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300,000 ha
900km NE of Perth, 500km SE of Port Hedland

The Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts of Western Australia is roughly the size of Tasmania.

The Birriliburu Traditional Owners are the Martu people, whose traditional, ecological and cultural knowledge stretches back more than 40,000 years. They’re determined to continue to protect and preserve the plants, animals and landscapes of the Western Desert region.

The Martu were granted native title to 66,000 square kilometres of their country in 2008. They then established an Indigenous ranger program employing locals from Wiluna and surrounding areas.

The rangers lead a number of land management activities in the Birriliburu IPA, including reinstating traditional fire patterns, threatened species monitoring and baseline fauna surveys.

Dr Vanessa Westcott and the Birriliburu Rangers. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

Our partnership

We’ve proudly supported the Birriliburu ranger team since 2013, using ‘two-way’ learning with both traditional skills and science, particularly with fire ecology. The partnership has provided a chance for cross‑cultural exchange and better outcomes for the people and their land.

Our work together has seen Bush Heritage provide funds for equipment, project resourcing and ranger wages, and the continued support of our Healthy Country Manager to work closely with the rangers.

Desert Support Services are also key partners and are working with us on a science and monitoring program focused on fire management, feral animals, threatened species and bush tucker.

Pipijarli or 'Bush carrot' (Parakeelya). Photo Vanessa Westcott.

Embracing traditional knowledge

The Birriliburu IPA is astonishingly diverse, ranging from sand dunes and sandstone mountain ranges to salt lakes and claypans. It covers three bio‑geographic regions – the Little Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert and Gascoyne.

The area is home to many nationally significant species such as the Greater Bilby, Mulgara and Marsupial Mole to name just a few.

It’s with great pride that Bush Heritage is able to play a part in maintaining Martu people’s connection to country, and that we can continue to share knowledge for the mutual benefit of Birriliburu and the plants and animals that call it home.

The Thorny Devil looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
The Thorny Devil looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

Birriliburu researchers, land managers and the Birriliburu rangers are bringing together science and traditional knowledge to establish a bush tucker database.

Our Healthy Country Manager has been working closely with Martu rangers such as Rita Cutter and Lena Long, to document this knowledge for the first time; recording traditional and scientific names and uses for desert food and medicine plants unique to the region.

“Every time we come out with different elders, we fill in some gaps because they remember different names. And that’s really important – to document that knowledge – to make sure it gets passed on.”

Fire management

The Birriliburu team are using fire management, informed by both traditional knowledge and modern science, to protect areas with significant rock art sites and important habitat.

Mapping of fire scars using satellite imagery enables us to build up an understanding of the fire history of priority areas. We’re also now able to distinguish between fire scars created by ranger burns and those created by wildfire. This mapping allows the rangers to demonstrate the difference they’re making. Gradually, as we create a patchwork of spinifex ages, we expect to see a reduction in the areas impacted by wildfire.

Ranger Leoni Anderson recording feral cat tracks and scats. Photo Vanessa Westcott.


In the south-western pocket of the Birriliburu IPA is Katjarra – a vast landscape and area of significant cultural and ecological value. The hard, red sands provide an ideal breeding habitat for the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis), which digs burrows to keep its young safe from predators.

Bilby numbers have declined dramatically since European settlement and the population is now estimated to be fewer than 10,000.

Katjarra represents one of the only remaining, confirmed Bilby populations in the south-western extent of their current range, so the Birriliburu rangers, Desert Support Services staff and Bush Heritage scientists are working together to track, monitor and protect bilbies.

Juvenile Bilby. Photo Margarita Steinhardt (


The bilby, the moon and the Birriliburu Rangers >>

Hear from Ann Jones on ABC Radio’s Off Track program, as she chats with Birriliburu Rangers looking after bilbies and Bush Heritage’s own Dr Vanessa Westcott.