Illegal camping surge on WA’s Ningaloo Coast sparks fears for endangered turtle habitats, Aboriginal fossils

Illegal campers may have irreversibly damaged endangered turtle habitats and Aboriginal fossils on the WA’s World Heritage-listed coastal desert, a not-for-profit environmental organisation says.

The Gnaraloo Wilderness Foundation chair Kat Hattingh said last month up to 80 people across 30 cars illegally camped and partied atop the fragile coastal desert.

“They may unwittingly drive over fossils and destroy things that they don’t even know [are] there,” Ms Hattingh said.

She said the visitors were camping illegally at the “Heart Attacks” location, which is between 3 Mile Camp and Gnaraloo Homestead — the only two sites where people are allowed to stay in Ningaloo.

A long shot of cars parked on red sand by the beach.
Illegal campers at the “Heart Attacks” location on the Gnaraloo coast. (Supplied)

Ms Hattingh said people were voyaging beyond designated campgrounds to cut costs and explore.

However, she said, the Gnaraloo sand dunes contained buried fossils, Aboriginal heritage, and unique geological features.

She said they also risked running over the nests of endangered loggerhead turtles, which the nature-based charity has been working for the past 17 years to protect.

“These are all part of the reason that coastline was listed as national heritage and world heritage.”

Calls for coast action

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The Gnaraloo Wilderness Foundation says illegal campers partied on fragile coastal desert.

The Ningaloo Coast has been listed as a World Heritage area since June 2011, according to the Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction website.

Gnaraloo makes up about 65 kilometres of Ningaloo’s 260-km-long coastline.

Ms Hattingh said the state government had forgotten Gnaraloo.

“That is a big place,” Ms Hattingh said.

Ms Hattingh said more rangers were needed to police the increasing number of illegal campers at Gnaraloo.

A Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attraction spokesperson said illegal camping had increased on the Ningaloo Coast.

“The closure of interstate borders due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw visitation to the Ningaloo coastline significantly increase,” the spokesperson said.

A long shot of about 30 cars on the beach under a clouded sky and red earth.
The Gnaraloo Wilderness Foundation says about 30 cars set-up this illegal “mini-camp city” on the coastline last month. (Supplied)

The DBCA said they had since ramped up patrols along the reserve, targeting peak periods and high visitation areas.

The DBCA would not respond to a query on whether more resources were needed to prevent illegal campers.

Instead, it said its rangers had conducted more than 250 overnight patrols of the area since 2015 and were working with the Nganhurra Thanardi Garrbu Aboriginal Corporation to increase the number of trained and authorised officers to protect the outstanding values attached to the coast.

The DBCA said its rangers routinely conducted overnight patrols with an emphasis on compliance through education.

Not just campers, custodians

Ms Hattingh said further educating explorers would help prevent illegal camping.

She said the organisation wanted to ensure future generations were able to enjoy the beautiful coastline.

An endangered loggerhead turtle lies on the Gnaraloo Coast.
The Gnaraloo Wilderness Foundation has been working for the past 17 years to protect the endangered loggerhead turtles. (Supplied)

“You can-do four-wheel driving, you can fish, you can snorkel, you can surf, you can camp, but the point is to look after the area by staying in the designated areas,” Ms Hattingh said.

“Let’s look after it is self-appointed custodians who care.”

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