Aboriginal knowledge addresses species decline

Aboriginal knowledge and science join forces to help northern Australia’s declining native mammals

I’m at an outstation on the edge of the Arnhem Land plateau drinking what must be my 13th cup of tea for the day. Several local Aboriginal women and about 30 camp dogs are watching as I show them the selection of stuffed mammals I’ve brought from Darwin, where I work as a research biologist for the Australian National University. We’re up to tree-rats – a group of large, tree-dwelling rodents endemic to northern Australia. From the back of my Toyota I bring out a kordberr, or Golden-backed Tree-rat (pictured) – a species whose numbers have declined dramatically over the past century, and which hasn’t been recorded in the Northern Territory since 1969.

One of the younger women, who’s remained silent up until now, suddenly pipes up. “I seen that one last year down the road,” she says. I’m surprised and mildly sceptical. “Are you sure it was this one and not one of these?” I ask, pointing to other similar, more common tree-rat species. “Nope,” she replies emphatically. “It was that one. It had a big long, white tail and that colour on its back, just like that one.” As she continues describing it and the habitat in which she saw it, I grow increasingly excited, convinced we’re talking about the same creature– one scientists feared had long disappeared from the Territory.

Observations such as this are priceless for scientists like me. Although large parts of the country’s northern landscapes appear largely intact, many mammal species – in particular bandicoots, possums, quolls, smaller wallabies and rodents – and some bird species, have declined or disappeared over past decades. The difficulties of studying these mostly nocturnal groups of animals over large and sparsely settled regions means that much of our scientific knowledge is fragmented, making it hard to pinpoint the extent and timing of losses and the reasons behind them.

To address this problem, in late 2005 a collaborative research project between the Australian National University, the NT Government, The Wilderness Society and Aboriginal groups and individuals across northern Australia was launched. Its aim: to bring together scientific and traditional knowledge to chart the pattern of mammal decline across northern Australia. When examined in relation to a broad set of environmental factors, such as topography, land use and fire regimes, such information can help us assess the reasons for the declines and the success of the region’s protected areas in conserving biodiversity. It may also help us work out how we can improve.

By the end of the project in 2008 we had travelled around 30,000 km – on foot and by car, boat and light plane – across the Top End and the Kimberley, visiting over 30 outstations and communities. Thanks to Indigenous knowledge we more than doubled the number of records for many mammal species in these areas. We learned, for example, that the Northern Brush-tailed Phascogale was much more widespread than scientists knew, although its numbers are declining. We discovered that the Black-footed Tree-rat is thriving in places we thought it hadn’t been seen in for more than 30 years, and that its numbers have declined in the places we considered it to be common.

But there is more than just science at work here. In many ways, Aboriginal knowledge of plants and animals is more thorough than ours because it’s based on information and experiences accumulated over many generations. It’s also a lot more intricate. While Western science tends to describe a species based on its individual characteristics, Aboriginal people classify plants, animals and their environments differently. They will often speak of groups of animals in the context of their environment and social and spiritual settings, which may vary depending on local conditions. In a sense it’s a more holistic approach. Such collaborative projects help Aboriginal rangers and communities to look after their land and understand the way things have changed since the old days; and in turn, they’re showing us their country in a different light and teaching us what’s important about it.

During the study I interviewed senior elder and traditional landowner from central Arnhem Land, Peter Billiers. This remarkable old man could name every Australian prime minister since World War II and talk about their policies in depth, but when pressed, he couldn’t remember what year the yok, or Northern Brown Bandicoot, disappeared from his land. Instead, he said: “It was when that John Howard bloke started. John Howard finished those animals!” We may have blamed the former Prime Minister for many things, but I reckon this one’s got to be a first!

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This blog post is reproduced with modifications from an article in Volume 87 of ‘Australian Geographic’ magazine

Watch an ABC Catalyst program about the project: