Firebirds

Published 12 Jun 2020 

The Mimal Rangers of central Arnhem Land are looking after country the right way, preventing damaging wildfires and reducing emissions, with a fire-spreading raptor at their side.

In the heart of Arnhem Land, there's a very special bird. Karrkanj, it is called; the Brown Falcon, the firebird.

Karrkanj the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora). Photo Greg Oakley.
Karrkanj the Brown Falcon (Falco berigora). Photo Greg Oakley.

Across cascading river waters and wetlands (djula and wah), grassy plains (ruwurrno and rorrobo), and woodlands (berrhno and mininyburr), Karrkanj can sometimes be seen soaring overhead carrying a smouldering stick in its talons.

On the move from one fire, it drops the stick to start another. As small reptiles and mammals scuttle away from the newly lit flames, Karrkanj becomes the hunter, swooping in to pick up its meal.

This raptor is one of three birds in Northern Australia known to spread fire – the Brown Falcon, Black Kite and Whistling Kite – and it is very significant to the Rembarrnga and Dalabon people of the Mimal Land Management area where Bush Heritage has a partnership with the Mimal Rangers.

For Mimal Rangers, fire is a part of life. It is a part of the culture and the story of their land and is a reason that Traditional Owners are needed on country, looking after it the right way.

“I saw with my own eyes, that Karrkanj collecting firewood from where we made fire to go and burn other grass,” says Annette Murray, a board member on Mimal Land Management.

“Our people used to say that bird is the firebird because when our people used to go and burn, he’d go and do it for them.”

For tens of thousands of years before pastoralists and miners came to the area, Rembarrnga and Dalabon people used fire for hunting and rejuvenating bush tucker plants. Burning country was, and still is, an important tool for land management.

Mimal Rangers Lydia Lawrence and Anne Kelly. Photo courtesy of Mimal Land Management.
Mimal Rangers Lydia Lawrence and Anne Kelly. Photo courtesy of Mimal Land Management.

Expert knowledge passed down through generations is used to strategically light a mosaic pattern of small, cool fires during the early dry season to prevent hot, damaging wildfires later in the season.

“In the past, our Elders and our old people had the knowledge. We didn't have calendars at that time, but we read the stars, the moon, and the weather changes,” says Annette.

“We had names of all of those things; for when the rain’s coming, when the dry or wet is coming, and our Elders knew exactly when to burn and when not to.”

And while at times Karrkanj has been a little troublemaker – jumping firebreaks and starting unwanted wildfires that need to be put out – he's also a friend.

“We have a partnership with that bird. We mainly work together, the bird and us,” says Annette. “Mimal means fire and Karrkanj is a firebird, so that's how it goes. Mimal and the firebird.”

The Mimal Land Management area spans nearly 2 million hectares in central Arnhem Land. It's home to a whole range of species that depend on appropriate fire regimes to keep their habitat healthy, including the Emu, Northern Cypress Pine, Gouldian Finch and Northern Bandicoot.

Mimal Rangers Robert Redford and Norrie Martin conduct a right-way burn. Photo by Peter Cooke/Northern Pictures.
Mimal Rangers Robert Redford and Norrie Martin conduct a right-way burn. Photo by Peter Cooke/Northern Pictures.

But when many Rembarrnga and Dalabon people were moved off their country in the 1900s, traditional burning stopped and wildfires predominated, altering the ecology and damaging large tracts of the landscape.

Then, nearly two decades ago, an initiative to develop caring for country activities with Traditional Owners led to the establishment of the Mimal Rangers.

In 2006, Mimal helped pioneer the West Arnhem Land Fire Abatement (WALFA) Project to reinstate traditional burning through an emissions offset program.

Rangers, working under Traditional Owners, reduce greenhouse gas emissions from late season wildfires by doing traditional burning in the early dry-season. This generates Australian Carbon Credit Units (ACCUs) for the carbon market and creates funding for the Mimal Rangers.

Raptors hunt around the edges of a burn. Photo Claire Thompson.
Raptors hunt around the edges of a burn. Photo Claire Thompson.

Now, with the increasing threat of climate change, this work has never been so important.

With Karrkanj on their logo, rangers use a two-toolbox approach, combining traditional knowledge and skills with modern tools like geographical information systems (GIS), trucks and helicopters to undertake controlled burning and wildfire suppression, and protect country.

For John Dalywater, another Mimal board member, this means working together with both neighbours and people across the country and making sure that knowledge is passed on to the next generation.

“There’s a phrase we've been using as Indigenous people: caring and sharing,” says John. “We share, we care together. This is what Australians do together in this thing; sharing ideas, caring for each other.”

“We do the early burning with the project. That's with the neighbouring rangers, Warddekken and ASRAC,” he goes on. “It's how we look after the land.”

“As an Indigenous person, the love that you have for your land, it's unexplainable. It doesn't get any better than that. I have got no other one. Without it, you are lost, without your country.”