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‘Bring back burning culture’ to save seabirds: Q&A with Wudjari ranger Jennell Reynolds

Elder Donny Abdullah in yellow hi-vis and ranger Kenny Spratt

Elder Donny Abdullah in yellow hi-vis and ranger Kenny Spratt.

  • Jennell Reynolds, a Wudjari woman of the Nyungar nation and senior member of the Tjaltjraak Ranger program based in Esperance, Western Australia, says cultural burning can help protect seabird breeding sites on the islands of the Recherche Archipelago.
  • The region has been experiencing particularly hot and arid weather, heightening the fire risk on the 105 islands that make up the Archipelago.
  • Shearwaters return to the same place each year to breed, but it’s difficult for the species to create burrows when fire has burnt away the vegetation that holds the ground together.
  • While cultural burning has yet to be reinstated on the islands, Reynolds says it can stabilize key areas of vegetation and seabird breeding and nesting grounds.

In February 2020, lightning struck Figure of Eight Island in Western Australia’s Recherche Archipelago, igniting a fire that burned through most of its vegetation in just a few days. While Figure of Eight has no human inhabitants, it is a nesting spot for short-tailed shearwaters (Ardenna tenuirostris), seabirds that spend most of their lives migrating across the ocean, only to return to land to breed. But after the recent fire, very few shearwaters managed to nest on Figure of Eight Island, according to a forthcoming study.

With climate change predicted to multiply the frequency and intensity of global fire events, experts say the 105 islands in the Recherche Archipelago will be at increased risk, especially since the region has been experiencing particularly hot, arid weather. Fifty-eight of these islands are known breeding spots for seabirds, not only for short-tailed shearwaters, but also flesh-footed shearwaters (Ardenna carneipes), white-faced storm petrels (Pelagodroma marina), and little penguins (Eudyptula minor), rangers and researchers say.

Jennell Reynolds, a 46-year-old Wudjari woman of the Nyungar nation and senior ranger in the Tjaltjraak Ranger program, says Aboriginal cultural burning can help protect shearwaters and other species by slowly burning parts of an island to clear fire-prone vegetation, which can help stabilize breeding grounds and other critical areas. By contrast, fires lit by lightning or human negligence will burn “everything in its path,” Reynolds told Mongabay.

Reynolds, who hails from Esperance, Western Australia, was one of the first to join the Tjaltjraak Rangers after its establishment in 2018. The program, which now employs 18 rangers from the local community, is an offshoot of the Esperance Tjaltjraak Native Title Aboriginal Corporation (ETNTAC), an organization that oversees the 2016 native title decree that gave the Wudjari people back their custodial rights of the lands in and around Esperance.

Fifty-eight of the 105 islands in the Recherche Archipelago are known breeding spots for seabirds such as short-tailed shearwaters (in picture), flesh-footed shearwaters, white-faced storm petrels, and little penguins. Image by Leo via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

“When our ancestors were forcibly removed from country, it severed our connectedness to country,” Reynolds said. “So having native title is a way of reconnecting us with our ancestral lands.”

The rangers are involved in a number of activities to care for land and sea, from collecting seeds to replanting vegetation to protecting cultural sites, Reynolds says. In 2021, Reynolds and several other rangers also assisted a team of scientists led by Jennifer Lavers of the University of Tasmania to count shearwater burrows and fledglings on the islands. While Figure of Eight Island was found to be mostly empty of shearwaters, they found the birds on other islands, including Frederick Island and Ben Island. However, there are growing concerns that future fires could have a devastating impact on shearwaters. The survey results were incorporated in a peer-reviewed study led by Lavers about the impact of bushfires in southwest Australia, which is set to be published later this year.

Besides having to deal with bushfires, shearwaters are known to ingest plastic, which can lead to significant health problems and increased mortality, according to another study led by Lavers. Shearwater species are also at risk of getting caught in fishing nets, being grounded by light pollution, and even getting hit by cars.

Esperance and the surrounding islands, Western Australia.

Due to the mounting pressures on the species, Reynolds said it’s critical to do cultural burning on the islands where seabirds are known to breed. “We don’t know what we’ve got and we don’t want to lose that,” she said. “To be able to protect them any way we can — I think that’s really important.”

If cultural burning does take place on the islands, the rangers will use their knowledge to determine the right place and time to conduct a burn, consulting Aboriginal Elders to make sure that the process is being done correctly, Reynolds said. The rangers will also work in collaboration with the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES), the organization that currently conducts controlled burns in Australia, she added.

“We also want to bring back burning culture to where it was before colonialization,” Reynolds said. “To be able to practice that again on country would be a huge benefit.”

Mongabay recently spoke with Jennell Reynolds about the work of the Tjaltjraak Rangers, the revival of the practice of cultural burning, and her hopes for the shearwaters and other wildlife of the Recherche Archipelago. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jennell Reynolds holding a little penguin on Ben Island with Jenn Lavers. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: How did you first get involved with the Tjaltjraak Rangers?

Jennell Reynolds: Our native title organization was just formed, and we had the opportunity, with some grant funding, to be able to have rangers on our country. We make up the six family groups within this area, and each family group was represented by a male and female. I had the opportunity for the Reynolds family to be the female ranger.

Mongabay: What is a day in the life of a ranger like?

Jennell Reynolds: We’re right on the coast, so we’re the most southeastern Nyungar nation. So there are 14 different Nyungar nations within WA [Western Australia]. It starts just below Geraldton, and then goes all around the coast to where we are before going out to the border to Mirning country. So we do have quite a bit of land — about 30,000 square kilometers [11,600 square miles] of country that we have under native title. That’s not including the sea country as well, so we’re working at the moment in regards to having some title over sea country. So working in joint management with fisheries and the DBCA [Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions], which are organizations in that space.

Having so many islands within our area is quite unique — not too many places in and around Australia have so many islands concentrated in an area. When we do go out onto those islands, the evidence of our ancestors is still out there, from gnamma holes [rock holes that collect water] to lizard traps to [stone] chert tools. It’s hard to imagine, but our islands were once a part of the mainland. We do a range of activities — seed collecting, revegetation of sites and the protecting of our cultural sites. We care for country by letting people access just one track — not multiple tracks — within a cultural corridor. We’re going into the space of looking at fisheries and how we see our roles when we go out on our patrols. We also want to bring back burning culture to where it was before colonialization. To be able to practice that again on country would be a huge benefit.

We do have our circle of Elders that we run things through, so having that it’s really important. We have one member from each family group, so six Elders sit on that and we run things through them. Culturally, we want to be able to do things correctly.

Tjaltjraak rangers with Murray Bullen in orange and Cultural Advisor Doc Reynolds in the distance and Healthy Country Coordinator David Guilfoyle with hat and backpack. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: When you talk about country, is it land and sea together?

Jennell Reynolds: Everything is interconnected, and that’s what a lot of people and organizations don’t understand. It’s a holistic approach when we say caring for a country. It’s not just one thing over another; it’s all important to us.

Mongabay: Is there an increasing amount of interest in cultural burning, especially in light of the recent mega fires in Australia?

Jennell Reynolds: It has been the hot topic. It’s about acknowledging what was done in the past and how it could better the future. With our cultural burns, we do have certain times we’ll do it. When our ancestors were forcibly removed from country, it severed our connectedness to country. So having native title is a way of reconnecting us with our ancestral lands. It’s our obligation as Aboriginal people to be able to care for country, so to have that come full circle, for us to be able to practice those things again, is really important.

Mongabay: What changes have you noticed in the past few decades to land and sea?

Jennell Reynolds: We have six Nyungar seasons, and in regards to our seasonal indicators, they’re slightly out of whack. We’re not sure if we put it down to climate change, or if we’re just having a particularly hot, arid weather system coming through. It’s just that extra layer of things that we need to start looking at, to be able to build up a bigger picture of where we’re heading into the future.

Jennell Reynolds and Jenn Lavers weighing a shearwater on Fredrick Island. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: You recently helped researchers conduct shearwater surveys on the islands. Can you tell me more about that work?

Jennell Reynolds: On Frederick Island, we were looking at the habitat and just trying to eyeball the burrows. We had to remove the adults from the burrow, check if they had an egg or a chick, weigh them, and take measurements. If they were the flesh-footed shearwaters, we would tag them, so I’d give them an ankle bracelet.

It’s quite daunting when you find a hole in the ground and have to put your arm down there to track a bird. Most of these islands don’t have snakes, but there are few islands that do, and I think they’ve come across a few already. We’ve had to learn how to not to harm the birds and to be able to put them back into their burrows.

It’s exciting to see them still having a colony, even though we weren’t seeing the numbers that we were hoping for. Jenn [Lavers] has already done some surveys on those islands. And she said there were fewer birds than what she previously came across. Hopefully it’s not due to the dry environment, because we did see another island that was quite dry, and the vegetation wasn’t holding the soil for them to actually build their burrows. So a lot of burrows collapsed, and that’s really devastating to see.

Jennell Reynolds and Jenn Lavers with a flesh-footed shearwater on Ben Island. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: How do you feel when you hear about the shearwaters not doing too well?

Jennell Reynolds: It is devastating. When we were actually on one of the islands — Ben Island, closer to shore — we saw a family come across on their boat, and then go back and pick up some more people and bring them back over. There is quite a deep pool on the other side of the island, and I think that’s what they were accessing, but to have them coming onto the island, I think they need to be aware of what’s there, especially at that critical time when the birds are breeding. There should be signage to make them aware of what they could potentially be doing.

They are class A reserves — no one should be accessing them for personal reasons — but if they are there, they should stick to the granite and not go into the vegetation, where they could potentially collapse these burrows. The shearwaters only lay the one egg, so once that’s gone, the breeding pair won’t have a fledgling this season.

Mongabay: Did you have any experiences during the survey period that really stuck with you?

Jennell Reynolds: When we come across a chick — a really healthy chick. Just to know that there’s something special happening on these islands. We don’t know what we’ve got and we don’t want to lose that. To be able to protect them any way we can — I think that’s really important. Our ancestors would have had these birds as a cultural food back in the day, but to be able to protect them into the future is really important.

Jenn Lavers and Jennell Reynolds on Ben Island. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: There was also a fire on Figure of Eight Island in 2020, where shearwaters have previously taken residence, correct?

Jennell Reynolds: Yes, it was such a hot fire that it just burnt everything in its path, and with that, you don’t have any protection for the birds. And then you’ll have the invasive species come through and choke the island, and not have the native stuff coming in, which is a little slower to grow in.

Mongabay: Do fires discourage the shearwaters from breeding?

Jennell Reynolds: Yes. Before the fire, Jenn mentioned that there were quite a few birds on that island. And she said that they can hold off breeding for a number of years because that’s the only burrow that they will use in their lifetime. So they’ll come back year after year, and go back to that exact same spot where they were born and carry on that tradition. So they’ll probably come back every year, she said, until the conditions are right. And then they’ve got a stabilized burrow to be able to have chicks in and then they’ll start again. The plants need that structural root system to be able to hold the soil together. If that vegetation isn’t on top, it crumbles, it just collapses.

Mongabay: Is there a fire risk on Frederick Island right now due to the drier conditions in the area?

Jennell Reynolds: Yes, it’s like a tinderbox there at the moment. It’ll go up as soon as lightning strikes or someone accesses that island and drops a cigarette or something like that.

Aboriginal elder Donny Abdullah (in yellow hi-vis) and ranger Kenny Spratt conducting a cultural burn. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: Are you planning to do cultural burning on Frederick Island?

Jennell Reynolds: Lots of conversations are still to happen in and around that. If we could, we would do it straightaway, but obviously working with other partners in that space, our hands are tied until we come to an agreement on how it could be done and obviously, we’ve got to put up the argument that it needs to be done.

Mongabay: Why is it important to use cultural burning to protect the islands?

Jennell Reynolds: There have been a lot of lightning strikes in and around the islands, so if we’re able to do a cultural burn, it will stop the fire going through and ravaging everything in sight. To be able to have a slow and steady burn through that area will stabilize it a little bit.

The birds aren’t there all year round, they are only there for the breeding and rearing of their young. So when they aren’t occupying that area, we will need to look at the right time to do the cultural burning across the island. We do have some really strong winds in the area as well, so the timing needs to be critical and we’ll have to make sure that everything aligns — but having those small burns in and around the colony to protect it will be beneficial.

Jenn Lavers, Zane Vincent and Jennell Reynolds with a white-faced storm petrel chick on Fredrick Island. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.

Mongabay: Are you hopeful for the future?

Jennell Reynolds: Yes, for sure. When we go into schools and talk to kids, they want to be a ranger and they want to care for country. They can see all the good work that we’ve been doing, and it’s something that they want to do. That’s something that I feel hopeful about in the future.

As an Aboriginal person in this space, we feel obligated to care for a country like our ancestors would have done. So it’s really encouraging to see that our work is being made more visible in the town. I mean, at one point, you wouldn’t know that Indigenous people were actually living here in Esperance until you went on the other side of the tracks, so to speak it. But now to have an organization for our people run by our people and we are leading the way with land management is really exciting.

Banner image: Aboriginal Elder Donny Abdullah (in yellow hi-vis) and ranger Kenny Spratt conducting a cultural burn. Image courtesy of Tjaltjraak Rangers.


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Elizabeth Claire Alberts is a staff writer for Mongabay. Follow her on Twitter @ECAlberts.

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