Cape York

A map showing the location of Cape York.

Established: 2006
Area: The Kaantju, Umpila, Ayapathu and Lama Lama peoples have dedicated 45,590 hectares to nature refuges and jointly manage 650,000 hectares of National Park. Detailed map >

We've been working with Cape York traditional owner groups and organisations since 2006 on a range of conservation projects.

Hoop Pines on the MacIlwraith Range overlooking Umpila country

Hoop Pines on the MacIlwraith Range overlooking Umpila country. Photo Gerard O'Neill.

Cape York Peninsula is one of the largest ecologically-intact, tropical, Indigenous areas on earth. Covering 137,000 square kilometres, it's home to more than 10,000 Aboriginal people representing 50 diverse language groups.

The diverse landscape includes wetlands, monsoonal rivers, heath lands, dune fields, extensive tropical savannah woodlands and the largest remaining tract of unlogged tropical rainforest in Australia. To the west the peninsula is fringed by the Great Barrier Reef.

Aboriginal people are the primary owners and managers of substantial tracts of Cape York and the surrounding sea, with which they have deep cultural connections. They aspire to conserve, use, and manage the land responsibly and sustainably as they progress toward economic independence.

Umpila Rangers

Umpila Rangers. Photo Alex Anderson.

Balkanu Partnership

The Balkanu Cape York Development Corporation is an independent group owned and directed by traditional owner communities. It helps the Cape's Aboriginal communities achieve economic development and self determination, including through conservation.

Bush Heritage has worked in partnership with Balkanu since 2006 to help develop and implement the Cape York Caring for Country Strategy.

Bush Heritage CEO Gerard O'Neill at an Umpila welcome-to-country ceremony

Gerard O'Neill at an Umpila welcome-to-country ceremony.

This plan guides the development of projects combining conservation, cultural heritage, employment and enterprise objectives in protecting the natural values of the area. We've funded Balkanu staff to consult with traditional owner clan groups and to develop detailed plans for implementing the strategy.

Between 2010 and 2012 Bush Heritage and Balkanu supported conservation assessments, management planning and capacity building with traditional owners in the Coen sub-region. The participating clans the Kaandju, Umpila, Lama Lama and Ayapathu own vast estates through Land Trusts that they manage as the KULLA National Park in cooperation with the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service. (KULLA is an acronym for the clan names.)

In 2014 Bush Heritage and Balkanu developed and signed a partnership agreement outlining how we'll work together for the next five years.

Ecological assessment and Healthy Country

Lama Lama rangers doing ecological assessment

Lama Lama rangers doing ecological assessment at Running Creek. Photo Max Tischler.

In 2010-11 Ecologist, Max Tischler, helped Kalan, Lama Lama and Umpila Aboriginal Rangers do ecological assessments and document the cultural and conservation values at Mount Croll and Running Creek. As a result the traditional owners obtained legal protection over 50,000 hectares through Queensland Nature Refuge Agreements.

Based on the ecological values and threats assessments, Traditional Owner groups and their Land Trusts have developed management plans that include monitoring programs that will enable the rangers to demonstrate the benefit of their management. They've now begun work to reduce conservation threats – such as removing cattle from Running Creek and fencing important wetlands.

This region is a stunning part of the Cape. The reserve ranges from coastal lagoons and estuaries to melaleuca swamps and messmate forests. It's a really diverse landscape. I was privileged to see the very close connection the Lama Lama have with their land. As Rangers, they're now employed to look after country. This work is helping them document the significant values on the nature refuges, and how to monitor and manage them best for conservation.

- Dr Max Tischler.

Planning for conservation

Our staff have worked with Traditional Owners in the Coen subregion, Lockhart River and Aurukun to help provide Healthy Country Planning support and training so Traditional Owners have the skills to develop and implement their own Healthy Country Management Plans.

Umpila traditional owners doing Healthy Country Training

Naomi Hobson (second from left) facilitating Healthy Country Planning with Umpila families.

Naomi Hobson, an Umpila Traditional Owner, has completed the Healthy Country Planning Facilitators training and Conservation Action Planning Coaches training provided by The Nature Conservancy with our help.

Our plans for our country are starting to come to life. I mean they are real … Bush Heritage has helped give our old people a lighter heart. Cos' they have helped us to plan our future and to be on country.

- Naomi Hobson, Umpila Traditional Owner

What we help protect

Green tree python. Photo Alex Anderson.

Our actions help to protect:

Animals and birds

More than 700 vertebrate land animals occur in the far north Cape York, including 40 endemic species.

  • Northern Quoll (endangered), Spotted Cuscus, Golden-shouldered Parrot (endangered), Palm Cockatoo, Eclectus Parrot (vulnerable), Cassowary (endangered), At least 133 reptile species including the Green Tree Python, Turtle, Dugong
Nuts in hand

Photo by Alex Anderson.


  • Cape York has one of the highest rates of plant endemism in Australia with 260 plant species endemic to the region, including original Gondwanan plants such as Araucariaceae and Podocarpaceae conifers and Arthrochilus, Corybas, and Calochilus orchids.

Vegetation communities


Photo Alex Anderson.

  • 99.6% of Cape York still retains its native vegetation.
  • The healthy and abundant tropical savannahs that cover most of Cape York are now rare and highly degraded elsewhere.
  • Tropical rainforests cover an area of 748,000 ha
  • The extensive wetlands are among the largest, richest and most diverse in Australia. 19 wetlands of national significance have been identified.

What we've helped achieve

Our actions have helped achieve:

  • Investment – Between 2009 and 2012 a total of $25 million in funding was leveraged, to support land and sea management initiatives on Cape York.
  • Conservation knowledge – Partnerships have been developed with scientists to improve access to existing scientific knowledge by local enterprises and land holding groups.
  • Cultural maintenance Funds have been leveraged to enable improved sharing and maintenance of local/traditional knowledge within groups through the Commonwealth Indigenous Heritage Program.
  • Planning for conservation Traditional owners from 8 properties have been supported to improve their capacity to plan for country between 2009-10 through fundraising, mentoring and help desk support and between 2011-12 through formal training as part of the The Nature Conservancy/Bush Heritage North Australia Healthy Country Planning program.
  • Leadership and governance – Balkanu has supported improved leadership by traditional owners through staff mentorship, help-desk support, and the creation of support positions for local Land Trusts. This has led to improved compliance levels, enterprise activity and management capacity within these Trusts and their associated enterprises.
  • Employment – 40 full-time, and about 50 new casual positions have been created, through five emerging local enterprises and within Balkanu. About 90% of these positions are currently filled by Aboriginal people.
  • Enterprise development – Recognising that Aboriginal land holders require a broader economic base to ensure sustainability of on country conservation, Bush Heritage support has been integrated with the broader business development programs of Balkanu and the Land Trusts.

Source: Building foundations for Conservation Partnerships on Cape York: Bush Heritage and Balkanu supporting Caring for Country on Cape York 2009-2012.

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