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Alice Springs Desert Park - Australia's First Biopark

Volume 2 Number 8 - June 1997

Mark Richardson

A unique natural history facility has been established near Alice Springs in the arid centre of Australia. It is combining plants, animals and Aboriginal culture to introduce visitors to the Australian desert environment. It is the most significant development that has ever occurred in terms of the promotion of Australia's desert flora and fauna. The need for the conservation of these plants and animals will form an important part of this promotion. The facility will not only be concerned with education but also research with the Alice Springs Herbarium being relocated to the Park.

The Alice Springs Desert Park is located on the outskirts of the town of Alice Springs in central Australia. It was opened to the public in March, 1997.

The Park covers about 1,300 ha and includes an impressive portion of the Macdonnell Ranges that rise above the surrounding plains. The main exhibits are within the 'core area' of the park which covers about 40 ha. This core area is located on the plains to the north of the range. The dominant plant species occurring naturally on the core site include Acacia kempeana (Witchetty bush - source of the famous witchetty grub), Acacia estrophiolata (ironwood), Atalaya hemiglauca (whitewood), Hakea suberea (corkwood), Acacia aneura (mulga) and one of the icons of central Australia, the ghost gum (Corymbia aperrerinja - formerly Eucalyptus papuana). Spinifex does not occur naturally within the core site but two species of Triodia occur within the park (Triodia clelandii and T. longiceps).

The Park's goals are:

  • To increase visitor appreciation, understanding and enjoyment of the arid region in Australia
  • To provide a facility for the conservation of flora and fauna for the region
  • To interpret Aboriginal use of desert plants and animal
  • To provide a unique receational opportunity for local residents and visitors
  • To facilitate scientific research into the natural history and environment of arid Australia.

Some $24 million dollars have been allocated to this project and it will be developed in two stages. Stage 1, the most expensive, has included the development of the first three habitats, the visitor centre, the nocturnal house and the nature theatre. The first three habitats are riverine, sand country (including a clay pan, gypsum pan and salt pan) and woodland. Stage 2 is planned to finish in the year 2000. It will include the development of the remaining habitats and associated aviaries and other animal exhibits. These are ranges, gorges, mulga, gibber and mitchell grass.

Unlike most zoos, the plants at the Desert Park will not be just background for the animals. Rather the animal displays will encapsulate a part of the habitat that is being portrayed. The plantings of the habitats will flow through the animal exhibits unimpeded (albeit a little bit chewed).

lt is intended that all the plants within the core area will have a known and, in the main, wild origin. It is also intended that these plants will be vouchered at the Alice Springs Herbarium. To help enforce this, the plants will be given accession numbers that are based on the number given for the Herbarium specimen. There will, however, have to be temporary numbers given for some (e.g. seed from other institutions) as voucher specimens will have to be collected after propagation/cultivation.

As the living collection is being developed, so are the recording procedures. The plants database is being developed in conjunction with the Darwin Botanic Gardens, the Northern Territory Herbariumn and other parts of the Parks and Wildlife Commission. In addition alternatives are being considered for the mapping of the plants within the various habitats. At present the most favoured will involve the use of geographical planning system technology including the establishment of a base station within the Park to allow rapidly-processed sub-metre accuracies for the Park and also give a useful service for other National Parks up to 500 km from Alice Springs. To continue the integration within the Park, the records for both plants and animals will be managed by the same person who is a part of the Botany section.

The Park is administered by the Northern Territory's Parks and Wildlife Commission. A second wildlife park, namely, the Territory Wildlife Park is also administered by the Commission and is about 50 km from Darwin. It was established in the 1980s and is principally concerned with the flora and fauna of the Top End.

It is hoped that the Park will be among the first places visited by people coming to Australia's arid centre. All too often the desert is viewed as empty and visitors travelling through it think more about their destination rather than the landscape through which they are passing. The changes in the landscape and the often cryptic nature of the plants and animals is not appreciated and much that would be of interest is missed. The Park will hopefully help to prepare visitors for the environment that they have entered Ä to get them to slow down and look around.

Unlike most similar facilities, including most botanic gardens and zoos, the links that the Park has with the Northern Territories Parks and Wildlife Commission mean that the 'story' does not have to end at the exit. It is intended that visitors will view the Park as a microcosm of the larger desert environment and as an introduction to the the many desert national parks and reserves. To assist with the interpretation of the displays, the Park will also be employing education and interpretation staff as well as both aboriginal and non aboriginal guides.

At present there are six staff in the Botany section and four in the Zoology section. By the end of the year it is intended to have increased those numbers to 11 and 14 respectively. As the botanical and zoological activities are to be integrated as closely as possible, it is vital for the staff of the respective areas to have a good understanding of their counterpart's activities. While the main priorities for the botanical section for the next few years will be to develop the living collection and landscape the displays, many of the staff will need to learn about animal behaviour to assist in that landscaping work.

In the words of the Master Plan prepared for the Northern Territory Government in 1994, "the Alice Springs Desert Park will be the premier educational facility in Australia for displaying and interpreting life in Australian desert ecosystems. The Park will interpret the arid regions of Australia which includes the central 70% of the continent. Surrounded by a vigorous indigenous culture and a magnificent environment, the Park will break new ground in the display and interpretation of the traditional use of plants and animals by aboriginal people. The Park will provide an uncommon opportunity for aboriginal and non-aboriginal people to pursue a common goal and to build a cross-cultural awareness and appreciation. The lead role taken by aboriginal people in presenting ethnobotanical themes will be an essential element of this process. Through its living collection of plants and animals, the Park will foster research, management and conservation of the natural environment."