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Professor Stephen Hopper: The Great Western Woodlands

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Words: Ana Luiza Muler

Professor Stephen HopperProfessor Stephen Hopper
Professor Stephen Hopper grew up in different cities across Australia, always near bushland. In the mid-1960s, he went to John Curtin High School, where his passion for the outdoors grew. During this time, one of his teachers strongly encouraged him to work towards the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award and also taught him “how to leave no trace other than footprints”.

Prof. Hopper completed a university degree, specialising in botany and zoology. For the next 14 years, he was employed as Western Australia’s first Flora Conservation Officer. He then became the King’s Park and Botanic Garden Director, where he successfully increased the funding and was able to rebuild the park. Prof. Hopper worked in this position for nine years and managed to create the extraordinary park that locals experience today.

In 2001, he was invited to move to London to become the Director of the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew. He accepted the offer and worked for this prestigious park from 2006 to 2012. Once more, Prof. Hopper was able to greatly expand the park, which today has 800 staff, operates in 100 countries and collaborates with about 800 scientific institutions.

Prof. Hopper’s fascination with the amazing biodiversity in Western Australia is one of the things that drew him back to home in 2012, where he took up the position of Chair of Biodiversity at The University of Western Australia, based in Albany.

Today, Professor Hopper is an internationally renowned Plant Conservation Biologist. He has published more than 200 articles on plant biology and has written eight books. He was also awarded the Centenary Medal for his contributions to science and was an ARC Discovery Outstanding Researcher from 2014 to 2016—which he was awarded for a project on the exceptional attributes of bird and mammal pollination of South West Australian plants.

Mr Hopper has long recognised the global significance of the Great Western Woodlands. Nowadays, together with other scientists and The Wilderness Society, he is calling for urgent action to protect the area from uncontrolled wildfires, invasive weeds, feral animals and habitat fragmentation. Read on for a short interview with Professor Hopper about the Great Western Woodlands.


What is so remarkable about the Great Western Woodlands (GWW)?

Stephen Hopper: There are several remarkable aspects: the world’s largest remaining temperate to semi-arid woodlands; one of the three richest places for eucalypts in Australia (many of which attain impressive size for a desert region); exceptionally rich flora and fauna (especially reptiles and semi-arid invertebrates); granite outcrops like islands in the bush—replete with spirit and songlines; country with continuous Aboriginal occupation and cultural heritage; a brief but momentous European history; and an emerging collaboration in caring for country through transmission and acquisition of new knowledge, combined with practical management, repair and restoration.

How is it possible that a nutrient-poor and dry landscape, such as the GWW, holds such a high level of biodiversity?

SH: This is an ongoing research topic. Answers may lie embodied in what I developed and now focus on as Ocbil theory (for old, climatically buffered, infertile landscapes). The idea is that evolution has been ongoing and extinction reduced for tens of millions of years through an incredibly persistent and ancient landscape, buffered by oceanic influence for more than 150 million years, and with soils that are weathered and nutrient-deficient, requiring unusual biological adaptation and collaboration for survival in a soil mosaic of small isolated pockets each differing from its neighbours. The GWW is not rich in all biodiversity, but is exceptionally rich in certain groups—such as woody shrubs and trees, lizards and snakes, and many invertebrate groups. 

In your opinion, what is the best strategy to conserve this area?

SH: Having the humility to understand that the GWW is highly complex and poorly known scientifically; that Aboriginal people have developed ways of living that remain highly relevant to efforts at conservation; and that people from diverse walks of life can each make a contribution that, collectively, will care for this globally significant natural heritage.

In 2010, you spoke about the importance of the woodlands. What has changed in the last seven years? Do you think we are progressing in providing a better protection for the area?

SH: In 2008, I wrote a foreword to a book on The Extraordinary Nature of the GWW, by Watson et al. I concluded with a hope that the central message, calling for conserving a globally unique region, would be heard by many. This conference and the gathering of people attending are indicative that the clarion call has indeed been heard. There remains much to do, but I am inspired by what has been achieved over the past decade. We have a bright future, walking together cross-culturally with Aboriginal custodians—who are increasingly, once again, back in touch with the spirit of country without being culturally suppressed. I hope the momentum continues and strengthens.

What would be the next steps in achieving better recognition and conservation for the woodlands?

SH: Keeping up the good work already initiated. Promoting active Aboriginal involvement in caring for country. The ranger programs are especially exciting. These need to be embedded in continuous funding. Celebrating the globally significant aspects of the GWW and developing resources for increasing tourist and researcher activities. Ensuring that the bulldozing stops or is reduced to the barest minimum. Removing fencelines where possible. Repairing and restoring degraded native vegetation. Caring for threatened species. Applying fire in a sensitive and thoughtful way, at the right scale, locations, time and extent. Continuing to apply western science together with Aboriginal knowledge systems to care best for country.

Each of us—our businesses, schools, NGOs and others—adopting animal and plant totems like JungkaJungka, guided by and in partnership with Aboriginal elders, and making a lifelong commitment to learning about and caring for our totem brothers and sisters. Never stop learning. Listening to what the GWW is saying to us, at different places and times—feeling the spirit, singing the songs, dancing the dances, creating the artwork—so that the region becomes part of so many hearts that few would dare to treat the country disrespectfully or for naked greed alone.