Partners in conservation

Published 30 Sep 2016 

The Greater Bilby is one of many creatures that have benefited from the meeting of western scientific research and traditional ecological knowledge, since Bush Heritage and our many Aboriginal partners began working together in 2004.

Traditional Owner Rita Cutter and Bush Heritage Ecologist Vanessa Westcott working together on Birriliburu traditional lands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Traditional Owner Rita Cutter and Bush Heritage Ecologist Vanessa Westcott working together on Birriliburu traditional lands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
It’s typically hot in central Western Australia. The sun beats down on the parched landscape and the breeze offers little respite. Bush Heritage Ecologist Dr Vanessa Westcott steps down a dune and crouches at its base. By her side are Rita Cutter and Lena Long, Birriliburu Traditional Owners and senior rangers for the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).

Rita and Lena are showing Vanessa another new active Bilby burrow they have found on their country. Vanessa brings with her a PhD in fire ecology and botany. Rita and Lena bring thousands of years of traditional Martu knowledge. Their worlds may seem vastly different – yet their goals are the same: to look after the bush by sharing knowledge.

The Greater Bilby. Photo by Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.
The Greater Bilby. Photo by Jiri Lochman / Lochman Transparencies.
As Bush Heritage celebrates its 25th anniversary, this partnership approach has become an increasingly important piece of the conservation puzzle. It’s recognition that Aboriginal Australians have lived on the land for millennia, and demonstrate an enduring commitment to look after it. They've also accumulated generations of traditional knowledge about its ecology.

Since the Birriliburu IPA was established in 2013, Bush Heritage and the Traditional Owners, the Martu people, have been fostering a strong partnership, together with Central Desert Land and Community.

Lena Long, Birriliburu Traditional Owner. Photo by Gerard O'Neill.
Lena Long, Birriliburu Traditional Owner. Photo by Gerard O'Neill.
Bush Heritage has assisted with the development of the Indigenous ranger program employing locals from Wiluna and surrounding areas. Rita and Lena are senior rangers and lead land management activities in the Birriliburu IPA, including reinstating traditional fire regimes, threatened species monitoring and fauna surveys.

According to Cissy Gore-Birch, Bush Heritage’s National Aboriginal Engagement Manager, partnerships play a vital role in our conservation achievements.

“Having the support of Bush Heritage donors has provided an opportunity for land management experts to work in collaboration with Aboriginal people through a two-way learning process.”

And that’s great news for the Australian bush, because, as Cissy explains, in many cases, Aboriginal people are in the best position to manage that bush.

Rita Cutter, Birriliburu senior ranger using right-way fire on her traditional lands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
Rita Cutter, Birriliburu senior ranger using right-way fire on her traditional lands. Photo Annette Ruzicka.
"They know the country. They know the stories that have been passed down. And they know the locations of what country is where.”

Much has changed in the way that Aboriginal people are positioned to look after their lands since Bush Heritage first worked in partnership with Bidjara Traditional Owners on Carnarvon Station Reserve in 2004.

“Aboriginal people are now a major stakeholder within the land sector. This partnership has contributed to providing greater opportunities to succeed in cultural and conservation outcomes for all.”

The future looks bright for similar partnership programs. Bush Heritage’s reputation is quickly growing amongst Aboriginal communities, paving the way for the program to expand.

“We are becoming more well known within the Aboriginal community and we are fielding more and more requests to partner,” Cissy says. “There are some very promising and exciting times ahead.”

Traditional Birriliburu technique of shoe weaving. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Traditional Birriliburu technique of shoe weaving. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Today Vanessa, Rita and Lena are monitoring Bilby numbers. Each day they’re met with a mammoth task: the Birriliburu IPA spans 6.6 million hectares across the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts of Western Australia. That’s roughly the size of Tasmania.

In its south-western corner is Katjarra – an area of significant cultural and ecological value. The hard, red sands provide ideal breeding habitat for the Greater Bilby. But Bilby numbers have declined dramatically since European settlement. Katjarra represents one of the only remaining, confirmed Bilby populations in the south-western extent of their current range.

Rita and Lena are Bilby (Muntalngaku) experts and are both passionate about their work.

“I just love my little bilbies,” Rita says. “I want to come back next time when I am on a ranger trip, I want to see them breeding, surviving and looking after themselves so they can cover half this country.”

Tetratheca champanii found only at Katjarra (the Carnarvon Range) in the Birriliburu IPA. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Tetratheca champanii found only at Katjarra (the Carnarvon Range) in the Birriliburu IPA. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Rita and Lena’s knowledge, enthusiasm and connection to country have been essential to the progress of the partnership. For Dr Vanessa Westcott, their knowledge in regard to the Bilby is unparalleled. They know about the food plants Bilbies like, their habitat preferences and they are experts in recognising Bilby tracks, scats and burrows.

All the Birriliburu Rangers are involved in undertaking fire management and feral predator works that are critical to maintaining Bilby populations on their land.

“If anyone is going to save the Bilby and the other animals in this landscape, it’s going to be Aboriginal people through programs like the Birriliburu partnership.” Dr Vanessa Westcott, Bush Heritage Ecologist.

Thanks to your support, Bush Heritage are able to help Rita, Lena and their fellow Birriliburu Traditional Owners to protect their traditional lands.

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