World Heritage Listing and Naracoorte Caves

Nicholas White, 123 Manningham St, Parkville, Victoria 3052, Australia


Naracoorte Caves Conservation Park was listed as a World Heritage property in December 1994. The listing recognised the outstanding universal values of the Pleistocene vertebrate fossil deposits. It was co-listed with the Riversleigh Area, North Queensland as the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh/ Naracoorte). The listing fulfilled two of the four possible criteria for inclusion on the World Heritage List as natural heritage as distinct from those sites recognised for their cultural heritage:

Naracoorte has now joined a select and varied group of World Heritage listed karst sites. The management of such sites raises a number of issues especially as World Heritage listing is not synonymous with wilderness. Indeed implicit in the listing is continued excavation and research on the deposits. The paper will reflect on the issues raised by the listing and the consequences and implications in terms of management and future developments for the area. The paper arises out of my participation in developing the Draft Management Plan for the Naracoorte Caves Conservation Park.


The nomination of the Australian Fossil Sites (Riversleigh/Naracoorte/Murgon) for listing as World Heritage properties broke new ground for IUCN (the World Conservation Union). The nomination was for the significance of the places for their vertebrate fossil assemblages. Of these places Riversleigh and Naracoorte were accepted but the Murgon site was found lacking for various reasons. The acceptance of the nomination was distinctive in that most natural areas previously listed had been accepted for their scenic or natural beauty or for their fauna or flora rather than for the scientific values of the places for their fossil deposits except for perhaps the Zhoukoudian (Peking Man) Site in China. The outstanding universal value recognised for these places stems from the diversity, richness and preservation of the fossils. The excavation and scientific study of the fossils has enabled a more complete and comprehensive interpretation of the evolutionary history and environmental changes in Australia. That the nomination was proceeded with was a function of it being politically uncontroversial and had the backing and commitment of the Federal, Queensland and South Australian Governments in distinction to some preceding nominations such as South West Tasmania, the Wet Tropics or the lapsed nomination for the Nullarbor.

In developing the Management Plan, there were no comparable World Heritage examples of either karst areas or fossil sites from which precedents could be drawn. Most of the caves listed under the World Heritage Convention have been listed for their human cultural associations mostly expressed in the form of occupation remains or associated rock art. Examples are the Decorated Grottoes of the Vésère Valley, France; Altamira Cave, Spain; excavated occupation and religious caves such as Ajanta, Ellora and Elephanta in India and the Mogao Caves of China. Although Mammoth Caves National Park has palaeontological deposits it was primarily listed for its other natural values and cultural associations. Canada has two fossil sites listed with some management parallels to Naracoorte: the Burgess Shale in Yoho National Park and Dinosaur Provincial Park in Alberta. Zhoukoudian Cave near Beijing in China, the Peking Man fossil site is one site for which the scientific management questions parallel those for Naracoorte as the values are the hominid fossils found in the cave deposits. The recognition of the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites (Riversleigh/Naracoorte) prompted the World Conservation Union to commission a report to examine criteria for listing of the key stages in the world's fossil history (Wells 1996).

The planning requirements for World Heritage properties revolve around protection, preservation and enhancement of the values. This can best be expressed as best quality management together with a level of accountability, reporting and inspection which have not in the past been required of most natural area management. The existing Plan from 1992 (DEAP 1992) was broadly satisfactory and thus the revision was treated as an amendment rather than a new Plan. The new draft plan is currently open for community consultation and comment before any necessary changes and adoption.

Palaeontological Values and Naracoorte Caves

Vertebrate fossils were described from Naracoorte caves in the 1860s (Woods 1860, 1862, 1866). Stirling (1908) described a marsupial lion from Specimen Cave. These discoveries and investigations did not capture the imagination as did those of the Wellington Caves, NSW and it was not until 1969 when Wells and Gartrell discovered the Fossil Chamber deposit in the Victoria Fossil Cave that the values of the vertebrate fossil deposits in the caves were fully recognised (Lane & Richards 1963). It has been the subsequent detailed excavation and study of this deposit conducted by Wells and others which has resulted in the reputation which Naracoorte now holds internationally (Wells 1975; Wells et al 1985). The palaeontological values of the deposits cannot be separated from the karst values. It is the combined history of the fossils in the context of the karst processes which lead to their deposition in the caves which is of value. The Naracoorte Caves would not have been recognised as internationally significant of themselves without the fossil deposits but this is not to downgrade their other very significant karst values.

The Naracoorte vertebrate fossil material contains the most extensive and diverse fauna of any of the late Pleistocene sites in Australia. Animals fell into the caves through pit-fall traps from which they could not escape. The Fossil Chamber of Victoria Fossil Cave, which is the most extensively studied site at Naracoorte, has material which has been dated at 18,000 to 180,000 years BP (before present). This deposit is also important for the excellent preservation of the material, particularly cranial and post-cranial bones. This has meant that complete species descriptions have been possible allowing excellent reconstructions of the animals to be made. It is the quantity and quality of this deposit which is so important to providing an understanding of past climates and the evolutionary history of Australia's fauna which make the Victoria Fossil Cave so valuable. In Victoria Fossil Cave there are also two other deposits of importance: the Upper and Lower Ossuaries. These are in a remote area of the cave and extend over an area of approximately 400m2. There are several other deposits, in other caves, in which initial excavation has shown excellent stratigraphic deposition and age up to 350,000 years BP.

The taxa represented from the deposits represent all the classes of mammals known from the Pleistocene in Australia, as well as reptiles and birds. The species represented include both extant and extinct species, many of them belonging to the now extinct megafauna. Some 93 vertebrate species have now been described from the deposits. These include the giant sthenurine kangaroos; a large worm-eating echidna (Megalibgwilia ramsayi); a giant rat-kangaroo (Propleopus sp); a large snake (Wonambi naracoortensis); a large marsupial carnivore (Thylacoleo carnifex); giant browsing marsupials (Zygomaturus trilobus).

This continuing research and study of these deposits holds the promise that further investigation may extend the time frame of this record to even earlier in the Pleistocene and give us a more comprehensive knowledge of the evolutionary and climatic changes during the Pleistocene. Only further research and integration with other evidence will elucidate the interactions between climate, landscape development, megafaunal extinctions and the presence of man in Australia. There are international parallels with Northern Hemisphere faunas which also underwent extinctions particularly of the giant faunas during extreme climatic changes together with interactions with man.

Modification of Victoria Fossil Cave to facilitate the interpretation of the fossil deposits has revolutionised the nature of the visitor experience at Naracoorte and has given a specific importance to the Park as a visitor attraction. From a scientific perspective, it is a site of true world significance. Continuing research and interpretation of the research for the public will enhance the values of the Park.

Management Planning for Naracoorte

The 1992 management plan for Naracoorte Caves had evolved from detailed planning in the mid-1980s by an ASF team but this plan had been considerably shortened and focussed into a strategic enabling document with specific objectives and priorities for implementation (ASF 1984, DEAP 1992). Consequent on the acceptance of Naracoorte as a World Heritage property in December 1994 an amendment to the existing Management Plan became necessary. This was to address the management and protection of the specific values recognised in the listing, to provide for the co-operative responsibilities of such a listing and to provide for the anticipated increases in visitor numbers and to fulfil their expectations.

The listing requirements for a World Heritage place are:

These requirements are discussed below.

The specific requirements of a management plan for World Heritage properties relate to the protection, preservation and presentation of the outstanding universal values of the property. The difficulty with these terms is their lack of specificity and what constitutes a test of compliance or fulfilment of the obligations inherent in listing.

The focus then of the plan needed to be establishing a framework for ensuring that management of the Park measured up to the requirements of the World Heritage listing. Steps to ensure the Park boundaries embraced the important karst features have over the years seen additions of natural bushland, incorporation of lands previously planted to pines and purchasing of agricultural land recently to secure ownership of land with caves under it. The Park is some 600ha in area. As part of the current Plan it is proposed that the Park become a National Park rather than a Conservation Park giving the Park a more secure legislative status. No formal mechanism exists to control off-Park developments thought detrimental to park values, however, there are very close working relationships between management and other State and local government bodies.

One cannot legislate for Best Practice Management and thus a Management Plan needs to facilitate this by ensuring that the focus of the Plan has appropriate checks and balances in it. The Plan provides for the development of a strategy for presentation, interpretation and marketing. Promotion of the Park will follow from this and should in due course embrace the use of a World Wide Web Page of tourist information and should also provide interactive material on karst processes and the palaeontology. Other Plan provisions are the fostering of research; encouragement of the incorporation of research into interpretation; a review of staffing needs; and fostering of staff development and training.

Cave recreation and exploration is provided for through a tightly regulated access system designed to have a minimum impact on values. This is particularly important as more than in any other case the floor sediments have recognised values. There are a complementary set of guided Adventure Tours to specific caves available in busy periods and by prior arrangement.

A Plan which is enabling and facilitating cannot of itself be the vehicle for specifying how infrastructure proposals should be assessed, how and what should be monitored and how or what research is approved. The Plan provides mechanisms for these aspects to be developed by management and by the scrutiny of the committees through which it is answerable. These committees are the Upper South East Consultative Committee convened by the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR), the Scientific Research Committee of DENR, the establishment of a Research Program Coordinating Committee and the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites Scientific and Management Committee.


Naracoorte Caves have a legacy from the past. This legacy involves the developed infrastructure on the surface and in the caves. There are also established community uses such as of the picnic areas and Blanche Cave for community events. Visitors to the Naracoorte Caves come predominantly from SA and Victoria although this visitor base has broadened since the 1969 fossil discoveries and developments to display the fossil site. The caves are now a very important focus in regional tourism promotion. In the years up to 1970 most recreational caving and speleological investigation of caves of the Reserve was restricted to local use of a couple of caves and to members of the Cave Exploration Group of South Australia (CEGSA). Recreational demand has increased since then and a very diverse range of groups now obtain access to Reserve caves under controlled conditions. As is the case with many karst areas there are many gaps in the systematic cave exploration and surveying necessary to a good karst inventory and there are a multitude of scientific disciplines in the natural cave sciences which would provide valuable inventory and management information.

Legislative protection of the values of the Park are provided under its designation as a Conservation Reserve under the National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972. The Plan recommends that the status of the Park be changed to National Park to more fully reflect its internationally recognised significance and to increase the security of the protection. Recent additions to the Reserve have resulted in the acquisition of properties which now cover the underground extent of Victoria Fossil Cave. Vertebrate fossils are not restricted to the caves of the Reserve although certainly the major known deposits in the Lower South-East of SA are within the Reserve. There are some questions of neighbouring uses. With the upsurge in vineyard development extending north from Coonawarra on the limestone ridges there are several important issues. In the development of vineyards any karst expression is obliterated and if a cave is opened in the clearing and levelling process it is filled in as quickly as possible without evaluation. Evaluation might reveal important caves perhaps even further fossil deposits. This is inexcusable since protection of caves would not intrude greatly on vineyard acreage but there are no planning controls or practices in place to protect such features. There are also questions of the horticultural use of insecticides which may affect the bat population based on Bat Cave. Water pumping for spray irrigation of vineyards and pasture is increasing in the area and whilst this would not appear to pose direct problems to the recognised values of the Naracoorte Caves since the water table in recent geological time has been well below the known extent of the caves there is the broader question of the extraction rate across the region.

Other types of encroachment which need to be carefully thought through are those associated with tourism. There are several accommodation enterprises on properties bordering the Reserve but this is set to increase as there is currently a plan to develop one of the neighbouring properties as a wildlife park with high quality accommodation for international visitors who would fly to Mt Gambier. Sensitive developments neighbouring the Park should not affect the international values, however, the rural setting of the Park should be maintained over time as denser settlement would certainly affect the habitat values of the Park. The Bat Viewing Centre with its infrared based viewing of the bats in Bat Cave is one of the most innovative wildlife viewing facilities in the country upon which a new dimension of tourist interpretation has been developed.

There are a number of surface developments in progress with a new interpretation and visitor centre being constructed and changes to parking and traffic flows are being instituted. Facilities for research will also be provided. These are situated so as not to intrude unduly on karst values. Changes on the surface at Victoria Fossil Cave should separate the entrance area from the parking area and make the cave surrounds more attractive. The pine plantations are being progressively harvested and the areas revegetated to the benefit of the caves. Exotic plantings in the vicinity of Blanche Cave have reached a stage where they are neither representative of the early development nor do they contribute in any significant way to the landscape and cave surrounds. It is proposed that these residual trees be progressively removed. A recent addition to the Park is the cyclone wire fences around cave entrances. These were erected in response to the need to protect the public from accidental risk. They are unsightly and intrusive, however, no simple way exists to fulfil the requirement to protect the public and to satisfy aesthetic considerations. In several instances it may be possible to reduce the intrusiveness of the fences by enlarging the enclosed areas and by planting. This is certainly appropriate.

The underground presentation of Victoria Fossil Cave is in need of some careful evaluation. Existing infrastructure is reasonable but on the question of aesthetics some careful thought needs to be done about whether to remove spoil from previous pathway construction and to presentation of the fossil dig. The dig is still being worked on and so this presents both a challenge and an opportunity. Underground developments are a combination of past developments and more recent restoration. Victoria Fossil Cave was redeveloped in several stages after the bone deposits were discovered. Pathways and lighting are in very good condition. Light intensities close to surfaces and formation had to be reduced to prevent the growth of visible lampenflora which develops prolifically probably as a consequence of the porous limestone. Some washing of formation has been undertaken but due also to the porous nature and relative lack of water this should be kept to a minimum as damage will occur if this is too frequent or too energetic. It is the path surrounds and the presentation of the fossil dig which are in need of attention. Excess rock piles along pathways should be removed and these portions of the cave restored.

Implicit in the Management Plan but not specified in detail is a commitment to best practice presentation of the caves and interpretation of fossil material. This has been addressed through the planned preparation of a strategy for presentation, interpretation and marketing. This is one of the most difficult areas for natural resource managers to strike a satisfactory balance. Tourists are fickle and management has to continually rejuvenate these things to increase patronage or even just to maintain current numbers.

Fundamental to continuing to meet international standards of management is the need to foster active and continuing research on the fossils and their context. Palaeontological excavation requires digging and disturbance to recover bones. It is imperative that researchers conduct their work expeditiously using the most modern methods applicable and that their work is subject to scrutiny not just to their scientific peers but also to management and the community. Similarly other scientists need encouragement to study other aspects of Naracoorte's history to build a comprehensive understanding of the caves. Similarly continued investigation and exploration of the caves for recreation and speleology requires that defined scientific activities be subject to scientific permits and that the impacts of recreation activities are contained and known. It is also important that there be monitoring of usage of the caves and of the changes and cumulative impacts occurring. Monitoring and accountability are a responsibility of management and it has been proposed that a Research Program Coordinating Committee be established to advise on these matters. As part of the listing there is both participation on and a responsibility to report to the Australian Fossil Mammal Sites Scientific and Management Committee. In the recommendations is an action requiring management to maintain an inventory of developments and an inventory of information and literature to facilitate research, reporting and information services. Organisation of the cave information might well be done through the use of a Geographic Information System.


The World Heritage listing of Naracoorte Caves has provided both an opportunity and an obligation. With it has come funding provision for acquisition, upgrading of the surface surrounds and entrance of Victoria Fossil Cave and the construction of a new visitor centre and display area.

The obligations relate to protecting, preserving and presenting the caves and the fossils. The plan provides for instituting systematic monitoring and reporting on the condition of Park. It also provides for review of the staffing profile and the preparation of a presentation, interpretation and marketing strategy. Continuing scientific investigation of the caves, their contents and specifically the vertebrate fossil deposits is a vital part of presenting and managing the resource. The research is to be fostered and supported particularly through the provision of support facilities. There is a vital need to establish a resource inventory and geographic information system to support research, management, interpretation and ongoing information services to the public.

All these changes flow from the impetus which listing has provided. Much of what is being planned and implemented is to cater for an anticipated doubling in visitors to 100,000 per annum in 2000. It is not just facilities which attract continuing high visitor numbers but the quality, variety and vibrancy of presentation and interpretation which management is able to present to the public.


ASF  1984, Preliminary Draft Management Plan for Naracoorte Cave Conservation Park, Australian Speleological Federation Consultant Study Team 1984, unpublished report for Dept of Environment and Planning S.A.

DEAP  1992, Naracoorte Caves Conservation Park Management Plan, ed. Andrea Sutherland, National Parks and Wildlife Service, Dept of Environment and Planning 1992

Lane, E A & Richards, A M  1963, The Discovery, Exploration and Scientific Investigation of the Wellington Caves, New South Wales, Helictite 2, Number 1, pp1-53

Stirling, E C  1908, Report of the Museum Director, in Rept. Board of Governors of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of SA 1907-08, Govt Printer, pp 8-9.

Wells, R T  1975, Reconstructing the past: Excavation in fossil caves, Aust Nat Hist, 18 (6):208-11.

Wells, R T  1996, Earth's Geological History A Contextual Framework for Assessment of World Heritage Fossil Site Nominations, Report prepared for the IUCN, Final Revision 3: September 1996.

Wells, R T, Moriarty K & Williams D L G  1985, The fossil vertebrate deposits of Victoria Cave, Naracoorte; An introduction to the geology and fauna,  Aust Zool,  21:305-333.

World Heritage Convention  1972, Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage, UNESCO General Conference 17th Session Paris 16 November 1972.

Woods, J E  1860, On some tertiary rocks in the colony of South Australia, J Geol Soc London, 16:153-60.

Woods, J E T  1862, Geological observations In South Australia: Principally in the district south east of Adelaide, Longman, London.

Woods, J E T  1866 On the geology and mineralogy of the Colony of South Australia, or that country lying between the River Murray, the 141st meridian of longitude and the sea, Govt Printer, Adelaide