CANBERRA—Northern Australia contains the world's largest remaining savannas and is one of the last great pristine wilderness zones, covering an area larger than western Europe, Australian researchers said on Tuesday.
The country's tropics, stretching 2,000 kilometers (1,250 miles) across the continent, accounted for more than a quarter of the world's remaining savanna after the decline of grasslands that once spread over South America, Africa and Asia, they said.
"In other parts of the world, tropical savanna is in decline due to landclearing, unsustainable grazing regimes and over-population, but this vast area of Northern Australia is remarkably intact," said Professor Brendan Mackey, who led a team of scientists on a three-year study of the remote region.
Savanna marks the divide between areas of desert and forest, and includes grasslands and trees. The savannas of Eastern Africa's wildlife plains and northern Australia are typical.
But after satellite mapping 1.5 million square kilometers (580,000 square miles) of Australia's north, a team of scientists from the WildCountry Science Council said the area now ranked with Antarctica and South America's Amazon rainforests in environmental importance.
While 70 percent of the world's savanna had been seriously damaged by human activity, Australia's northern rivers and forests remained largely untouched by small Aboriginal communities amidst World Heritage-listed parks.
"You feel as if you are walking in the footsteps of the people who have managed this land for millennia," West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement Project spokesman Peter Cooke told the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
The study found Australia's savanna was four times the size of Africa's remaining woodlands.
But the report called for caution.
"What we don't want is people coming up here with incompatible forms of development that will degrade this natural asset," Mackey told local radio.
He was referring to a government-ordered inquiry into whether Australian farmers should consider moving from the drought-hit south to the more fragile north to take advantage of heavy seasonal monsoon rains for cropgrowing.
Much of Australia is suffering from a 10-year drought expected to wipe up to one percent from the country's economic output. Farmers in the southeast, a major agricultural region, will learn in weeks whether they will receive any water for irrigated cropping.
The northern tropics, Mackey said, would be able to cope with some economic development, but government must be cautious before deciding on exploitation.
"Before our analysis, we didn't really understand to what extent northern Australia really represents the last, best opportunity we have to do something sensible with a large tropical region," he said.