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Private conservation investment ‘critical’ to saving Australia’s environment

Private conservation is on the rise and will prove crucial to protecting Australia’s flora and fauna as public funding falls drastically short of required levels, the latest State of the Environment report has found, but more action from governments is needed to enable such investment.

The report called on governments to help individuals, businesses and NGOs that want to buy land for conservation do so, with such investments – which already account for 6 per cent of all protected areas in Australia and form a network of privately owned reserves which is the largest in the world – growing since 2016.

Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie bought Dunk Island recently, pledging to preserve its natural environment. 

Under the practice, private groups buy land to either protect its environment or help rehabilitate past damage. Those buying in include wealthy individuals and companies, who tend to fund direct conservation which has limited financial returns, and private sector investors, who generally fund projects such as carbon offset schemes that may prove profitable.

Major players in this space include former IT entrepreneur Norman Pater and his wife Gita Sonnenberg, who are pouring $40 million into efforts to reforest 1 million hectares of cleared land; and companies such as Telstra, which last month invested in a government trust that pays owners of natural or undeveloped land to protect it.

Just last week, The Australian Financial Review revealed that Atlassian co-founder Mike Cannon-Brookes and his wife Annie had bought Dunk Island on the Great Barrier Reef for $23.65 million, reportedly intending to preserve its natural environment.


But the report said governments could do more to enable private conservation efforts – legal experts have complained of environmental, mining and water regulation stymying investment, for example – in the face of accelerating vegetation and species extinctions.

“By increasing the extent and diversity of habitats protected, private land conservation is increasingly playing a very important role in achieving effective and long‑term conservation outcomes,” the report said.

“... A range of philanthropic and commercial entities are working on various aspects of the emerging natural capital marketplace to catalyse private sector and ESG investment at scale.

“Governments could significantly boost this by creating an enabling environment for finance and investment in private conservation, so that innovative financing can expand private and public investment in nature, such as through the National Reserve System.”

Private investment crucial

It warned that the country cannot rely on public funding alone to mitigate the environmental damage wrought by climate change, finding that Australia is losing more mammal species than any other continent and has one of the highest rates of species decline among OECD countries.


It said that the total spending from governments at all levels on protecting at-risk wildlife and fauna sits at just $122 million, or 15 per cent of what is needed to avoid extinctions and recover threatened species, and that adequate environmental restoration more broadly would cost around $10 billion annually.

“Although it is unrealistic to expect government and the taxpayer to fund this level of investment, attracting greater private investment in natural capital and restoration of the environment requires national leadership,” it said.

The report pointed to Tasmania’s Freycinet National Park as a key example of successful private conservation, with a network of more than 60 privately owned properties protected under conservation initiatives surrounding public reserves to provide “critical” help in “creating and maintaining ecological links across the landscape”.

Thirty are covenanted private properties and the remainder are owned by non-government organisations such as the Tasmanian Land Conservancy, Bush Heritage, Trust for Nature and Land for Wildlife.

It also reported that the number of properties building the network – which already add up to more than 5000 hectares – has also been steadily growing over the past three years.

The State of the Environment report is a five-yearly accounting to Parliament of the environment’s wellbeing, required under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, and is written by a panel of independent authors.

Hannah Wootton reports on professional services and legal affairs for the Financial Review. Connect with Hannah on Twitter. Email Hannah at

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