Last updated: Friday 27 May, 2016
A map showing the location of Carnarvon Reserve in Central Queensland.

Established: 2011
Area: 6.6 million ha / 66,000 square km
Location: 900 km NW of Perth, 500 km SW of Port Headland

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The Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area covers 6.6 million hectares of land in the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts of Western Australia – roughly the same size as Tasmania.

The Birriliburu Traditional Owners are the Martu people. Their traditional, ecological and cultural knowledge stretches back more than 25,000 years. They are determined to continue to protect and preserve the plants, animals and landscapes of the Western Desert region.

The Martu were granted native title to 136,000 square kilometres of their country in 2002, the largest native title determination in Australian history at the time. The Birriliburu IPA was declared in April 2013. The Martu then established an Indigenous ranger program employing locals from Wiluna and surrounding areas.

The rangers lead a number of land management activities in the Birriliburu IPA, including reinstating traditional fire patterns, threatened species monitoring and baseline fauna surveys.

The partnership between Bush Heritage and Birriliburu

Bush Heritage has been proudly supporting the Birriliburu ranger team since 2013, using 'two-way' learning with both traditional skills and science, particularly with regards to fire ecology. The partnership has provided an opportunity for cross‑cultural exchange and better outcomes for the people and their land.

Dr Vanessa Westcott and the Birriliburu Rangers. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Dr Vanessa Westcott and the Birriliburu Rangers. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

In 2015 June, Bush Heritage CEO Gerard O'Neill, along with board members Chris Grubb and Nick Burton Taylor visited Birriliburu country to formalise our partnership for a further three years. This will see Bush Heritage provide funds for equipment, project resourcing and ranger wages, and the continued support of our regional ecologist Dr Vanessa Westcott, who works closely with the rangers.

Central Desert Land and Community  are also key partners and are working with Bush to establish a science and monitoring program with a focus on fire management, feral animals, threatened species and bush tucker. This initiative is already well underway and is being led by Dr Westcott.

Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Photo Vanessa Westcott.

Embracing traditional knowledge

The Birriliburu IPA is astonishingly diverse, ranging from sand dunes and sandstone mountain ranges to salt lakes and claypans. It covers three bio‑geographic regions – the Little Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert and Gascoyne.

The Thorny Devil (Moloc) looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
The Thorny Devil (Moloc) looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

The area is home to many nationally significant species such as the Greater Bilby, Mulgara and Marsupial Mole to name just a few.

It's with great pride that Bush Heritage is able to play a part in maintaining Martu people’s connection to country, and that we can continue to share knowledge for the mutual benefit of Birriliburu and the plants and animals that call it home.

We saw their work first‑hand, and were staggered by their knowledge, progress and dedication to their country.

- Gerard O'Neill, Bush Heritage CEO

Collecting a bush tucker herbarium. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Collecting a bush tucker herbarium. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

Birriliburu researchers, land managers and the Birriliburu rangers are bringing together science and traditional knowledge to establish a bush tucker database. Dr Westcott has been working closely with Martu rangers like Rita Cutter and Lena Long, to document this knowledge for the first time; recording traditional and scientific names and uses for desert food and medicine plants unique to the region.

“We’ve got 60 odd plants on the list at the moment. And every time we come out with different elders, we fill in some gaps because they remember different names. And that’s really important – to document that knowledge – because we really want to make sure it gets passed on,” says Dr Westcott.


Greater Bilby. Photo Jiri Lochman, Lochman Transparencies.
Greater Bilby. Photo Jiri Lochman, Lochman Transparencies.

In the south-western pocket of the Birriliburu IPA is Katjarra – a vast landscape and area of significant cultural and ecological value. The hard, red sands provide an ideal breeding habitat for the Greater Bilby, which dig burrows to keep their young safe from predators.

Bilby numbers have declined dramatically since European settlement. Ten percent of that decline has occurred in the past 12 years, with current population numbers estimated to be fewer than 10,000.

Katjarra represents one of the only remaining, confirmed Bilby populations in the south-western extent of their current range, so the Birriliburu rangers, Central Desert Land and Community staff and Bush Heritage scientists, like Dr Vanessa Westcott, are working together to track and monitor the vulnerable species in order to help safeguard their survival.

“Right now, the Bilby population in this area is only just hanging on; with feral cats and foxes representing a major threat. There is a great urgency to monitor burrow systems, manage the land and do all that we can to protect the species and help ensure they remain in this area,” says Dr Westcott.

Fire management

Ranger Leoni Anderson recording feral cat tracks and scats. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Ranger Leoni Anderson recording feral cat tracks and scats. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

The Birriliburu team are using fire management, informed by both traditional knowledge and modern ecological science, to protect areas with significant rock art sites and others that are habitat for the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis). Fire scars are being mapped and management burns are being used to prevent damage caused by wildfires.

“Mapping of fire scars using satellite imagery enables us to build up an understanding of the fire history of priority areas. We are also now able to distinguish between fire scars that were created by ranger burns and wildfire. This mapping allows the rangers to demonstrate the difference they are making. Gradually, through time, as we burn more areas, and create a real patchwork of spinifex ages, hopefully we’ll see a reduction in the areas that wildfires are taking out”, says Dr Vanessa Westcott.

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