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Author: Jared Richards
Date: 18th of July 2016

The Martu people of Western Australia are environmental and cultural custodians, preserving tradition and ecosystems alike.

ACROSS THE BIRRILIBURU landscape in remote Western Australia, the Martu people are using their knowledge as traditional owners to conserve the greater bilby (Macrotis lagotis) population, which has recently dwindled to just 10,000.

The Martu people were some of the last Indigenous people to make contact with colonised Australia. Hidden by the arid northern deserts of Western Australia, Martu people didn’t meet western society until the 1950s and 1960s. In 2002, the Martu people were granted Native Title for over 13.6 million hectares of land, spanning from the Great Sandy Desert in the north to Wiluna in the south.

Even after contact, no pastoral leases were established over the area, and development has been limited. As a result, the area is one of Australia’s last havens for both relatively unaltered Aboriginal traditions and threatened desert species, including the mulgara and marsupial mole, and greater bilby.

Since 2013, the Martu people have managed the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area, a 6.6 million hectare site in partnership with Bush Heritage Australia. The area encompasses three bio-geographic regions; the Little Sandy Desert, the Gibson Desert and the Gascoyne.

It’s a ‘two-way’ program, where the Martu people act as rangers, overseeing and implementing conservation efforts based off traditional customs.

Preventing bushfires is a major duty, as rangers use their knowledge of the environment to trace fire scars and determine where to create preventive fires.

Rangers also manage weeds, track the population of wildlife and feral animals, and work towards improving the quality of desert water sources.

Not only does the ranger program help conserve the local environment, but by providing an employment opportunity that strengthens connection to country, it also preserves Martu tradition. There is a sense of urgency in passing on these traditions to future generations, as fewer and fewer people begin to know of life before colonial influence.

One way this knowledge is being preserved is through a bush tucker database. Martu rangers including Rita Cutter work with Bush Heritage to document the traditional names and uses of the regional desert food and medicine plants for the first time.

Dr Westcott and Rita have gathered information about the names and uses of over 60 desert plant species together, and on each trip there is more to learn.

A major focus is tracking the greater bilby population, as the red sands of Katjarra in the south-west of Birriliburu are an ideal breeding habitat.

It’s estimated that population numbers have dropped to less than 10,000, with a disheartening 10 per cent decrease in the past 12 years. Using traditional tracking techniques, the Martu rangers have been able to trace the growth of feral threats such as foxes and cats, as well as map bilby burrows and note any changes.

Like the rest of the ranger program, it’s a step towards preserving something before it’s lost.


Read the article at Australian Geographic.