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The Umpila Rocky Lake Survey

Published 21 Dec 2014 

Giant tree gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis). Photo by Anders Zimny
Giant tree gecko (Pseudothecadactylus australis). Photo by Anders Zimny
Over four weeks in September, Umpila rangers, Bush Heritage staff and ecologists camped on Umpila traditional lands on Cape York in Far North Queensland and recorded a wealth of species.

Illuminated arcs break the darkness of the rainforest night as a spotlight beam swings back and forth from tree to tree.

High above, almost directly overhead, a young common spotted cuscus is momentarily caught by the light midway along a branch. Voices chatter on the forest floor and then the beam moves on and he continues his slow and deliberate search for food.

Amethyst Python. Photo by Nic Gambold
Amethyst Python. Photo by Nic Gambold
This is the Rocky Lake area. Its traditional custodians – the Umpila – have looked after this land for more than a thousand generations. A thirteen hour bone‑shaking drive north from Cairns, Umpila country runs from the McIlwraith range to the west to the Great Barrier Reef to the east, midway up the east coast of Cape York Peninsula in far north Queensland.

Remote and difficult to access, these forests are also places of breathtaking natural beauty and extraordinary biodiversity.

Working into the night is a team carrying out baseline monitoring of plants and animals. Over four weeks of early rises and evening spotlighting, the crew – including Umpila rangers (representing their five different river clans), two Bush Heritage staff, two staff from the Balkanu Development Corporation, three zoologists and a botanist – have recorded a wealth of species.

It’s important that we as young people go through the stepping stones of our forefathers from the past and continue to keep these places protected.

Woolumbia latisternum turtle. Photo by Nic Gambold
Woolumbia latisternum turtle. Photo by Nic Gambold
Since 2006, Bush Heritage has worked in partnership with the Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation on an over‑arching Cape York Caring for Country Strategy. As part of this we have supported assessments and planning work with Traditional Owners in the Coen sub‑region. The participating clans – the Kaandju, Umpila, Lama Lama and Ayapathu own vast estates, which include the KULLA (an acronym for the clan names) National Park, though most of the Umpila country is outside of this.

In 2012, partnering with Bush Heritage, Balkanu and The Nature Conservancy, the Umpila Pama Malngkanichi Healthy Country Plan was developed.

Spotted Cus Cus. Photo by Chans and Judy Beste.
Spotted Cus Cus. Photo by Chans and Judy Beste.
Planning sessions had identified the Rocky Lake area as an important site that hadn’t been accessed in some time. Baseline monitoring became a priority, to help understand the conservation targets and threats in the area, and to inform future plans and funding opportunities.

For the Umpila, caring for country is also about keeping their culture strong and healthy, as the two go hand‑in‑hand.

White-lipped frog. Photo by Nic Gambold
White-lipped frog. Photo by Nic Gambold
Johanne Omeenyo, an Umpila Healthy Country Steering Committee member, described her people’s aspirations as to basically get families back out there so people can manage their land.

“Umpila country is a very significant country – it’s rich and full of cultural values,” she added. “That’s why it’s important that we as young people go through the stepping stones of our forefathers from the past and continue to keep these places protected.”

Capacity building

Joanne Omeenyo. Photo by Dave FellJoanne Omeenyo. Photo by Emma Ignjic

Bush Heritage helps support partners like the Umpila by facilitating capacity building projects such as this one.

During the trip the Umpila rangers conducted ecological surveys at 14 different sites, with support from the accompanying scientists. This provided a chance for the rangers to get hands‑on training in animal survey, capture and handling techniques – skills they’ll now carry with them into the future.

Bush Heritage Partnerships Manager – Northern Australia, Emma Ignjic, was part of the expedition and impressed by the results.

“The team worked hard every day, often from five in the morning until 10 at night,” explained Emma. “They got involved in using everything from pitfall traps with drift fencing, funnel traps and buckets; hair traps; cage traps; Elliott (box) traps; camera trap stations; song‑meter (bat detector), and they did active spotlighting searches.”

As a result of the fauna surveys, 108 birds, 30 mammals (not including micro bats), 15 amphibians and 40 reptile species were recorded. The Umpila rangers and Traditional Owners also engaged in cultural activities, collected cultural resources and recorded traditional knowledge.

Survey results

  Frog graphic 15 amphibian species
  Gecko graphic 40 reptile species
  Cockatoo graphic 108 bird species
  Platypus graphic 30 mammal species

Many of the native fauna are considered endemic to Cape York. Some – like the common spotted cuscus – have a shared distribution between the Rocky River area and Papua New Guinea.

Another of the outcomes from this trip was that it facilitated the purchase of an all‑terrain buggy, which will help Umpila with future access to some of these densely forested areas that would previously have been too difficult to reach.

From Emma’s perspective, the diverse range of habitats was one of the highlights. “I was just amazed by how the vegetation was constantly changing,” said Emma. “There was rainforest with incredible buttresses and gallery forest, countless river and creek systems – it’s really inaccessible country – stringy bark forest, tea tree plains and melaleuca swamp forest.”

Overall, the survey confirmed the high conservation value of this remote and special place, which supports a rich and diverse range of unique or rare animals including the canopy goanna, red‑cheeked parrot, palm cockatoo and Bennett’s tree kangaroo.

Very few introduced plants or feral pests were recorded, and traditional burning practices will continue to sustain the quality and condition of its range of habitats.

With this baseline monitoring complete the Umpila can start working with partners to tackle specific projects addressing identified threats, such as establishing access routes to implement conservation measures. It’s work that will also support their ranger program, and help develop jobs and livelihoods on country.

Exploring the An‑binik jungle

Another major survey with our Aboriginal partners was conducted recently on the West Arnhem Plateau, traditional land of the Warddeken people.

Our long‑standing partnership (since 2006) produced Warddeken’s first conservation management plan and helped protect many species listed as nationally or locally threatened, including the bustard, northern quoll, black wallaroo, Arnhem Land rock‑rat and Oenpelli python.

The partnership has also helped to create jobs on country where previously there were none. Last year more than 100 Aboriginal people worked full‑time and part‑time as casual rangers and in related land management work.

As Bush Heritage Partnerships Manager, Justin McCaul, explains, partnerships make sense, particularly in a place like Northern Australia.

“Bush Heritage recognises the Traditional Owners’ rights and responsibilities to country, so we think partnering is an appropriate approach to conservation management,” he explained.