Lizzie, Warddeken ranger.
As the sun sinks below the horizon, brilliant streaks of ruby, indigo and tangerine dance across the rocky escarpments that jut proudly from the earth.
Here in West Arnhem Land, this majestic landscape changes by the hour. These unique and incredible places are part of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area, covering 1.4 million hectares of natural and cultural treasures of the Nawarddeken – people of the Western Arnhem Plateau.
Soon those rocky escarpments will just be a faint outline as the sky turns coal-black, and that’s when Ngalngbali clan traditional owners, Warddeken Rangers and their two supporting ecologists, will flick on their torches, leave the campsite and trek silently through the eucalypt woodlands.
“You have to be quiet and sneaky on spotlight walks,” says Allana Brown, Bush Heritage Healthy Landscape Manager and Ecologist. “I didn’t hear anything! But one of the rangers heard something high up in the trees, and with his torch we spotted a squirrel glider, something that wouldn't likely have been picked up by any other survey method.”
This activity was just a small part of a larger biodiversity survey conducted over 10 days in Baby Dreaming Country, a significant cultural site in the northern region of the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), a full day’s drive from Darwin.
Warddeken undertook this survey to support traditional owners in setting up a new ranger base at Kudjekbinj outstation community and it contributes to an ongoing project by Warddeken to find out what animals are in the IPA and what’s happening with the animals over time.
It’s a place that had never before been surveyed, but the team quickly found an array of reptiles, birds, mammals and frogs.
Led by senior Warddeken Rangers and consulting ecologist Terry Mahney, six survey sites were chosen across different landscapes – rocky escarpments, perched wetlands, fresh water billabongs, dry slopes and open woodland.
“This was the first time the Kudjekbinj traditional owners had been involved in biodiversity survey work,” says Allana. “It was a perfect opportunity for the Warddeken Rangers and Kudjekbinj landowners to learn from each other. The traditional owners had their history of the land, their knowledge and stories, and the rangers had their biodiversity survey experience and species identification skills.”
Every morning the team would check traps set the night before, using a bait mix of peanut butter, oats and vanilla essence. They’d take photographs, record their findings and then shut the traps until the midday heat had cooled.
“We also measured the habitat,” Allana says. “We recorded vegetation characteristics, tree and shrub diversity, ground cover and general habitat health so we could understand what type of country different animals live in. Then we’d come back to camp, have lunch and head out again to reset the traps in the afternoon.”
In total, the team found eight native mammal species, two native frog species and 23 reptile species. But perhaps the most exciting find was the elusive rock ringtail possum, djorrkkun (Petropseudes dahli).
“It’s so secretive and only lives in rocky escarpments that can be quite difficult to get to. As we explored we could smell this really musky scent – a sure sign you’ve got possums around.”
Warddeken Ranger Willie Nabulwad and Allana carefully picked their way over the rocks to find a place for the remote monitoring camera. There was a lot of anticipation, but the result was worth the wait.
“This was the first time rock possums had been recorded on camera in the Warddeken IPA,” Allana explained. “So we were really excited.”
Everyone agreed it was a very successful survey.
“The traditional owners and Terry did a fantastic job of selecting the sites and running the entire survey. Warddeken achieved exactly what they set out to do, and now they and Kudjekbinj landowners have a good base to work from when doing future projects and supporting biodiversity in the northern region of the IPA, including Baby Dreaming Country.”