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The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area (extension to existing property)

Date of Submission: 07/05/2010
Criteria: (viii)(ix)(x)
Category: Natural
Submitted by:
Department of the Environment, Water, Heritage and the Arts
State, Province or Region:
New South Wales and Queensland
Coordinates: S30 04 15 E152 18 08
Ref.: 5541

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Property names are listed in the language in which they have been submitted by the State Party


The Gondwana Rainforests of Australia World Heritage Area (the Gondwana Rainforests), inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986 with extensions inscribed in 1994, is a serial property which consists of numerous reserves, in eight groups, along the coast and subcoast of mid-eastern Australia. These reserves have been described as the terrestrial equivalent of the Galapagos Islands as each of the separate units, though related to the others, combines to reveal a pattern of evolution of great interest to science.

This proposed nomination of extensions to the property is based on the 1993 IUCN Technical Evaluation recommendation that Australia consider additions to the property to enhance the expression of values and strengthen manageability. There have been significant additions to national parks and other categories of protected area in both New South Wales and Queensland since the 1993 IUCN assessment and the proposed nomination is largely made up of areas where the change in tenure has allowed for their consideration as additions to the World Heritage Area. The areas proposed for addition contain attributes which increase the expression of the criteria for which the property is listed and enhance its overall outstanding universal value. Manageability of the property will also be significantly strengthened by the proposed additions through improved connectivity and the simplification of boundaries.

The Gondwana Rainforests comprises many disjunct protected areas containing remnants of the rainforest flora and fauna of the ancient southern super-continent Gondwana. Rainforests once covered most of the Australian continent and the Gondwana Rainforests now contain the largest and most significant remaining areas of subtropical rainforest in the world, the largest remaining area of littoral rainforest in the region, the largest and most significant areas of warm temperate rainforest and nearly all the areas of Antarctic beech (Nothofagus moorei) cool temperate rainforest in the world. These rainforests provide a fascinating living link with the evolution of Australia. Few places on Earth contain so many plants and animals whose form today remains relatively unchanged from that of their ancestors in the fossil record. There is a concentration of primitive plant families that are directly linked with the birth and spread of flowering plants over 100 million years ago, as well as some of the oldest elements of the world's ferns and conifers.

In addition to the biological evolutionary links, the Gondwana Rainforests contain outstanding examples of ongoing geological processes associated with Tertiary volcanic activity. These features include one of the best-preserved erosion calderas in the world and a landscape dominated by striking vertical cliffs and one of the highest concentrations of waterfalls on the Australian continent.

Rainforests are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on Earth and the Gondwana Rainforests has many centres of outstanding species diversity including the highest concentration of frog, snake, bird and marsupial species in Australia. The Gondwana Rainforests contains more than 200 rare or threatened plant species, many of which are endemic to the property.

This extension of the property is proposed under the same criteria for which the Gondwana Rainforests was inscribed on the World Heritage List in 1986 and 1994. The proposed additional areas were selected on the basis of a rigorous scientific assessment developed in collaboration with the Gondwana Rainforests Technical and Scientific Advisory Committee. Candidate areas were examined against specific criteria, and were only included where they met an agreed scoring threshold and were of sufficient size. The assessment criteria included:

  1. the presence of key biota linked to World Heritage values, thereby giving greater weighting to the core habitat for iconic or threatened species associated with rainforest;
  2. improving the representativeness of rainforest types and values included in the Gondwana Rainforests;
  3. improving the connectivity of the Gondwana Rainforests and simplifying its boundary;
  4. the current condition of a site, which measures both its disturbance history and its resilience from past disturbance;
  5. the degree to which identifiable external threats to an area's long-term conservation are likely to impact on a site;
  6. ensuring the presence of ecological gradients or landscape dynamics to maximise opportunities for natural shift or change in the face of changing conditions.

The resulting proposed additions are located within the same broad geographic range as the existing World Heritage Area (between latitudes 27.8390 S to 32.2035 S and longitudes 151.7102 E to 153.363 E) with a northern extension to include the Bunya Mountains National Park. A total of 689 364 hectares is proposed for addition including all the areas previously recommended by the IUCN to be a part of Gondwana Rainforests (268 678 ha); areas that are contiguous to an existing part of the Gondwana Rainforests (114 429 ha); and areas that had high total scores against the above criteria (306 257 ha).

Justification of Outstanding Universal Value

The values within the proposed additional areas that may justify inscription are the same values that met the UNESCO criteria and resulted in the inscription of the current extent of the Gondwana Rainforests.  The proposed additions enhance the expression of these values and also strengthen the manageability of the existing property, thereby significantly contributing to the conservation of the outstanding universal value of the Gondwana Rainforests.

(viii) ...outstanding examples representing major stages of earth's history, including the record of life, significant on-going geological processes in the development of landforms, or significant geomorphic or physiographic features;

The Gondwana Rainforests preserves outstanding examples of the oldest elements of the world's ferns from the Carboniferous period; is one of the most significant centres of survival for ancient Auraucarians; has an outstanding record of the evolution and spread of Angiosperms; contains an outstanding number of the oldest lineages of the Corvida (one of the two major groups of true songbirds that evolved in the Late Cretaceous); and preserves outstanding examples of other relict vertebrate and invertebrate fauna from ancient lineages linked to the break-up of Gondwana.

A number of areas were specifically identified in the 1993 IUCN Technical Evaluation as areas which would add significant value to the property through the more complete expression of this criterion. One of these areas is the Bunya Mountains National Park which contains the main core of the Bunya Pine Araucarian forest. For some 50 million years the forests of the supercontinent Gondwana were dominated by species of two ancient genera: Nothofagus and Araucaria. The Auraucarians are the most primitive of the world's conifers, representing the 'Age of Conifers' in the Jurassic Period. The Gondwana Rainforests is the only place in Australia where these two genera occur together.

Containing representatives of primitive plant families linked to the birth of flowering plants over 100 million years ago, the Gondwana Rainforests preserves the best living examples of relict plant species that can trace their origins to the second wave of flowering plants. This wave led to that most radical shift in the world's vegetation when the relatively depauperate conifer forests were overwhelmed by the diversity of flowering plants. Subtropical rainforests are the closest living analogue to the vegetation which followed this change and was widespread during the late Cretaceous/early Tertiary period - the 'golden age' of modern flora. The Gondwana Rainforests contains the most extensive areas of subtropical rainforest remaining in the world. The proposed additions include significant areas of subtropical rainforest, further strengthening the expression of this criterion.

The Gondwana Rainforests comprises the major refugia of the relictual rainforest flora and fauna of Gondwana. The proposed additions will strengthen the expression of this criterion and further support the manageability of the property to conserve a number of important relictual taxa, including the lyrebirds, the Rufous Scrub-bird, bowerbirds, the Pouched Frog, chelid turtles, land snails, velvet worms, glow worms, and numerous other invertebrates.

(ix) ...outstanding examples representing significant on-going ecological and biological processes in the evolution and development of terrestrial, fresh water, coastal and marine ecosystems and communities of plants and animals;

The areas proposed for addition to the Gondwana Rainforests contain rainforests that are living models of the fossil vegetation demonstrating the ongoing evolution of plant communities as distinct from individual plant species. Ongoing evolution of plant communities is evident in the development of the different rainforest types within the property and, although the property contains the major occurrences of these significant rainforest types, the proposed additions enhance their representation and improve their connectivity.

The proposed additions comprise areas recommended in the 1993 IUCN Technical Evaluation to further enhance the expression of this criterion, including areas on the Richmond Range which express the drier phase of the Border Ranges rainforest ecosystem; and the Carrai Plateau and escarpment adjacent to Werrikimbe National Park which include major examples of the "Macleay" dry rainforest.

The proposed additions also add to previously poorly represented rainforest types within the Gondwana Rainforests including the:

  • Eastern Dorrigo Warm Temperate Rainforest which has Hoop Pine emergents and Nothofagus moorei at low altitudes;
  • Dry Rainforests in the Manning catchment including Dry Rainforest on limestone in the Upper Manning; and
  • Tweed Caldera Gully Rainforests which have the highest diversity of species per unit area anywhere in NSW.

(x) ... contain the most important and significant natural habitats for in-situ conservation of biological diversity, including those containing threatened species of outstanding universal value from the point of view of science or conservation

Rainforest, which at one time covered most of the continent, is now restricted to approximately 0.4% of total vegetative cover on mainland Australia. The Gondwana Rainforests occurs as an archipelago of rainforest 'islands' along the Great Escarpment, isolated largely by sclerophyll vegetation and cleared land. Of the more than 200 rare and threatened species of plant and animal recorded in the Gondwana Rainforests, many are endemic and regionally restricted. Many of these rare and threatened species are rainforest specialists and their vulnerability to extinction is not least due to the rarity of their rainforest habitat. The proposed additions to the Gondwana Rainforests will both add to the representation of these species in the property and afford further protection through including additional rainforest habitat and improving the overall integrity and resilience of the property.

The proposed additions also include areas recommended by the 1993 IUCN Technical Evaluation to further link sections of the property including significant areas around Mount Seaview Nature Reserve and Barrington Tops National Park in the south of the property. These additions, while enhancing the expression of this criterion, also improve the manageability of the property through improving connectivity and simplifying boundaries.

Statements of authenticity and/or integrity

The existing reserves that make up the Gondwana Rainforests contain the key interrelated elements (attributes) which together constitute the property's outstanding universal value. The areas proposed for addition, which include major occurrences of rainforest types within the region and their important floristic elements, will improve the integrity of the property by including a more complete expression of these attributes.

The existing extent of the Gondwana Rainforests is sufficient to maintain viable populations of most of the significant species found within the property. However, given the disjunct nature of the property, and the environmental shifts resulting from climate change that are becoming apparent, these values are more at risk from factors such as fire and weed invasion. The integrity of the property as a whole will be significantly enhanced through the addition of these areas through improving the connectivity of the Gondwana Rainforests reserves and reducing edge effects through simplifying boundaries. It is also considered that the additional areas, with the appropriate management engendered by World Heritage status, will add to the resilience of the property and its ecosystems, making it better able to adapt to changes brought about by human-induced climate change.

With respect to ongoing evolution, the legislative protection afforded to the property ensures the continuation of undisturbed natural biological processes. The dedication of Wilderness in a number of the NSW sites increases this protection.

Comparison with other similar properties

Previous comparisons undertaken in 1986 as part of the original nomination refer to the distinct structural, physiognomic and floristic features of the Gondwana Rainforests in relation to other rainforest areas in Australia. These distinctions are revisited briefly below, together with a preliminary discussion of other World Heritage Areas with similarities to Gondwana Rainforests.

There are three distinct areas of World Heritage listed rainforest in Australia - the cool temperate rainforests of the Tasmanian Wilderness, the wet tropical rainforests of Queensland and the largely subtropical and warm temperate rainforests of the Gondwana Rainforests. The Gondwana Rainforests occupy a separate floristic region from the tropical rainforests, representing a separate line of evolution from the common Gondwanan stock. The tropical rainforests contain a stronger Indo-Malayan component and do not have the same strong Gondwanan affinities. The rainforests of Tasmania occupy a floristic province distinct from those of the Gondwana Rainforests, and a significant portion of the Tasmanian rainforest flora may also be of relatively recent derivation from species present in the Gondwana Rainforests. Although the Gondwana Rainforests share many common species with the cool temperate Tasmanian rainforests, these, being at a lower latitude, do not have the diversity or luxuriance of the more northerly sites.

The Lord Howe Island Group is also a predominantly rainforest property and has biogeographic links with the flora of the Gondwana Rainforests, as does Fraser Island, particularly with the littoral rainforests of Iluka Nature Reserve. There are also links with the limited areas of rainforest in Kakadu National Park including some common widespread species and a shared Gondwanan ancestry.

The Greater Blue Mountains also falls within the intermediate geographic position between the rainforests of tropical Queensland and the cool temperate rainforests of Tasmania. While predominantly a Eucalyptus dominated property, the Greater Blue Mountains does include some areas of rainforest and, with a few exceptions, the species contained in these rainforests are shared with the Gondwana Rainforests of Australia. Links to the north and south are shown by species such as the filmy fern Craspedophyllum marginatum, which is known only from the McPherson Range, the Greater Blue Mountains and Tasmania. The Greater Blue Mountains endemic conifer, the Wollemi Pine (Wollemia nobilis), has links to the Gondwana Rainforests, being a monotypic member of a genus that is a sister of Araucaria, while all other species in the genus of another Greater Blue Mountains endemic conifer, Microstrobus fitzgeraldii, are found only in the Tasmanian highlands.

The property also has links to the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh / Naracoorte). A very much reduced legacy of the Tertiary rainforest fauna documented from the Fossil Mammal Sites persists in the Gondwana Rainforests. Furthermore, both properties are examples of thematic serial nominations as both required the listing of multiple discrete sites to capture the essential attributes of the subject theme.

The links with World Heritage sites outside Australia are with areas that were once within the former supercontinent of Gondwana. The strongest links are with sites in New Zealand and South America, although these are in cooler climatic zones than the Gondwana Rainforests.

Te Wahipounamu (South-west New Zealand) WHA has a very strong Gondwanan heritage. Links with the Gondwana Rainforests include shared Gondwanan plant families such as Podocarpaceae, Nothofagaceae and Cunoniaceae and genera such as Nothofagus, occurring in temperate rainforest in the west and open forest and other vegetation communities in the drier east. Whilst there is a good fossil record of plant families, few are now thought to have been continuously present since New Zealand broke away from Gondwana around 85 million years ago. There is some DNA evidence that even ancient taxa have evolved in New Zealand from ancestors that arrived more recently, including the southern beeches (Nothofagus spp.) whose ancestors arrived some 30-40 million years ago (www.teara.govt.nz/en/evolution-of-plants-and-animals/2), which means that the links with the supercontinent Gondwana are not as direct as those evident in the Gondwana Rainforests.

Gondwanan links with sites in South America are apparent at Los Glaciares WHA in Argentina. This site is of particular note with genera such as Nothofagus being well represented with three species present. However, within Los Glaciares National Park less than 20% of the area is vegetated, with ~60% permanently covered in ice and ~22% being lakes. Within the vegetated area there are areas of Highland Semidesert between the snowline and 1100-1000m asl and Nothofagus (Subantarctic Patagonian) forest and Patagonian steppe vegetation below that level, with steppe occupying the eastern valleys (www.losglaciares.com/en/parque/flora.html#3). Los Glaciares is listed under criterion (vii) for its outstanding beauty and criterion (viii) for its geological processes, in this case glaciation, showing little similarity with the Gondwana Rainforests.

Comparison has also been made with the Rainforests of the Atsinanana WHA in Madagascar. Madagascar also has a Gondwanan origin, having broken away first from the part that was to become Africa at 160 million years ago and then India at 60 million years ago. Since then its biota has evolved in isolation, and it is the unique diversity and endemism of this biota that forms the basis of its World Heritage listing rather than its Gondwanan connection. The two properties have biogeographical similarities in conserving relict rainforest areas on the eastern escarpments of their respective landmasses (https://whc.unesco.org/archive/advisory_body_evaluation/1257.pdf).

Although there are links with other World Heritage sites, the Gondwana Rainforests is unique in its rich and diverse Gondwanan biological heritage, and in the existing combinations of communities and taxa that derive from Gondwana. These special rainforests have provided a refuge for many species over the millennia as the Australian climate has become progressively more arid. These areas and the proposed additions to the property enhance its expression of these evolutionary processes and will be essential for the adaptation and survival of these important taxa under future climate change.