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Wunambal Gaambera

Established:
2011
Area:
759,806 ha (Uunguu IPA stages 1 & 2)
Location:
600km NE of Derby

On the far north-west coast of the Kimberley are the lands and waters of the Wunambal Gaambera people. This beautiful and remote biodiversity hotspot covers a massive 2.5 million hectares of white sandy beaches, rocky escarpments and rugged gorges, including iconic locations such as Punamii-Uunpuu (Mitchell Falls).

Dugongs and Turtles swim the warm waters off the coast, while Humpback Whales nurse their calves around the offshore islands.

Punami Uunpuu (Mitchell Falls) is one of the iconic tourist destinations on Wunambal Gaambera Country.
Punami Uunpuu (Mitchell Falls) is one of the iconic tourist destinations on Wunambal Gaambera Country.

The wetlands, woodlands and savannahs provide vital habitat for vulnerable birds, animals and aquatic creatures such as Longneck Turtle (wulumara), Black Grass Wren, Scaly Tail Possum (yilangal) and Monjon – the world's smallest rock wallaby.

The Wunambal Gaambera people have lived and hunted here for thousands of years and call it Uunguu – their living home. Everything in Uunguu is looked after properly under traditional Wanjina and Wunggurr Law.

In this stunning and remarkably healthy landscape there have been no mammal extinctions. Our actions together will help ensure this legacy continues.

Indigenous Protected Area declared

The Wunambal Gaambera coast. Photo by Peter Morris
The Wunambal Gaambera coast. Photo by Peter Morris

In May 2011, after some 20 years of struggle, the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation finally secured native title over their country. At the same time they declared the first stage of the Uunguu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), covering 343,700 hectares, and entered into a 10-year partnership with us.

This was the first long-term agreement in Australia between traditional landowners and a non-government conservation organisation.

It was the culmination of many years' work by the Wunambal Gaambera people, and five years of collaboration with us, combining traditional knowledge and western science together.

The Healthy Country Plan

Uunguu Ranger Leonie Cheinmora. Photo Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.
Uunguu Ranger Leonie Cheinmora. Photo Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation.

The Healthy Country Plan was developed through a series of workshops and field trips facilitated by Bush Heritage and the Wunambal Gaambera Aboriginal Corporation. Together, participants mapped out a vision for their Uunguu that would help identify priorities for local rangers.

These included managing fire, controlling weeds and feral animals, managing visitors, conserving cultural heritage and monitoring the health of plants and animals.

Uunguu includes culturally significant Wanjina and Gwion rock art, which is a conservation target.
Uunguu includes culturally significant Wanjina and Gwion rock art, which is a conservation target.

In 2015 the second stage of the IPA was declared, bringing the total area to 759,806 hectares. It was also the midpoint for the Healthy Country Plan, triggering a comprehensive review of progress. An expert Uunguu Monitoring and Evaluation Committee – an innovative, intercultural and interdisciplinary body – was formed.

Results were positive and also provided feedback for flexible, adaptations to the plan, which has been consistently described by external parties as ‘the gold standard’ for IPA management planning (particularly the high level of community engagement).

Wunambal Gaambera's vision for the next ten years is for their people to secure sustainable livelihoods on and from their Country.

What we're helping to protect

Over 1,600 plant species occur in this region of the Kimberley and over 100 of these aren't found anywhere else in Australia. Our actions help protect:

Monjon. Photo by Jiri Lochman / Lochman Images.
Monjon. Photo by Jiri Lochman / Lochman Images.

Animals: Wijingarri / Northern Quoll (endangered), Balguja / Dugong (high cultural value), Flatback Turtle (endangered, high cultural value), Black Grass Wren, Yilangal / Scaly Tail Possum, Monjon – the world's smallest rock wallaby, Golden-backed Tree Rat, Rough-scaled Python

Plants: Guru (cypress pine), Dangana / Livistona Palm (endemic), Gungurru / Cycad (endemic), Gulay / Green Plum, Barrurru / Stringybark.

Vegetation communities: Darrngala / mangroves,Wulo / rainforest, Cyprus pine grove, Paperbark swamp, Livistona palm woodland, Savanna.

What we've helped achieve

As part of the Healthy Country Plan, Wunambal Gaambera traditional landowners and Bush Heritage have:

  • appointed a Healthy Country Manager (Tom Vigilante) to work on the ground with traditional landowners and rangers.
  • maintained the pristine, cattle-free status of Bougainville Peninsula and its monsoon vine thickets through a cattle-proof fence.
  • controlled weeds such as Grader Grass, which help spread wildfires and compete with native grasses.
  • recorded cultural sites and monitored populations of native animals and plants.

Preventing wildfires

Uunguu Rangers creating a mosaic of 'cool' burns. Photo Peter Morris.
Uunguu Rangers creating a mosaic of 'cool' burns. Photo Peter Morris.

Every June the Healthy Country Team set off on a ‘Right Way Fire' walk. This is a traditional method of lighting cool burns by hand to prevent wildfires and protect vulnerable native flora and fauna.

For five days they live off the land, catching and eating bush tucker such as yams, freshwater crocodile and bream. As they walk they light fires with matches and ‘fire brands' – a traditional tool made of gathered grass. They also record important animals, plants and birds.

PhD student Stefania Ondei has also worked with the Wunambal Gaambera to help map more than 6,000 patches of rainforest.

Pandanus Creek at Truscott. Photo Peter Martin.
Pandanus Creek at Truscott. Photo Peter Martin.

“Now that the rainforests have been mapped we can actually have their locations in front of us on a tablet when rangers are doing aerial burning in the helicopter,” said Tom Vigilante. “They can have the information right at their fingertips about where they are and how they might apply fire in that area to look after the rainforest.”

Nabarlek rediscovered

In 2018 Traditional Owners found exciting evidence (scats) of a tiny rock-wallaby – the Nabarlek – long thought to have disappeared from the mainland.

The Nabarlek is Australia’s second smallest rock-wallaby and is roughly the length of a school ruler. These unique nocturnal animals have grey fur, a light brown brush-tipped tail and a black stripe running from their forehead to nose and under their eyes. 

Previously there had been no confirmed Nabarlek records on mainland WA since the 1970s. Kimberley populations were thought to only survive on several offshore islands away from fire, feral animal and grazing threats.

Visitor management

An Uunguu Visitor Pass has been created to help manage tourists through the area. As well as attractions such as Punamii-Uunpuu (Mitchell Falls), offshore islands such as Wuuyuru (Bigge Island) and Ngula-Jar (Jar Island) are also popular tourist destinations. Visitors buying an Uunguu pass are helping the Wunambal Gaambera people to:

  • Establish managed visitor sites at key locations, with Uunguu Rangers and Traditional Owners welcoming, guiding and sharing culture.
  • Grow the Uunguu Ranger program with a tourism focus.
  • Provide cultural expertise and support for tour operators.
  • Develop their own authentic tourism ventures.