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The future of Birriliburu country in great hands

Published 21 Sep 2015 

Bush Heritage CEO Gerard O'Neillby Gerard O'Neill, CEO

There’s no doubt that working to protect our precious flora and fauna is at the heart of all we do. To see native plants flowering again, or a refuge for threatened species thriving is one of the great joys of being involved with Bush Heritage Australia.

But our work goes beyond our reserves. It involves investing in partnerships and empowering people to deliver the programs required to protect Australia’s plants and animals for future generations.

Bush Heritage’s partnership with the Traditional Owners of Birriliburu country in Western Australia is one such example. Since the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was established in 2013, Bush Heritage has been fostering a partnership with the traditional owners – the Martu people – and the Central Desert Native Title Services Land and Community Team.

Birriliburu Traditional Owners group shotIn good hands: The traditional, ecological and cultural knowledge of the Martu people stretches back more than 25,000 years. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

The Martu people 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.

Their traditional, ecological and cultural knowledge stretches back more than 25,000 years and the work they’ve delivered since determination has helped protect and preserve many of the plants and animals that can be found in the Western Desert region.

One of the initiatives they quickly established was an Indigenous ranger program employing locals from Wiluna and surrounding areas.

Birriliburu ranger Nikita Farmer holds a Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus). Photo by Vanessa WestcottBirriliburu ranger Nikita Farmer holds a Thorny Devil (Moloch horridus). Photo Vanessa Westcott.

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.

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

Ongoing support

I was fortunate enough to visit the area in June, along with board members Chris Grubb and Nick Burton Taylor. The purpose of the trip was to formalise our partnership for a further three years, which will see Bush Heritage provide funds for equipment, project resourcing and ranger wages and the continued support of our regional ecologist Dr Vanessa  Westcott.

Desert Nancy. Photo by Vanessa WestcottDesert Nancy. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

It was terrific to work with the rangers, tracking bilbies, assessing the burning regime, monitoring bird populations and learning about culture. To experience the complete overlap between culture and ecological thinking was a wonderful experience.

We'll also continue working with the rangers and Central Desert Native Title Services Land and Community Team 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.

The trip included lots of stories around the fire (waru), bush tucker (milka) morsels and visits to some spectacular water holes (kapi) of cultural and ecological significance.

CEO Gerard O'Neil Ben Brown and Richard NarrierOur CEO Gerard O’Neill with Birriliburu rangers Ben Brown and Richard Narrier. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

At the end of the trip we were also fortunate to attend the IPA dedication ceremony for Matuwa Kurarra Kurarra (formerly known as Lorna Glen and Earaheedy pastoral stations) adjacent to Birriliburu. The event was very special for the Martu people and provided a great opportunity to meet others working on conservation land management programs in the region.

It was a humbling experience, and one that emphasised to me that the management of this country is in good hands with the Traditional Owners. Our role is a supportive one, and something that we offer the Martu people wholeheartedly.

Track through Birriliburu country.Track through Birriliburu country. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

Embracing traditional knowledge

The Birriliburu IPA consists of 6.6 million hectares of desert country. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the same size  as Tasmania.

As you can imagine, 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 of Australia, the Little Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert and Gascoyne.

The area is home to a high number of nationally significant species such as the bustard, 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.

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