Biodiversity survey at Malnyangarnak, Arnhem Land

Published 31 Oct 2018 
by Simon West and Katie Degnian 
about  Arafura Partnership  
Florence Biridjala, Evonne Munuygu, Gladys Womati and Margret Dalparri looking up the English name for Bïwiyik, (White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike) during a bird survey.<br/>The rangers have very sharp eyes and ears for birds and can identify all the local bird Florence Biridjala, Evonne Munuygu, Gladys Womati and Margret Dalparri looking up the English name for Bïwiyik, (White-bellied Cuckoo-shrike) during a bird survey.
The rangers have very sharp eyes and ears for birds and can identify all the local bird
The Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum) was commonly caught in our pitfall traps at Gärralaley Spring. It’s YöIŋu Mätha name is Gärkmaŋ. Photo Katie Degnian.<br/>Gärkmaŋ traditionally was, and still is, used as bait for fishing. The Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum) was commonly caught in our pitfall traps at Gärralaley Spring. It’s YöIŋu Mätha name is Gärkmaŋ. Photo Katie Degnian.
Gärkmaŋ traditionally was, and still is, used as bait for fishing.
Florence Birdidjala and Levi checking a pitfall trap and funnel trap.<br/> Florence Birdidjala and Levi checking a pitfall trap and funnel trap.
Marley Djangirri holding Yälkigarrambulk, the Orange-sided Bar-lipped Skink (Eremiascincus douglasi) for identification photos. Image: Katie Degnian.<br/> Marley Djangirri holding Yälkigarrambulk, the Orange-sided Bar-lipped Skink (Eremiascincus douglasi) for identification photos. Image: Katie Degnian.
Orange-sided bar-lipped skink Eremiascincus douglasiii, called Yälkigarrambulk in YöIŋu Mätha. <br/> Orange-sided bar-lipped skink Eremiascincus douglasiii, called Yälkigarrambulk in YöIŋu Mätha.

How do you handle an aggressive snake? How do you dig a pitfall trap in ground baked solid by the Northern Territory dry season? And how do you make the perfect cup of camp tea? These were just some of the challenges encountered in an exciting week spent surveying biodiversity around Malnyangarnak outstation with the Arafura Swamp Women Rangers.

The biodiversity survey – led by ASRAC women’s ranger coordinator Katie Degnian and supported by Bush Heritage – brought together rangers, Traditional Owners, children, ecologists and social scientists for a week of fun, exploration and joint learning. The aim was to continue to develop a ‘two toolbox’ monitoring and evaluation system within ASRAC (Arafura Swamp Rangers Aboriginal Corporation). This included the sharing of Traditional Ecological Knowledge, stories and language names for species found, training in scientific survey techniques, and interactive assessment of ‘healthy country.’

An effective and culturally appropriate monitoring and evaluation system will help the rangers to track their progress towards achieving the vision outlined in their Healthy Country Plan: 

“Healthy Country, healthy tucker, healthy families, living on our homelands. The right people are speaking for country, passing knowledge from the old to the young. We have strong ceremony, family and language for country.”

The week was packed full of activities. Arriving at Malnyarnyuk outstation on Tuesday the team quickly set to work establishing two scientific survey plots according to NT guidelines, at sites identified by the Traditional Owners and rangers: the Gandawol Rock Wallaby Dreaming Site and Garralaley Spring. The plots included several different kinds of trap – pitfall, Elliot, funnel and camera traps – designed to capture passing amphibians, reptiles and mammals. The rangers were highly adept at placing these in the perfect position to attract unsuspecting night-time wanderers.

The group also performed morning and afternoon bird and reptile searches, and night spotlighting walks. Turning on our head-torches revealed a sea of glittering wolf spiders’ eyes on the ground, reflecting the sparkling milky way above us. We soon began to encounter the rich biodiversity of Malnyangarnak, with a final count of 11 kinds of frog and 18 species of reptile. One of the highlights was the discovery of two very lively Bitjday (in Yolngu) or Keelback Snakes (in English), ably handled and calmed by ecologist Nic Gambold. Bitjday are one of the few native Australian predators to successfully prey on the invasive Cane Toad (of which we saw plenty).

The Yolngu and Bi rangers and Traditional Owners shared knowledge, stories and language names for the species found as we checked the traps, and trialed the use of iPads as tools to spark conversations, holistically assess the condition of the landscape and identify opportunities for future ranger work. As the heat built in the middle of the day, we took the opportunity to cool off and do some all-important swimming and fishing in the nearby creeks.

On Friday we returned to ASRAC headquarters happy from our time on country spent developing some promising approaches to bringing indigenous and scientific knowledge together in a ‘two toolbox’ or ‘multiple evidence based’ approach to monitoring and evaluation. This collective learning will be invaluable to the group over the coming years as ASRAC develops its own tailored monitoring and evaluation system.

And the perfect camp tea? Lots of milk powder, lots of sugar, and as big an enamel cup as you can find.

Although it was a dry time of year, we recorded a total of 94 species including:

  • 58 birds
  • 5 mammals
  • 18 reptiles
  • 11 amphibians
The Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum) was commonly caught in our pitfall traps at Gärralaley Spring. It’s YöIŋu Mätha name is Gärkmaŋ. Photo Katie Degnian.<br/>Gärkmaŋ traditionally was, and still is, used as bait for fishing. The Ornate Burrowing Frog (Platyplectrum ornatum) was commonly caught in our pitfall traps at Gärralaley Spring. It’s YöIŋu Mätha name is Gärkmaŋ. Photo Katie Degnian.
Gärkmaŋ traditionally was, and still is, used as bait for fishing.
Florence Birdidjala and Levi checking a pitfall trap and funnel trap.<br/> Florence Birdidjala and Levi checking a pitfall trap and funnel trap.
Marley Djangirri holding Yälkigarrambulk, the Orange-sided Bar-lipped Skink (Eremiascincus douglasi) for identification photos. Image: Katie Degnian.<br/> Marley Djangirri holding Yälkigarrambulk, the Orange-sided Bar-lipped Skink (Eremiascincus douglasi) for identification photos. Image: Katie Degnian.
Orange-sided bar-lipped skink Eremiascincus douglasiii, called Yälkigarrambulk in YöIŋu Mätha. <br/> Orange-sided bar-lipped skink Eremiascincus douglasiii, called Yälkigarrambulk in YöIŋu Mätha.