Why is it still possible to climb Uluru?

Marianne Riphagen, Australian National University

Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles has described climbing Uluru as an unforgettable tourist experience – comparable to scaling the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The traditional owners, he has said, could derive important economic benefits from keeping it open.

Yet the Anangu people, Uluru’s traditional owners, have asked for decades that tourists not climb it. They explain that Uluru is a sacred place; the path followed by the climb represents an important dreaming track and Anangu feel a personal responsibility for the deaths or injuries of climbers.

So why is the climb still an option?

History of the climb

Uluru has been climbed by tourists for much of the 20th century. In the early 1960s, a safety chain was installed to accommodate the growing number of visitors. Despite this chain, over 30 people have lost their lives climbing “the Rock”. Many more have been injured. Still, about one-third of visitors choose to climb.

The title for Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, in which Uluru stands, was transferred to Anangu control in 1985. Following the Rock’s handback, the traditional owners were obliged to lease the Park back to the Director of National Parks, with day-to-day management handled by Parks Australia.

At the time of the handover, the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park board of management (made up of a majority of traditional owners) agreed not to close the climb, to minimise harm to the tourism industry.

In 2010, Parks Australia published a report saying the climb would be permanently closed when:

  • the Board, in consultation with the tourism industry, is satisfied that adequate new visitor experiences have been successfully established, or
  • the proportion of visitors climbing falls below 20 per cent, or
  • the cultural and natural experiences on offer are the critical factors when visitors make their decision to visit the park.

This means that Parks Australia has a clear mandate to develop alternative tourism products. Despite this, the core business of Parks Australia is conservation, rather than tourism development.

Although there are specialist staff to facilitate Anangu participation in tourism at Uluru, an inevitable tension exists between the traditional focus and knowledge base of Park employees and the push to develop Anangu business opportunities.

Conflicting economic imperatives

Between 2013 and 2015, I conducted 20 weeks of research at Uluru as part of a study undertaken by the Australian National University, in association with Macquarie University. I examined how Anangu use their cultural heritage to earn a living. As I discovered, the environment in which Anangu attempt to develop sustainable alternatives to climbing is extraordinarily challenging.

In this complex cultural and economic situation, one challenge comes from the Ayers Rock Resort. The resort is located 20km from the Rock, and Anangu land rights don’t extend to its grounds.

Instead, Ayers Rock Resort is owned by the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC), a federal statutory authority that buys land and businesses to realise economic, social, cultural and environmental benefits for Indigenous Australians.

A subsidiary of the ILC, Voyages Indigenous Tourism Australia, has been responsible for running the resort since it was acquired in 2011. Voyages has focused on transforming Ayers Rock Resort into a prime destination for Indigenous tourism.

As an example of the conflict that can arise from this arrangement, we can look at Maruku Arts, a locally-based Anangu arts and tourism enterprise. Maruku has a regional mandate and serves many communities outside Uluru. The resort contracted Maruku to run a market stall on its lawn, so guests could buy art and watch demonstrations of local artists at work.

Through its new outlet, Maruku is able to put over A$100,000 extra each year into the local Anangu community. However, Maruku has struggled to pay the sales commissions stipulated by the resort, on top of the commission paid to artists and the running costs of the stall. Between May 2012 and April 2015, the Anangu enterprise lost A$16,163 on the market stall, whereas Ayers Rock Resort earned A$112,652 in commission.

As the resort management explained to me, Voyages has invested considerably in developing the market stall infrastructure, and Maruku’s market has caused the resort’s income from its own art galleries to drop. It also argues that the market provides new jobs to Anangu.

The market stall represents just one example of the competitive business environment in which not-for-profit Anangu businesses like Maruku Arts are trying to survive.

Ayers Rock Resort strives to be profitable, not least because the ILC’s acquisition has resulted in a sizeable debt burden, (the ILC recently received a A$65 million loan from the federal government). This induces decisions which, while commercially sound, are not always conducive to the sustainability of Anangu-owned enterprises focusing on “culture work”.

Funding and the Intervention

There are other complications in the attempt to develop sustainable and culturally appropriate alternatives to climbing Uluru. One is the tight operational budget for Australia’s park agencies.

At Uluru, Parks Australia has faced some particularly challenging years, as a decline in tourists – from 349,172 in 2005 to 257,761 in 2012 – caused revenue from the sale of entry tickets to fall.

At the same time, lack of funding has meant that the Uluru Cultural Centre, where tourists are encouraged to begin their visit to the Park and learn about Anangu culture, hasn’t been maintained properly. It looks dilapidated, and anything but an alternative to climbing.

The community has also been impacted by the Northern Territory Emergency Response, known locally as the Intervention. In 2006 an administrator was appointed to run the Anangu village of Mutitjulu, which is adjacent to the Rock.

The Mutitjulu Community Aboriginal Corporation, responsible for delivering aspects of municipal and community services, had its funding and several of its functions taken away.

Although the corporation regained control of the community in 2007, it has since wrestled with a high turnover of CEOs, disagreements over service provision and accusations of corruption. The corporation oversees several local businesses, one of which – a tourism enterprise – failed during my research.

Let us return to Northern Territory Chief Minister Adam Giles and the subject of climbing Uluru. Rather than investing in the climb, in the face of Anangu wishes, Mr Giles should consider resolving the conflicting agendas, governance challenges and funding difficulties that characterise the Uluru economy.

Once tourists can enjoy various sustainable products based on Anangu culture, the destination will become truly unforgettable and benefit Anangu economically. Then, the Uluru climb can be closed.

The Conversation

Marianne Riphagen, Visiting Fellow, Australian National University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


Why you should never put a goldfish in a park pond … or down the toilet

Joy Becker, University of Sydney

Have you ever walked past a fountain in the park and seen beautifully coloured fish swimming about, and wondered how they got there? Often with the best of intentions, people leave unwanted pet fish in public fountains, ponds and natural waterways for a variety of reasons, including boredom with their pet, moving house, or frequent illness in their fish.

But these places are not a natural home for ornamental fish, and they can harm Australia’s unique ecosystems.

Fish are very popular pets, for good reason. They take up very little space or time and can add a calming presence to any living room. But fish come with the same responsibilities as any other pet. Much as (I hope) you wouldn’t turn a dog or cat loose to fend for itself in the local area, there is no place for pet fish in our waterways.

Alien fish species harm our ecosystems

Rehoming pet fish in natural waterways causes two big issues. The first is that most fish kept as pets are not naturally found in Australia, so releasing them means introducing an alien species into the wild.

These alien fish are pests and can outcompete native fish for shelter, food and other resources. Australia has 34 alien freshwater fish species living in the wild, two-thirds of which are ornamental fish such as goldfish, cichlids, guppies and gourami. Once an alien fish species becomes established, it is impossible to get rid of it.

Better left indoors: a dwarf gourami.
Jvarszegi/Wikimedia Commons

The second problem is the inadvertent release of exotic diseases. Australia imports 19 million ornamental fish every year – almost one per person! Your pet might appear healthy, but it can carry exotic bacteria and viruses.

When introduced to a new waterway, these pathogens can potentially wipe out entire populations of native fish. What’s more, many unique Australian fish such as Murray cod and Macquarie perch are particularly sensitive to exotic pathogens.

Unsurprisingly, Australia has strict import conditions for ornamental fish (and other pets too). However, there have been two key cases of exotic viruses hitchhiking with imported pet fish.

Goldfish get herpes too!

The first involves a disease called herpesviral haematopoietic necrosis, which affects only goldfish. It is caused by the virus Cyprinid herpesvirus 2 (CyHV2), first isolated in 1992 in Japan after a spate of goldfish deaths. Since then, CyHV2 has caused large goldfish kills in Taiwan, the United States and Britain, and it is now present in Australia. It is not known how long a goldfish can spread the virus once it becomes infected.

You never know what’s under the surface.
aussiegall/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY

Before 2010, CyHV2 was considered exotic to Australia and all imported goldfish were required to be certified as free of the virus. Despite this, in 2008 sick goldfish from several pet shops in Sydney tested positive for it. Pet shops stock a mix of imported and domestic fish, so the source of infection was unknown.

To try to trace the source of the virus, my colleagues and I have tested goldfish from farms across Australia and in wild populations. We found CyHV2 at two farms, one in Victoria and one in New South Wales. More importantly, the virus was found in wild goldfish collected from Cotter Reservoir, ACT, and the Ovens and Murray River in Victoria.

Our results confirmed that CyHV2 was present in both domestically farmed and wild goldfish populations. The virus is now considered an established pathogen in Australia, and in 2011 the Department of Agriculture dropped the requirement for goldfish to be certified free of CyHV2 before entering the country.

Goldfish were first introduced to Australia in 1876 and have long been established in all states except the Northern Territory. Although we can’t be sure when the introduction of CyHV2 occurred, it is assumed to have been within the past two decades.

Once established, pathogens like this are almost impossible to eradicate. The good news is that CyHV2 infects only goldfish, which is an alien species and is not vital to our ecosystems.

Lessons learned

The second case involves a pathogen called infectious spleen and necrosis virus (ISKNV). This belongs to a group of viruses called the megalocytiviruses, notorious for killing large numbers of fish farmed for human consumption as well as ornamental fish. ISKNV kills Murray cod, and our soon-to-be-published research suggests it can also cause disease in Macquarie perch and Golden perch.

Research has identified imported ornamental fish infected with ISKNV both before and after quarantine. Infected fish have also been found at pet shops and at a fish farm in Queensland. However, all the ornamental fish collected from the wild tested negative for the virus. From March 2016 onwards, regulations for imported fish have been tightened to clamp down on this virus.

ISKNV is still considered exotic to Australia. To protect Australia’s biodiversity and aquaculture industries, changes to importing ornamental fish were introduced from March 2016. This shows how, with the right monitoring, exotic pathogens can be spotted and dealt with before they become established in the wild.

Caring for your fish – and the environment

Like any pet, the decision to bring a pet fish home should be made with the care and thoughtful consideration that is owed to these beautiful creatures. If you can no longer care for your pet fish, the best choice is to find another living room for it to enjoy. Alternatively, you can take it to your veterinarian who can kill it humanely. If your fish has died, throw it in the rubbish bin, not down the toilet!

Ornamental fish are devastating to our natural waterways. Greater awareness of responsible pet fish ownership could have avoided alien species establishing themselves in the wild and prevented death and disease among Australia’s native fish.

The Conversation

Joy Becker, Senior Lecturer, Aquatic Animal Health and Production, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.