Hundreds of unique records describing the biodiversity of the Western Desert have been added to WA’s NatureMap.
This provides new value to the trove of data already housed in the NatureMap database which was developed by the WA Department of Parks and Wildlife and is one of the main information sources for scientists evaluating the status of threatened native fauna in Western Australia.
Rangelands NRM Program Manager (Desert & Pilbara) Chris Curnow said the new dataset highlights the importance of Aboriginal groups contributing to our overall understanding of the natural and cultural values of Western Australia’s vast and beautiful deserts.
The data was collected over the course of the 20082013 Western Desert project by ranger groups working on Martu Country (in the Great Sandy, Gibson and Little Sandy deserts), Ngururrpa Country (in the Great Sandy Desert), Birriliburu Country (in the Little Sandy & Gibson deserts), Spinifex Country (in the Great Victoria Desert) and Yilka Country (in the Great Victoria Desert).
These areas are now all determined Native Title areas.
Support to ranger groups
Rangelands NRM provided funding support to Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) and Central Desert Native Title Services’ Land & Community team to provide the foundational and logistical support to the various ranger groups.
“Experts from Parks and Wildlife and other desert wildlife zoologists provided training in desert wildlife survey techniques as well as expertise in the methods for collecting, storing and reporting the survey data,” Chris said.
Alison McGilvray*, conservation officer with Parks and Wildlife’s Pilbara Region, was instrumental in bringing together the necessary experts and workshops in wildlife survey methods and worked hard with the Traditional Owners to ensure that the data they agreed to share with the public had the cultural authority of the elders.
‘It was a privilege to work with Traditional Owners on their country and help them to integrate a small part of their vast knowledge of country and the plants and animals that make up the desert landscapes into a platform that is accessible to members of the public and other specialist organisations, helping to fill the knowledge gaps that exist in our recorded data systems,” Alison said.
Collection of biodiversity data
Until now, there has been little inclusion in NatureMap of biodiversity data collected by Traditional Owners.
Since around 2008, Aboriginal ranger groups from across WA’s Western Deserts have systematically collected biodiversity data relating to threatened species and the threats these species face.
These undertakings have required innumerable on-country trips and dedicated capacity-building of the rangers in scientific methods of mammal, reptile and invertebrate survey and data collection by the increasingly organised ranger teams that now cover the vast areas of Traditional Owner-managed desert country in WA.
Chris said these desert wildlife monitoring skills and survey data recording procedures are still in place and more and more desert ranger groups are employing the same methods today.
This not only helps people gain an insight into the Traditional Owners’ understanding of their country, but also provides the rest of the scientific community with access to this valuable biodiversity survey data.
Paul Gioia, Ecoinformatics Unit Manager at Parks and Wildlife, who led the way in the development of the State’s peak biodiversity portal, said that it is important that the full picture of scientific survey and collection of biodiversity data is reflected in one place.
“Biodiversity data is now available in ways that were unimaginable a few decades ago. Portals like NatureMap, its sister site FloraBase, and the Atlas of Living Australia, now provide users [with flora and fauna] occurrence data at their fingertips, saving countless hours of data compilation, and providing a more informed basis for decision-making associated with sustainable development and land use planning.”
Within WA, NatureMap provides the most accurate and comprehensive data available for conservation planning, environmental impact assessment and scientific research. This capability is now significantly enhanced with the data collected by Traditional Owners while looking after their Country, in areas where we’ve had little data in the past”, he said.
Filling the ‘black hole’ for desert data
Tristan Cole, Environmental Strategy & Services Manager at KJ, said for too long the repository of the State’s biodiversity data has shown a ‘black hole’ over desert country where Traditional Owners have been busy surveying and collecting data for years.
Rangers work across their country, which is 13.5 million hectares in size—twice the size of Tasmania—managing biodiversity and cultural values.
“It’s fantastic to have Martu [and the other desert] rangers’ work recognised and be able to fill in the gap that existed on NatureMap,” Tristan said.
“Looking after and managing country is intrinsic to Martu—It is a responsibility that is founded in their culture.
“By combining traditional ecological knowledge with contemporary natural resource management techniques [Aboriginal] rangers are looking after country and increasing biodiversity through ‘right way’ fire, monitoring of threatened species and through the removal of feral animals,” he said.
“The ranger program also provides an important platform for the inter-generational transfer of the elders’ knowledge. There is a limited timeframe for this transfer of knowledge with many of the pujiman (bushman) who lived a traditional lifestyle are getting old and sadly passing away.”
Martu elder Ms Rita Cutter from Wiluna is a Senior Martu Ranger with the Birriliburu# Women Rangers team who has been on various ranger exchanges as well as taking her message to bureaucrats and politicians in Perth and in Canberra.
“Projects like this, working with scientists, enable me to get out on country and pass down my knowledge, of the animals and plants,” she said.
“We can share that knowledge two-way [with scientists]. When I’m on Country, it’s part of me, that ground, that ngurra (home). I feel it. All that knowledge comes out through me; I feel it strong. When I touch my country, when I put my foot on that land, I have tears: I’m standing on the same ground as where I was born. That is special. I treasure that knowledge that the old people gave me.”
Continued support needed for ranger groups
The work of the Aboriginal ranger groups across the state is largely funded by federal government and philanthropic investments.
“Country needs people. Keeping our focus on the broader benefits and the social return on investment, providing foundational support for Aboriginal rangers is a clear win-win situation,” Chris said.
“Communities find the unifying properties of a ranger group something to hold on to. It’s solid and shows people a clear way to re-connect to Country. With these connections done the right way, the avenues are open for whitefella science to join hands with Traditional Owners in long term partnerships for caring for Country and the people who are from there,” he said.
Chris Curnow counsels that we need to continue to support Indigenous Rangers in this on-going data collection and assimilation process, lest we lose that link between what many blackfellas already know and what whitefellas spend a lot of money trying to find out.
“It’s wonderful that the efforts of people like Rita Cutter and her people in surveying and mapping our desert Country’s plants and animals is now shared [on NatureMap] right alongside the work of whitefella science,” he said.
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