Our aim in this study is to provide the first ever quantitative, historical and map–based information of what fauna has been studied and recorded both outside and inside the protected areas of New South Wales (NSW), which are principally National Parks and Nature Reserves. Our objective was to consider the value of National Parks and Nature Reserves for fauna research and biodiversity conservation, and gauge the extent and limits of our knowledge of the fauna of NSW. We compared the increase in the area of parks and reserves in NSW with the expansion of the fauna records in the Office of Environment and Heritage (OEH) Atlas of NSW Wildlife, and analysed the use of Scientific Licences issued by OEH for fauna research for 3.5 years to mid–2014. We found that the distribution and the number of Scientific Licences within protected areas show a heavy bias to the eastern strip of the State, with a greater clustering for the area around Sydney and the north coast, but it is evident that researchers make considerable use of protected areas.
The 6,070,769 Atlas fauna records were divided by tenure type: National Parks held 1,118,204 records (21.4 records/km2), while Nature Reserves held 386,755 records (40.6 records/km2). The off–park records total was 4,407,486 representing 72.6% of all records, with a density of 6.0 records per km2. Of the grand total of all the fauna records, 7% were of threatened species. Birds and mammals comprise 81% of all fauna records in the Atlas. The greatest number of records are of birds (n = 4,913,511), followed by mammals (n = 832,361, of which 321,721, or 39%, were from WildCount).
Given the success of the growth of the number, area and distribution of parks and reserves in NSW, the idea that they can carry the heavy load of the aspiration to conserve the biodiversity of NSW now seems feasible, even desirable, especially given the increasing intensity of land use from never–ending population growth and its impacts, such as land clearing, roading, logging, water use, alien invasive species and climate change. However, this study has also revealed that we have a very poor understanding of some faunal groups, in particular invertebrates, reptiles and amphibians. Fauna accumulation curves of both records and of species match closely the growth in the area of parks and reserves since the formation of the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service in 1967. Thus, the greater the area of parks and reserves, the greater the number of fauna records and of species. We took the historical view so that research is encouraged and the trajectory of the acquisition of new protected areas can be maintained. This study shows the ever–increasing value of protected areas to fauna conservation, and that it is vital to uphold the protected areas concept as a principal way to conserve our fauna. It should also be a guide to help recognise the importance of sustaining the effort to study our native fauna.