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Discovering the Dugong

Published 11 Apr 2016 

Five years at Wunambal Gaambera

At a training camp in the Kimberley in September 2015, a team of scientists and indigenous rangers joined forces to fight for a vulnerable and mysterious marine mammal – the Dugong.

DugongPhoto courtesy of Auscape.

“They’re like big sea cows, moving along slowly, digging at the seagrass on the seabed,” says Tom Vigilante, Wunambal Gaambera Healthy Country Manager, describing the Dugong.

Listed as “vulnerable to extinction” in the IUCN Red List, the Dugong is an important part of the Wunambal Gaambera traditional landowners’ culture, as well as a key conservation target of their Healthy Country Plan – implemented through a ten-year conservation agreement between Wunambal Gaambera and Bush Heritage, which last year celebrated its fifth year.

The challenge of surveying an elusive subject

In the past, surveying these elusive creatures involved counting them from boats. “This was really difficult,” explains Tom. “They’re very hard to see, very timid – when they hear a boat, they take off.”

To overcome this, in September 2015, the CSIRO and Western Australian Marine Science Institute (WAMSI) delivered a three-day aerial surveying course hosted by Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation’s Uunguu Rangers at their Garmbemirri camp on the rugged Kimberley coastline.

The health of seagrass is crucial to the survival of the Dugong. Photo courtesy of Auscape.The health of seagrass is crucial to the survival of the Dugong. Photo courtesy of Auscape.

During this time, representatives of the Uunguu, Dambimangari and Kimberley Land Council-facilitated Balanggarra and Bardi Jawi ranger groups joined CSIRO researchers, Kimberley TAFE training staff and specialist consultants to learn aerial survey techniques for monitoring wildlife populations on sea and land. This involved counting Dugongs from the sky with the naked eye.

“The Dugongs couldn’t see or hear the plane so they weren’t scared away,” Uunguu Ranger Maggie Captain says. “Being in the air also meant we could look over much larger areas, and gauge how they move between different places as they migrate.”

The health of the seagrass is crucial to the survival of this species. “Australia is one of their last refuges,” explains Tom, “especially Wunambal Gaambera country because it’s fairly pristine and underdeveloped compared to a lot of other places.”

Did you know?

Dugongs can hold their breath underwater for more than 12 minutes before they come up for air (similar to dolphins or whales). Any survey needs to factor in how many animals may be unseen underwater for every animal seen above water at any one time.

Traditional knowledge together with modern science

This survey is a powerful example of how Wunambal Gaambera people with Bush Heritage’s assistance and the invaluable help of partners and supporters, integrate traditional knowledge and modern scientific methods to manage and keep our land and sea country healthy for generations to come.

“The Healthy Country Plan is world-class, it has improved biodiversity conservation outcomes, and has achieved remarkable results in a very short period of time,” Andrew Burbidge, a conservation biologist and member of the Uunguu Monitoring and Evaluation Committee, said at the five-year review of the Wunambal Gaambera Healthy country plan recently.

"Right-way" fire

A major outcome of the last five years has been the adoption of “right-way fire” operations using Traditional Owners knowledge across all of Wunambal Gaambera country. This program has significantly reduced the amount of harmful late season wildfires. In the past wildfires could burn for several weeks or months and reach over 100,000 hectares in size. In the last five years of the program wildfires have reduced to a tenth of that size.

The review also confirmed that this ground-breaking work has recorded:

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