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Science Seminar: Worth more alive than dead?
04:00pm - 05:00pm, Thursday, 21 November 2019
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At Biodiversity Conservation Centre
(+61 8) 9480 3614
Science Seminars

Academics, Government staff, researchers and interested members of the public are welcome to attend seminars, which are held for staff and students at various times throughout the year.


Worth more alive than dead? The unknown ecosystem implications of 175 years of sandalwood exploitation


Richard McLellan (Postgraduate research ecologist Institute for Land, Water and Society Charles Sturt University)

Richard McLellan is a postgraduate research ecologist at the Institute for Land, Water and Society at Charles Sturt University. He is based in Geraldton, Western Australia, Richard did his undergraduate studies at the University of Western Australia before embarking on a rich and varied working career – including for many years with WWF (the conservation organisation) – in Australia, Cambodia and Switzerland. Although he joined WWF as a field ecologist, working in the temperate woodlands of the Southwest Australia Botanical Province, he also worked on landscape-scale native vegetation protection, management, and restoration in Australia and overseas; and sustainable development. He is currently conducting research in the semi-arid rangelands of WA, investigating the ecology of three hemiparasitic Santalaceae species – Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), Quandong (Santalum acuminatum), and Leafless Ballart (Exocarpos aphyllus); the ecosystem processes associated with them; and the ecological impacts of key threatening processes such as overexploitation, grazing, fire, and climate change.

The aims of his research include an enhanced understanding of the ecology of the plants, the ecosystem processes associated with them, and the benefits to be gained by land managers and Traditional Owners in maintaining and enhancing their survival in the landscape. The study is embracing ‘two-way science’ – involving working with Traditional Owners in the study area to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge concerning such aspects as cultural significance, seed dispersal and plant propagation, and past and future customary sustainable use of the three species. Richard is an avid science communicator, especially via his Twitter account (@RichardMcLellan) and a secondary account that he curates to promote and share the work of other Australian ecologists (@OutbackEco).


There were no Environmental Impact Statements conducted when the first Western Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) trees were commercially harvested and exported from Western Australia (to Asia) in 1845. Since then, an immeasurable number of trees (mostly more than 100-200 years old) have been pulled from the landscape to feed the sandalwood industry, which peaked at more than 14,000 tons harvested per annum, and continued for decades unchecked and unregulated, with unknown quantities illegally harvested.

Here, Richard reviews the irreversible impacts of over-extraction of Western Australian Sandalwood; the current status of the species in the wild; and the implications of the multiple, integrated threats impacting the species: its natural lack of recruitment, overgrazing (particularly by introduced, invasive herbivores), altered fire regimes, climate change, and the loss of critical ecological elements such as seed-caching-and-dispersing critical-weight-range mammals.

As a result of this over-exploitation, the lack of recruitment and the cumulative impact of an escalating suite of threats, sandalwood is now struggling to survive over much of its former range. While there has been considerable research associated with the species’ commercial exploitation, there has been virtually no investigation of the ecological role that sandalwood plays within its natural communities and ecosystems, and the implications of its gradual disappearance. What happens when it’s gone?
Richard concludes with recommendations for actions that will need to be taken by land managers to ensure sandalwood persists within its current range in the semi-arid and arid rangelands under warming and drying climatic conditions.


The presentation will run for approximately 40 minutes, followed by question time.

2019-11-21AWST16:00:00 2019-11-21AWST17:00:00

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