13 December 2013

Leichhardt Tree

As the Leichhardt Year 2013 comes to an end, it is time to reflect on how this early German explorer still manages to inspire people and science 200 years after he was born.

Ludwig Leichhardt documented Australia's geography and environment between 1842 and his mysterious disappearance in 1848.

In a 5-day event, The University of Queensland (UQ) explored the current global challenges in conservation and biodiversity, and how Germany and Australia are addressing them, at a scientific symposium, several excursions and free public lectures.

The lectures were part of the Leichhardt Symposium on Biodiversity and Conservation, a two-day meeting of researchers, students, decision makers and the general public to engage with Germany and Australia's contributions to global efforts in biodiversity protection.

UQ's Professor Peer Schenk, a member of the symposium organising committee, said it was an opportunity to strengthen links between Germany and Australia while addressing a global challenge.

"The aim of the symposium was to discuss the current global challenges of biodiversity and conservation and explore forward-looking strategies," he said.
"With growing populations and expanding land use, a transnational debate on the way we use and protect land and aquatic ecosystems is required."

Leichardt's new translated diaries, and the insights they provided, were shared during the public lecture by Associate Professor Rod Fensham of UQ and the Queensland Herbarium.

Professor Bill Gammage, from the Australian National University, presented 'The Biggest Estate on Earth', a discussion of his book about Indigenous land management throughout Australia's history and the implications for our landscape today.

One interesting outcome from the Symposium was that Leichardt's early explorations continue to inspire scientists and the public from Germany and Australia. His early detailed description of flora, fauna and geographical features still have relevance for today's modern medicine and even the mining industry.

For example, while Leichhardt's team was searching for coffee they came across Grevillea seeds. These were casually placed in a shirt pocket but then caused a major rash to one of his fellow explorers. The compounds found in Grevillea are bioactive molecules that now form the basis of modern medical research to find cures against inflammation. The compounds and its derivatives are being developed into modern pharmaceuticals by German industry and are part of important German-Australian relationships.

Similarly, many venoms and other compounds that are specific to Australian native flora and fauna are now helpers to find cures against pain, heart disease, cancer, auto-immune disorders and infectious diseases. This clearly highlights one of the many values of maintaining a high biodiversity.

The discovery of medicines and ecosystem services facilitated by high biodiversity and conservation result in significant economic benefits for both countries, estimated to be worth several 100 billion dollars. For this reason, Germany is trying to restore many natural landscapes now (e.g. natural Rhine River estuaries), but this comes at a very high cost and does not bring back the many extinct species.

The UQ symposium and public lecture attracted more than 300 visitors from Australia and Germany, thus making it the largest of the events commemorating the 200th year anniversary of Ludwig Leichhardt.

Three volumes of the Memoirs of the Queensland Museum were launched at the Symposium, dedicated to Leichhardt's Anniversary and his Legacies to early knowledge of Australia's natural and cultural heritage.

A live link to a parallel conference at Leichhardt's birthplace in the state of Brandenburg, Germany, included the Australian Ambassador and high-ranking German officials, who applauded the close links between Queensland and Brandenburg.

The Leichhardt Symposium was supported by UQ, the Alexander-von-Humboldt Foundation, the Australian and German Embassies and the Queensland Museum.

It was designed to initiate a series of symposia on conservation and biodiversity with the intention to alternate between Australia and Germany.
The conference participants wish to hold the next Leichhardt Symposium in Germany in autumn 2014, with the aim to provide an ongoing forum between Australia and Germany to address issues in biodiversity and conservation.

Media contact: Professor Peer Schenk, Email: p.schenk@uq.edu.au


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