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Indigenous-wildlife ranger collaboration conserves rare Australian rainforests

  • A collaboration between Indigenous ranger groups and ecologists is working to conserve a rainforest system in northwestern Australia.
  • Monsoon vine thickets are remnant, scarcely distributed rainforests located in the Kimberley region of Western Australia and are susceptible to wildfire, land clearing and weed infestation if not properly maintained.
  • Yawuru, Nyul Nyul and Bardi Jawi Indigenous ranger groups have partnered with Environs Kimberley’s Kimberley Nature Project for over a decade to conserve monsoon vine thickets through revegetation and fire management.
  • Due chiefly to this collaboration’s efforts in maintaining, documenting and promoting the importance of these forests, monsoon vine thickets have been granted ‘Nationally Endangered Ecosystem’ status in Australia. The rangers and ecologists continue to maintain these unique forests.

Behind the sand dunes of the Dampier Peninsula, in the far west of the Kimberley region of Australia, the landscape is alive, the air filled with the sound of great bowerbirds (Chlamydera nuchalis) flitting between helicopter trees (Gyrocarpus americanus).

Here, patches of vegetation called monsoon vine thickets (MVT), exist at the southern limit of rainforest in Western Australia.

While the Kimberley’s coastline is world-renowned – so pristine that it is comparable to the Antarctic – these rainforests, which are fragmented and have a restricted range, are almost unknown outside the region. In spite of this, MVT networks are strongholds of biodiversity. Remarkably scarce – MVT contribute just 0.01 percent of the Dampier Peninsula’s landmass – they contain a quarter of the region’s plant species.

A healthy monsoon vine thicket (MVT) canopy. MVT systems are patchy rainforest ecosystems scattered across otherwise arid landscapes. Image courtesy of Environs Kimberley.

Transient fauna, such as little red flying foxes (Pteropus scapulatus) and the rare, migratory rose-crowned fruit dove (Ptilinopus regina) find refuge, feed and move between MVT patches. Their presence in the rainforest system helps to maintain the thickets’ interconnectedness and genetic viability, as the animals carry and disperse seeds from one patch to another.

In this region, an area roughly the same size of California, October marks the start of the ‘build up,’ the transition between the wet and dry seasons. The humidity is heightened and the ground is waiting for its first rain.

Sites of cultural significance

MVT are also culturally significant for Traditional Owners from local First Nation communities. Many of the plants – such as the snowball bush (Flueggea virosa), known as Goorralgarr, Koowal and Guwal to the Bardi Jawi, Nyul Nyul and Yawuru people, respectively – are significant sources of seasonal fruits, cultural artefacts and medicine. Many MVT patches contain important cultural sites and camping areas which are now the location of some homeland communities – small, decentralized communities established by First Nations people on lands of social, cultural and economic importance.

Monica Edgar, Nyamba Buru Yawuru women country manager coordinator, highlighted the significance of MVT patches for the First Nations communities of the Dampier Peninsula.

“In Yawuru language, monsoon vine thickets are called mayingan manja balu, which means ‘plenty of fruit trees,’” she said. “[They] are important areas for our people, for food, gatherings, medicine, artefacts, songlines and water.”

The rare rose-crowned Fruit-dove (Ptilnopus regina) is an important fruit-eater that distributes seeds among MVT patches. Photo Credit: Chris Charles.

Although Traditional Owners have been managing and passing down knowledge of MVT for thousands of years, the first detailed scientific study of MVT on the Dampier Peninsula, conducted by local community organization, the Broome Botanical Society, was held in 2002 and highlighted that MVT were vital to the wider ecology of the region. Indeed, it was proposed that the loss of any patch of MVT would affect the entire rainforest network.

The study also confirmed what had long been suspected: MVT networks were being degraded, with threats including seasonal wildfire, weed infestation and land clearing.

As a result, a collaboration was initiated to protect the MVT.

Partnership of traditional and scientific knowledge to conserve MVT

In 2007, The Kimberley Nature Project (KNP), part of Environs Kimberley, the region’s leading environmental NGO, approached ranger groups from the Nyul Nyul and Bardi Jawi communities about working together to document and conserve the MVT networks of the northern Dampier Peninsula.

Since that time, Yawuru rangers, Traditional Owners of Broome, the Kimberley’s largest township, have also joined the collaboration, helping to revegetate significant MVT patches in the town’s Minyirr Park, which contains important nature corridors for animals to navigate Broome’s urban areas.

Challenges in conserving the monsoon vine thickets. This MVT in Broome’s Minyirr Park was burned in a suspected 2019 arson attack. Image by Nick Rodway for Mongabay.

The first five years of work between the ranger groups and the KNP staff resulted in a significant milestone: in 2013, monsoon vine thickets were listed as a “Nationally Endangered Ecosystem” in Australia.

The ranger groups and KNP team are working to be recognized as the “national recovery team” for MVT. This process unites experts for a threatened species or ecosystem into a officially recognized unit, which provides advice and works to halt the ecosystem’s decline.

If successful, it will be the first Indigenous-led ecosystem national recovery team in Australia, delivering overdue recognition to Traditional Owners as expert land managers for their country and the species contained within it. In fact, Dr. Malcolm Lindsay, co-manager of the KNP, confirmed that the collaboration’s combination of community focus and Indigenous direction have worked to make it a success.

“The best and only approach to conserve this endangered ecosystem is through collaboration,” he said. “It is vital to combine the best of western science and traditional knowledge, ecologists and Indigenous rangers, otherwise it is like working with only one eye or one hand.”

“To do this,” he added, “Indigenous rangers and their communities need to be recognized as experts and allowed to lead conservation efforts, to take the reins.”

Revegetation and seasonal burning as conservation solutions

Chiefly, these efforts involve revegetation and fire management programs that are undertaken at specific times of the calendar year, in line with traditional knowledge.

An intact monsoon vine thicket rainforest on the Dampier Peninsula in Western Australia. Image courtesy of Environs Kimberley.

Revegetation promotes native plant species within MVT, helping to combat weed infestation, one of the most serious threats to the health of the patches. Weeds such as neem (Azadirachta indica) displace native canopy and can form impenetrable thickets.

During the course of the MVT collaboration, rangers and ecologists have removed invasive species as well as propagating and planting native plants in the rainforest patches of the Dampier Peninsula. This ongoing program has impeded weed infestation and has enabled country managers to build a native seed collection for use in the project in the future.

Moreover, the MVT collaboration has incorporated seasonal burning to promote animal and plant diversity and prevent hot, late-dry season bushfires on the Peninsula.

Each year brings the challenge of such bushfires. In August, after limited rainfall in the 2018/19 wet season, the MVT of Minyirr Park were burned in a suspected arson attack. The fires engulfed 250 hectares (618 acres) of vegetation, including 16 hectares (40 acres) of MVT. This caused extensive damage, incinerating trees of species such as the endemic cable beach ghost gum (Corymbia paraticus) and many mammals, including the northern brush-tailed possum (Trichosurus arnhemensis).

These fires, while devastating, reinforced the importance of managing the landscape of the Dampier Peninsula appropriately.

Before colonization, Australia’s First Nations practiced seasonal burning, also known as ‘fire stick farming,’ or “mosaic burning” due to the patchwork appearance of plant growth after managed fires. In the years following European settlement, mosaic burning declined and ecological systems across the continent modified as First Nations people were dispossessed of their traditional lands, including in the Kimberley.

Now, by encouraging and harnessing the use of traditional knowledge, the MVT collaboration has helped to promote the importance of seasonal burning along the Dampier Peninsula as a means to combat the wildfires which pose such a danger to MVT patches.

Bardi Jawi Ranger Philip McCarthy ignites a seasonal burn to create a buffer zone to protect a MVT. Image courtesy of Environs Kimberley.

Lindsay said that fire management is central to the MVT collaboration.

“Fire is a given in the Dampier Peninsula landscape, and consequentially country managers undertake seasonal burns at times throughout the year,” he said. “These are small, cool, patchy fires, which are ignited early in the season when the undergrowth around monsoon vine thickets is greener. These controlled fires burn nearby grass but do not enter into monsoon vine thickets, an act which has been practised by Indigenous people for thousands of years.”

“If seasonal burning is not undertaken,” Lindsay added, “you run the risk of late dry season arsons or lightning from thunder storms, causing fires that burn hotter on larger fuel loads, impacting and potentially incinerating monsoon vine thicket patches.”

As the MVT collaboration prepares to maintain the patches over the approaching wet season, there are concerns of being able to sustain the program over the long term due to funding constraints.

Regardless, the First Nations communities of the Dampier Peninsula are committed to the care of their ancestral lands.

“The only way we can bring back the health of the monsoon vine thicket is through honouring the past and working together,” Ms. Edgar said. “As Traditional Owners for the mayingan manja balu, the monsoon vine thickets, we continue on thousands of years of management and cultural practice, it’s just now we have EK scientists by our side.”

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