I recently returned from a rewarding trip to the first ever Indigenous Bilby Festival with four Birriliburu Rangers: Ruth Wongawol, Caroline Long, Leonie Anderson and Rita Cutter.
We flew to Alice Springs, bumped into Ernie Dingo at a restaurant and then headed west along a dirt track back into Western Australia.
Along the way we joined up to a convoy of other Indigenous ranger groups who are also working to protect the Bilby – an iconic threatened species.
The Festival was held at Kiwirrkurra, one of the most remote Aboriginal communities in Australia, which is situated within an Indigenous Protected Area currently managed by a skilled ranger team.
The event was powerful and positive with over 150 rangers and researchers attending from all over: Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, Warburton, Tennant Creek, Kintore, Kiwirrkurra, Wiluna, Punmu, Parnngurr, Kalgoorlie, Northern NSW and more.
As each ranger team gave a presentation their knowledge, passion and connection to the species was clear for all to see. When it came to the Birriliburu Rangers’ turn, they stood up with confidence and spoke proudly. It gave me tingles to watch.
Some Traditional Owners spoke about their desire to form a ranger program in their areas so they could also be part of this special group working to protect the species. Others spoke about how the Bilby was no longer found on their country however they continued to work to manage the land in the hope Bilbies will return one day.
One of the things that amazed me was the number of different traditional names for the Bilby.
I knew that the Kiwirrkurra crew say ‘Ninu’ and that over on Birriliburu country the name is ‘Muntalngaku’ but at least 20 other names were identified from all over.
The Festival ran for 3 days and achieved the perfect balance between modern science, traditional knowledge and cultural connections. Talks, field trips, open discussion and planned group sessions were all incorporated into the program. By the end it felt like everyone had had a chance to be heard and that important topics such as feral animals, monitoring techniques, cultural stories, food preferences and fire management had been covered.
A highlight for me was a visit to a Bilby sacred site. It was so very special that the Traditional Owners from Kiwikrrurra and Kintore invited us to share their important place. They made us feel extremely welcome – we are most grateful.
As everyone else packed up and headed home we were lucky enough to spend one more day with the Kiwirrkurra Rangers and the Threatened Species Commissioner out on country.
We watched as expert tracker Nolia and her team caught snakes, goannas, Great Desert Skinks and Mulgaras. In the afternoon we had a cup of tea around a fire, out amongst the spinifex, and you could feel the bonds growing between the rangers.
We then headed back to Alice along the same bumpy track feeling tired but energised to work even harder to save the species. There was a renewed sense of our capacity to make a difference and the ladies were keen to take what they had learned back to Wiluna and share their experience with rest of the ranger team.
The Festival was the first to be held under the auspices of the newly-formed Indigenous Desert Alliance, which seeks to bring together the voices of desert ranger groups to share ideas and achieve greater recognition for the important work they're doing.
Special acknowledgement must go to Kate Crossing from Central Desert Land and Community, Rachel Paltridge from Desert Wildlife Services and Fiona Walsh from CSIRO for organising a fantastic event.
Amongst conservationists working to protect threatened species it's often said that the more someone learns and understands about a species, the more they're likely to engage with it and want to work to protect it. Well, it was clear to me that, all the rangers I spoke to not only understand the ecology of the Bilby (e.g. food and habitat preferences) but they're connected to it through dream time stories, song lines, totems and places on their country.
I have no doubt that Indigenous ranger groups are our best chance to save the Bilby from extinction.