Australian Wetlands Database

Ramsar wetlands

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Coongie Lakes


Key facts and figures:

Date of listing:

15 June 1987

The Coongie Lakes Wetland occurs on the Cooper Creek floodplain (2009),  Photo: Paul Wainwright

Australian Ramsar site number:



1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 8


South Australia


Total area 2,178,952 hectares

Drainage Division or IMCRA  region:

Lake Eyre

Wetland type: 

  • N - Seasonal/intermittent/irregular rivers/streams/creeks
  • O - Permanent freshwater lakes (over 8 ha); includes large oxbow lakes
  • P - Seasonal/intermittent freshwater lakes (over 8 ha); includes floodplain lakes
  • R - Seasonal/intermittent saline/brackish/alkaline lakes and flats
  • Ss - Seasonal/intermittent saline/brackish/alkaline marshes/pools
  • Tp - Permanent freshwater marshes/pools; ponds (below 8 ha), marshes and swamps on inorganic soils; with emergent vegetation water-logged for at least most of the growing season
  • Ts - Seasonal/intermittent freshwater marshes/pools on inorganic soils; includes sloughs, potholes, seasonally flooded meadows, sedge marshes
  • W - Shrub-dominated wetlands; shrub swamps, shrub-dominated freshwater marshes, shrub carr, alder thicket on inorganic soils
  • Xf - Freshwater, tree-dominated wetlands; includes freshwater swamp forests, seasonally flooded forests, wooded swamps on inorganic soils

Key features of the site:

The Coongie Lakes Ramsar site is located in far north-east South Australia in the Cooper Creek subcatchment of the Lake Eyre Basin. It is a complex and extensive ephemeral and semi-permanent freshwater wetland system in an arid zone, comprising channels, waterholes, lakes, internal deltas and numerous shallow floodout plains, interdune corridors and swamps.

Rivers in the Lake Eyre Basin are characterised by extreme variations in discharge, flow duration and inundation. Much of the northern parts of the Ramsar site receive water every year via Cooper Creek, whereas the lower reaches receive water less frequently.

The highly variable nature of watering in Coongie Lakes engenders an ecological boom-and-bust character to the region. Floodwaters promote a period of flourishing plant growth, and an influx and breeding of fauna including macroinvertebrates, fishes and waterfowl.

Several vegetation communities, including River Red Gum and Coolibah woodlands, and Saltbush and Bindyi shrublands occur along the channels, in the claypans and on the dunes.

Eighty-three species of waterbirds, 18 species listed under international migratory bird agreements and 18 species of birds of prey have been recorded in Coongie Lakes. Other fauna includes 12 native fish, such as the Cooper Creek Catfish and the Lake Eyre Callop, and 10 frog species including the Water-holding Frog, Grassland Collared Frog and Trilling Frog. Notable reptiles include Red-napped Snake, Black-headed Goanna and the Woma Python. The Plague Rat and the Water Rat, which are restricted to areas of permanent water, are also recorded at Coongie Lakes. Over 350 plant species are present at the site.

Cooper Creek was an important trading route for the three Indigenous communities that occupied the Coongie Lakes area. Whilst Indigenous people no longer live traditionally in the area, local descendants are involved in the protection of the extensive sites including burial sites, quarries, engravings, initiation sites and living areas.

European settlement and pastoralism came to the area in the 1870s following the expeditions of Charles Sturt in 1845 and Burke and Wills in 1861. The area is now used for grazing and for oil and gas production. Tourism is an increasing industry, particularly during periods of flooding and bird breeding events.

Justification of the listing criteria:

The Coongie Lakes Ramsar site meets seven of the nine criteria:

Criterion 1: The Coongie Lakes Ramsar site lies within the Lake Eyre Basin Drainage Division bioregion. The site encompasses a diversity of wetlands that are representative of the Channel Country, including near-permanent waterholes, permanent lakes, intermittently filled flood outs and channels, fresh and saline wetlands, and interdunal wetlands and swamps. Cooper Creek is one of the largest unregulated river systems in Australia and is recognised internationally. The floodplain is important for seasonally retaining water for other wetland systems downstream, including Lake Eyre.

Criterion 2: Eight nationally and/or internationally listed species of conservation significance occur within the Coongie Lakes Ramsar site. These are the wetland-dependent and nationally endangered Australian Painted Snipe (Rostratula australis), as well as the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis), Dusky Hopping-mouse (Notomys fuscus), Plains Rat (Pseudomys australis), Woma Python (Aspidites ramsayi), Fawn Hopping-mouse (Notomys cervinus), Yellow Swainson-pea (Swainsona pyrophila) and Mt Finke Grevillea (Grevillea treueriana).

Criterion 3: The Coongie Lakes Ramsar site exhibits a concentration of arid zone biodiversity due to the presence of water on a semi-regular basis. The site is an outstanding example of the evolution of aquatic, ecological and biological processes in an arid environment where variability is the key driving force behind the adaptations of biota. The combination of temporally variable systems, the dry landscape and the diversity of bird and fish fauna create a boom-and-bust phenomenon rarely seen elsewhere in the world. Water is present long enough and in sufficient amounts to sustain wetland-dependent species including obligate aquatic species, and the site is one of the most species diverse systems in the Lake Eyre Basin. It supports many different Ramsar wetland types, land systems and vegetation communities that are characteristic of the bioregion.

Criterion 4: The Coongie Lakes Ramsar site supports a significant number of migratory species including 18 species listed under international migratory bird agreements, 17 of which are also listed as migratory under the EPBC Act. In addition, the site supports the substantial breeding of waterbirds, with 55 species having been recorded breeding at the site since listing. The most significant breeding of waterbirds (in terms of numbers) occurs following large scale flood events. There were 50 000 Australian pelican nests on the islands of Goyder Lake in 1990/91 and in May 2004 there were 1700 great cormorant nests recorded. The area provides breeding habitat and drought refuge for many species of waterbird and fish because water from the upper Cooper reaches the upstream region every year and Lake Coongie is rarely dry.

Criterion 5: Most bird counts represent only a portion of the site; however, they illustrate the importance of the Coongie Lakes Ramsar site for supporting a diversity and abundance of waterbirds. For example, in October 2003 Lake Hope supported over 80,000 waterbirds. There are large numbers of birds at the site year round, with peaks in abundance following extensive inundation. Data from 1987 to 2004 show that in excess of 20,000 waterbirds were recorded for each survey event, ranging from just over 20,000 to more than 130,000 individuals.

Criterion 6: The site regularly supports one percent of the population of two species: pink-eared duck (Malacorhynchus membranaceus) and red-necked avocet (Recurvirostra novaehollandiae). For the pink-eared duck, the one percent population threshold was exceeded in ten separate surveys spanning two decades. There are seven counts above the one percent threshold for the red-necked avocet, which includes four of the five comprehensive surveys that have been conducted across the entire Ramsar site.

Criterion 8: Coongie Lakes supports 12 species of native fish which breed and migrate within the site. These fish respond to floods to migrate and breed within different habitats within the site, and they are a source of colonists for downstream wetlands including Lake Eyre in large flood events. There is a commercial fishery at Lake Hope in the lower reaches of the site which is supported by colonists (e.g. Lake Eyre Callop (Macquaria ambigua sp. B)) from upstream within the Coongie Lakes system. Lake Hope only receives water 1 in 31 years but once full retains water for some time.

Please see the More Information page for additional information on this Ramsar site and access to the Ramsar Information sheets and other associated site documents.