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Introduction to the Ramsar Convention and its goals

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Doug Watkins, consultant ecologist and long associated with Wetlands International, describes how the Ramsar Convention came into being and what it means for those sites that have a Ramsar listing.
The Ramsar International Convention was one of many developed through the late 1960s, mainly from European interests in migratory waterbirds. With the intention to conserve wetland sites used by migrating birds, the convention was formalised in 1971 in Ramsar, Iran. Australia was one of the first signatories.
A Ramsar listing requires the ecological character of the site to be maintained as well as a commitment to the wise usage of the site. The sites cover a wide range of uses, including human activity, so a Ramsar listing does not necessarily mean that the site is protected (that is up to individual governments). In Australia many are protected since they are part of national parks but are on private or leasehold land. At present, Australia has 65 Ramsar sites.

Below: Roebuck Bay, NW Australia, declared a Ramsar site in 1990, with striking scenery and vast tidal flats, supports tens of thousands of birds. Photo from Invisible Connections by Jan van de Kam p100

Once listed, a site is then recognised by governments for its importance as a wetland, but that is not a binding agreement and political pressure is sometimes needed in order for a site to maintain its ecological character. To this end, Australia has been a leader in the development of ecological descriptions of its Ramsar sites which can be used to track any changes in ecological character. This is important, since Ramsar requires reporting on any changes to ecological character.


Left: Corner Inlet, a relatively undisturbed National Park used by many seabirds despite the presence of nearby industry. Photo: Invisible Connections by Jan van de Kam p 103


Ecological character descriptions allow for site changes to be tracked, providing much-needed evidence for government intervention. The Coorong region in South Australia is one Ramsar site that has had its ecological character altered considerably.
It is now up to governments to respond.

Text: V.B. November 08

Below: Most tidal flats in south-eastern Australia are rather small, and are impacted by commercial and recreational activities. Point Cook is the closest site to Melbourne; other shorebird sites nearer to the city have been lost to development. Photo: Invisible Connections by Jan van de Kam p103

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Research at the Werribee wetlands Ramsar meeting in South Korea 2008

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