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Outback purchase protects ancient fossil ground

Tourism

A vast tract of outback land in South Australia containing the oldest animal fossils on Earth will be conserved as a national park after an anonymous benefactor agreed to buy the former pastoral property.

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The 60,000-hectare (150,000 acre) Nilpena West property is 600km north of the South Australian capital Adelaide and is currently part of Nilpena Pastoral Station.  The property includes the Ediacara Fossil Site – Nilpena, which is listed on Australia’s National Heritage List.

Global non-profit The Nature Conservancy has sourced funding from an anonymous donor to allow the purchase and protection to go ahead after the South Australian Government announced in March it had reached an agreement with the land’s owners to buy the site.

The acquisition abuts the Ediacara Conservation Park and will increase the size of the protected area ten-fold.

The first fossil imprints were found in the area in 1946. Since then, paleontologists have been able to excavate a series of 40 fossiliferous beds that preserve snapshots of the seafloor as animal life first unfolded around 550 million years ago. There is no other place on the Earth where this has occurred for fossils of any age.

What is even more extraordinary is that the Nilpena fossil beds preserve marine communities with scores of species. They include evidence of the Earth’s first animals, and the earliest movement and sexual reproduction. NASA has funded research at the site to learn how life could evolve on other planets.

Picture: Jason Irving.

The Nature Conservancy’s Australian Director of Conservation Dr James Fitzsimons announced the funding yesterday at the 2019 Private Land Conservation Conference in Adelaide.

“The protection of this 60,000 hectare former pastoral property marks a great day for conservation in South Australia,” he said.

“The property contains significant biodiversity values including two threatened ecological communities and a number of threatened species. Most critically, the property also covers extremely important sites that contain the oldest fossilised animals on Earth.”

Shearers’ quarters, a blacksmith’s shop and a woolshed on the property will be developed as research and visitor facilities, and an immersive interpretive centre.

The site is on the edge of the 540 million-year-old Flinders Ranges, one of the oldest landscapes on earth.

The Nature Conservancy is facilitating the purchase of the Nilpena West property and its transfer to the South Australian Government.

South Australian Environment and Water Minister David Speirs said Nilpena West would soon be added to the South Australian public protected area estate and managed by the Department for Environment and Water.

“Its inclusion in the conservation estate will link the Ediacara Conservation Park to the Lake Torrens National Park and will support our nomination for the listing of areas of the Flinders Ranges as a World Heritage Site,” he said.

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