Bilbies are a well-known, peculiar and charismatic- looking Australian marsupial. They are an ecologically important species because of their prolific burrowing (providing homes for themselves and others) and foraging (spreading seeds and increasing germination). Culturally they are important as a food item, for ceremonies and the dreaming stories that feature t
They used to range across 70% of Australia, but now only occur in the north-western 20% of their former range because of predation by cats and foxes, competition from rabbits, and habitat loss through fire and land clearing. All this has led to the Bilby being listed as a threatened species vulnerable to extinction under both Federal and State conservation legislation. Once a species is listed as threatened, then the State Governments’ Conservation Departments often drive the conservation effort, coordinated by a Recovery Team of scientists and written down in a Recovery Plan.
In the past, Aboriginal people have often not been included in these Recovery Teams or Plans. When it comes to Bilby conservation, this poor inclusion has been recognised as a major problem for many reasons. Here are three. Firstly, the scientific community has finally learnt how critical Aboriginal fire management was and is to most Australian biodiversity, including the Bilby. Secondly, there is large overlap between the traditional diet of desert groups and the Bilby’s, including grass seeds, fruits, bush onions and grubs. Lastly, 80% of the Bilby’s current range occurs on Aboriginal-managed land (e.g. Indigenous Protected Areas), which are managed by the largest conservation force in Australia, the Aboriginal Ranger Groups.
So if you want to conserve Bilbies, you really should include the people who manage the majority of the Bilby’s range, who have significant knowledge of the Bilby’s food and have been using fire to manage Bilby country for thousands of years.
Aboriginal Rangers were first fully included in the Bilby conservation conversation last year at the Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Bilby Knowledge Festival, which brought together
Aboriginal groups across Australia to share cultural and scientific knowledge. Environs Kimberley and WWF Australia coordinated a convoy of Kimberley Rangers to take part in the Kiwirrkurra festival. To keep this important conversation going regionally, EK, WWF and Department of Parks and Wildlife recently ran a Kimberley Bilby Workshop in Fitzroy Crossing.
The workshop was attended by eight different Aboriginal Ranger groups from the Kimberley, including Nyangumarta, Karajarri, Yawuru, Nyul Nyul, Bardi Jawi, Nyikina Mangala, Ngurrara and Gooniyandi. The two-day workshop covered important topics such as Bilby ecology, cultural knowledge, and feral animal and fire management. The attending groups vary in their Bilby experience, creating an important opportunity for learning from the more experienced Rangers and scientists present.
This regional conversation provides an opportunity for consistency and standardisation in survey and management methodology. This allows the Rangers’ work to simultaneously tell a story of Bilbies on their country and aggregate with
other groups to tell a regional story. A critical discussion was held about the importance of traditional knowledge in Bilby management projects and how better to respect and integrate it with western scientific knowledge.
This is just one example of how essential it is to include Aboriginal people in any conservation project for better conservation, social and cultural outcomes.
By Dr Malcolm Lindsay,
Coordinator, Kimberley Nature Project