IUCN - Discover the arid rangelands of the South Australian outback

Discover the arid rangelands of the South Australian outback

11 June 2010 | Fact sheet

One Park, Two Laws: A Cooperative Management In the vast arid rangelands of the South Australian outback : the Witijira National Park

Aboriginal traditional owners and state government are working together in a contemporary approach to protected area management

See photos of the park

Quick Facts:

  • Name: Witjira National Park
  •  IUCN Category: II (National Park)
  • Year of Proclamation: 1985
  • Location: Western Simpson Desert - South Australia, Australia
  • Size: 7, 770 square kilometres (768 850 hectares)
  • Habitat Type: Arid rangelands Significant Features: Dalhousie Springs Complex, Aboriginal and European heritage
  • Park Managers: Irrwanyere Aboriginal Corporation and the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage

Park Significance and Purpose

The far north of South Australia is a dry, remote and sparsely populated landscape rich in natural beauty and cultural heritage. Aboriginal people have a long held and ongoing association with this area, with a more recent European history also in existence. The major land uses in the region include pastoral grazing, mining and conservation.

The western edge of the Simpson Desert holds particular ecological and cultural importance. In 1985, a parcel of land formerly managed as Mount Dare Station was added to the state reserve system for the protection of the nationally significant Dalhousie Springs complex. Now known as Witjira National Park, the reserve conserves over 7, 770 square kilometres of gibber plain and stony tablelands, sand dunes, wetlands and floodplain country.

Dalhousie Springs are the largest spring complex in the Great Artesian Basin, a vast underground aquifer covering much of inland Australia. The spring system not only supports a unique aquatic fauna, but is a critical refuge for a range of native species during dry times. The majority of fish species found in the springs are endemic, including the Dalhousie Hardyhead (Craterocephalus dalhousiensis) and Dalhousie Purple-spotted Gudgeon (Mogurnda thermophila). Dalhousie Springs has also been included on the National Heritage List.

The land protected within Witjira National Park also holds great significance to the local Aboriginal people, and their Altyerre/Tjukurpa (traditional customs and lore) is strongly linked with the land. Many Aboriginal ‘dreaming’ stories are associated with the springs and surrounding landscape.

An Innovative Approach to Reserve Management

The Irrwanyere Aboriginal Corporation was formed in 1989 to represent those groups which have traditional association with the Witjira area; the Southern Arrente, Wangkangurru and Arabunna groups of central Australia.

Recognising that management of the park would be enhanced by sharing skills and knowledge between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people, the South Australian Department for Environment and Heritage entered into a unique joint management agreement with the Irrwanyere Aboriginal Corporation in 1995. The majority of the park was leased to Irrwanyere under a 99 year agreement which enabled the Irrwanyere to manage, live on and develop enterprises within the park. Witjira is the first park in South Australia where provision is made for permanent living areas for Aboriginal people.

In 2007, a formal co-management agreement under the South Australian National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 was established over the park. A co-management board comprised of Irrwanyere and government representatives is responsible for park management decisions and implementation of the reserve management plan. A park management framework provides clear rules and structures for decision making within the co-management context. Day to day operational management is undertaken by the Department’s ranger staff on behalf of the Board.

The most recent park management plan (2009) was developed by the co-management board and outlines four main co-management themes for the park:

  • Indigenous People’s Aims: encouraging the expression of social, cultural and economic aims of Indigenous people
  • Managing Natural Systems: looking after the land, water, native plants and animals
  • Managing Important Places: looking after sites with cultural, historic, scientific, natural or scenic value
  • Managing Tourism and Recreation: encouraging community enjoyment and use

A Spectacular Landscape

Much of the western and central areas of the park are dominated by stony tablelands and plains. Numerous plant species occur in these areas including the state rare Ashy-haired Swanson Pea (Swainsona tephroticha) and Small-fruit Twinleaf (Zygophyllum humillimum). The nationally vulnerable Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis) and Thick-billed Grasswren (Amytornis textilis modestus) have also been recorded.

The Finke River and associated floodplains run along the northern boundary of the park. Although rarely in flood, the wetlands of this system support a highly productive and diverse ecosystem during wet years. Species of conservation significance recorded in these areas include the state vulnerable Brolga (Grus rubicund) and state rare Black-breasted Buzzard (Hamisrostra melansternon).

Sandy plains and dunefields lie to the east of the Finke floodplains, supporting numerous plant and animal species. The nationally endangered Ampurta (Dasycerus cristicauda ssp hillieri), once widespread across central Australia, is now restricted to a small area which includes part of Witjira National Park. The nationally endangered Mulgara (Dasycerus cristicauda ssp cristicauda) was previously recorded in this area and potential habitat for this species is protected within the park.

Management Challenges

Feral animals such as camels, donkeys, horses and cattle remain a significant threat to mound springs and other ecosystems within the park. Vegetation removal, soil compaction and erosion are a particular concern around the fragile edges of the springs. Introduced plant species such as Date Palm (Phoenix dactylifera), Athel Pine (Tamarix aphylla) and Buffel Grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) also compete with native species across the park, ultimately threatening biodiversity values.

Water extraction within the Great Artesian Basin has resulted in reduced flows at many mound springs within the park. The reduction in flow makes the springs more susceptible to evaporation over the summer months, with some endemic aquatic species becoming increasingly vulnerable to extinction. The long-term consequences of climate change are likely to worsen this situation. A recovery and threat abatement plan for the Great Artesian Mound Springs is currently under development.

The spectacular landscape, accessible camping and visitor facilities make Witjira National Park a popular destination for travellers. Prior to proclamation of the park, recreational use of the springs caused widespread physical damage and pollution of the site. Despite increasing visitor numbers, this threat has been significantly reduced through improved facilities, education and access management.

Threat Abatement

Since the park was proclaimed, important steps have been taken to enhance the protection of natural and cultural values, while increasing public enjoyment. Pest plant and animal control programs (including Date Palm removal from springs), artesian bore closures, campsite establishment and re-development, installation of interpretative signage and trail, control of off-road driving and stabilisation of heritage sites are just some of the measures taken to date.

Despite the many challenges associated with managing this unique and fragile environment, improvements will continue to occur through the co-management approach.