Photo: Kristian Bell

Big knowledge needed to help answer big questions when managing Country

  • The First Australians helped plants branch out
  • Fire season calendar a guide for better burns
  • Indigenous ecological knowledge helps shape better weather forecasts
  • Kiwirrkurra people eat cats; save bilbies and the great desert skink
  • ‘Right way science’ the way for land management

“The big knowledge that Indigenous people bring to ecology is profound, and it goes back a long way,” says Dr Noel Preece from James Cook University.

Western scientists are constrained by the time they spend on any land, he says “They can only take a snapshot of what they’re studying. It might be a dozen snapshots, but it’s still only snapshots. They don’t live there year-round, they don’t live there for years, for generations.”

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge, on the other hand, “is a shared knowledge; it’s from people who live on Country, who every day see the seasons, they see the cycles through many years and generations. It just goes on forever and is handed down,” explains Noel.

This week, with Facilitators John Locke and Gerry Turpin, who are Traditional Custodians from the Wet Tropics, Noel is organising the coming together of people and knowledge at the Ecological Society of Australia conference at the symposium ‘Research protocols and changing nature of working on Country’.

It’s important for Indigenous and Western scientists to combine their ways of thinking, and “the only way to do that, really, is to work together collaboratively with Indigenous knowledge holder. In many ways they are the original scientists of this land.”

Indigenous Ecological Knowledge will be a major focus of the conference this year, with Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who study and care for Country coming together to discuss cultural burning, bush food, song lines, invasive species and more.

The conference will also feature a new award to the best presentation demonstrating ‘right-way’ science, thanks to the support of Bush Heritage Australia. ‘Right-way’ science recognises the sovereignty, connection and knowledge of Traditional Owners across the country and the award winner will receive $5,000 to help fund a further ‘right-way’ science project.

Traditional Owners and ecologists work together to bring better burns

Winston Thompson and Jana Daniels (Yugul Mangi Rangers)

Yugul Mangi Rangers, South East Arnhem Land Elders and ecologists have joined forces to create the Yugul Mangi Faiya En Sisen Kelenda, or Yugul Mangi Fire and Seasons Calendar, to guide fire management in the South East Arnhem Land Indigenous Protected Area.

This ‘two-way’ science involves Traditional Owners in savanna burning and protecting bush tucker and culturally significant areas, says Yugul Mangi Ranger Winston Thompson, who led the group. It also checks the ecological boxes of mosaic burning – where different patches of land are burned at different times – and lowering greenhouse gas emissions.

To make the calendar, Winston and his team included forty biocultural indicators, as well as important bush tucker resources, weather conditions, and recommendations for savanna burning.

Aside from being an example of cultures sharing knowledge, the calendar could help regional fire management planning, improve our understanding of savanna burning, and help transfer Indigenous ecological knowledge from one generation to the next.

Eating feral cats to save bilbies and the great desert skink

Ms Jodie Ward (Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area)

Kiwirrkurra people have removed and eaten 135 feral cats from land they manage in Australia’s Gibson Desert since 2014, assisting in the survival of threatened ninu (bilby) and tjalapa (great desert skink).

Kiwirrkurra people love to eat feral cats and many people are very good at tracking and catching them: all cats are tracked on foot, and on average it takes just over an hour from finding fresh tracks to making the kill.

The expert trackers can target specific cats hunting around the bilby and great desert skink burrows, with camera monitoring showing fewer cat visits to the burrows where the cat hunting is occurring.

“As predation by feral cats is believed to be one of the main reasons native animals are disappearing from the deserts, our cat hunting is an important land management tool,” says Jodie Ward from the Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area, who is one of the Rangers working on this cat control program.

Jodie and her team also looked at the contents of 52 cats’ stomachs and found mostly reptiles including the threatened great desert skink. She says feral cats and big wildfires are thought to be the main reasons for their numbers dropping in the deserts.

The First Australians helped plants branch out

Patrick Cooke (Macquarie University) and Monica Fahey (Macquarie University and The Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney)

The First Australians helped spread large-fruited rainforest plants, according to Australian researchers and Elders.

The research led by PhD students Patrick Cooke and Monica Fahey from Macquarie University is studying the intersection of Aboriginal songlines – paths across the land or that mark the route followed by an Aboriginal ancestor made during the Dreaming – and plant population DNA across eastern Australia.

Early research suggests that Indigenous Australians may have introduced Black Bean southwards from Queensland into northern New South Wales. For the Bunya Pine, Patrick is studying some dispersal pathways and cultural sites, and Monica is doing genetic testing to find out more.

The team say their research combines Indigenous knowledge about biology with genetic research in a respectful way. It also acknowledges the contributions of traditional knowledge holders and hopes to make managing local cultural heritage easier.

Also in these sessions:

  • By Indigenous land-managers, for Indigenous land-managers: new guidelines to support knowledge-sharing – Emma Woodward (CSIRO)
  • Traditional Owners’ cultural authority lays foundations for Joint Management Plan – Rosemary Hill (CSIRO)
  • ‘Right way science’ is the right way for land management – Briohny Jackman (Mungarlu Ngurrarankatja Rirraunkaja Aboriginal Corporation)
  • Getting rid of feral pigs and buffalo could help save North-East Arnhem Land’s floodplains – Daniel Sloane (Macquarie University)
  • Billabongs are part of connection to Country – Shaina Russell (Macquarie University)
  • What’s the go on cultural burning in south-eastern Australia? – Michelle McKemey (University of New England)
  • Rivers’ flows should protect cultures and livelihoods, too – Michael Douglas (University of Western Australia)
  • Keep the greenery to keep the critters – Rangers Karajarri (Karajarri Traditional Lands Association)
  • A fenced wildlife sanctuary on Yawuru country? – Eduardo Maher (Nyamba Buru Yawuru)
  • Indigenous Ecological Knowledge helps shape weather forecasts for better communication – Roan Plotz (Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities, College of Engineering and Science, Victoria University and Climate and Ocean Support Program in the Pacific (COSPPac), Australian Bureau of Meteorology,)
  • ‘What makes a healthy ecosystem?’ – Amos Atkinson (Dja Dja Wurrung Enterprises)
  • How can we manage our water to preserve our rivers? – Mona Liddy (Tjuwaliyn Wagiman Aboriginal Corporation)
  • Collaborations between Traditional Owners and researchers come out tops in the Northern Territory’s Top End – Raelene Singh (Kenbi Traditional Owners and Rangers), John “Mango” Moreen (Kenbi Traditional Owners and Rangers), Zoe Singh (Kenbi Traditional Owners and Rangers), Rex Edmunds (Kenbi Traditional Owners and Rangers), Chris Jolly (School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne), Ella Kelly (School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne), Adam Smart (School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne), Naomi Indigo (School of BioSciences, University of Melbourne and School of Life Sciences, University of Technology Sydney), Steven Brown (Kenbi Traditional Owners and Rangers)

Abstracts available here, here and here.

Information on the ‘Research protocols and the changing nature of working on Country’ symposium available here.

Media releases at:
On Twitter: #ESAus19 // @EcolSocAus
Conference website:

The Ecological Society of Australia’s 2019 Annual Conference is held on the 24th – 29th November at the Hotel Grand Chancellor, Launceston.