia for service to forest and world heritage conservation that underscores his rare ability to combine the roles of researcher, teacher and eco-warrior.

At the same time, his advocacy has not been confined to ecological orthodoxy, and he’s been prepared to ruffle the plumage of many in the environmental movement.

My research career drew me to the conclusion that, to look after the rest of nature, one had to manage for the most threatened species in any local area, no matter where they came from, rather than fussing about ‘nativeness’, ‘natural environments’ or ‘landscape processes'.

“Introduced exotic plants can end up being a plus for nature conservation.”

The research and teaching dimensions of Kirkpatrick’s work are united by the same practical real-world goals.

“Our research at the University of Tasmania has helped us to understand the problems we have in the natural world and the things that need to be done to fix them. Through our curriculum we want to produce people who have the scientific knowledge to interpret nature, to conserve and manage nature. To do that you need wide knowledge that spans across the sciences to the social sciences and the humanities.

Learning about the socio-economic impediments to conservation is just as important as learning the skills of soil analysis, geomorphological measurement, vegetation mapping, and fauna assessment.

“The University of and for the island takes its responsibilities in sustaining the native species of Tasmania very seriously. Conservation ecology is taught intensively with a strong field base in specialist and generalist degrees, such as the Bachelor of Science. Large research programs cover critical areas, such as threatened species management, fir management, marine ecosystem management, and conservation planning.

“The University also promotes nature conservation on its own land, such as in the 40 hectares of bush on the Sandy Bay campus. The critically endangered swift parrot and forty-spotted pardalote occasionally alight on habitat trees scattered among the campus buildings, while pademelons, extinct on mainland Australia, graze the lawns.”

Main image: Environment studies field trip, Mt Paris Dam.

This story features in the 2023 edition of It's in our nature - a collection of stories that celebrate and highlight the unique work being undertaken by our institution, and the people within it, to deliver a more fair, equitable and sustainable society.

Explore sustainability at the University of Tasmania and how you can get involved.

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