One of the things that struck Dr Anja Skroblin at the inaugural Ninu (Bilby) Festival was the connections between communities from opposite ends of the
country, through ancient stories and songlines about bilbies.
“There’s a connected cultural heritage going back thousands of years from Broome down through to the deserts of South Australia, and bilbies are an important part of that,” says Dr Anja Skroblin from The University of Melbourne, which is working in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy.
“Bilbies are one of many significant small animals for the Indigenous peoples of the Australian deserts, but unfortunately many of the other animals are now extinct.
“They used to be found across most of the country west of the Great Divide - in Adelaide, Perth, Victoria and throughout Queensland. But now they’re mainly found in the northern WA and NT desert, and one small part of Queensland, due to a range of threats such as livestock grazing, rabbits, feral cats, foxes and modified fire regimes.
“We estimate around 80 per cent of the remaining bilby population is on Indigenous land, and strong community engagement, as well as support for Indigenous groups to conduct land management is vital to stop further declines and conserve the species.”
Dr Skroblin joined more than 120 Indigenous rangers from 20 different ranger groups, scientists, philanthropic conservation organisations and key government representatives to share ideas and experiences and discuss the latest research conducted on managing bilbies.
“It was good to hear the monitoring priorities from the different Indigenous groups, learn more from their cultural stories about bilbies and also to support the twelve Martu ranger ladies I was accompanying,” says Dr Anja Skroblin.
Through the TSR Hub’s Project 3.2, Dr Skroblin is working with the Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) and Martu people to combine western scientific and Indigenous ecological knowledge to monitor and ensure the survival of the bilby in the desert.
“Bilbies are notoriously difficult to monitor because they’re nocturnal animals, but they do leave signs of their presence in the form of tracks, scats, diggings and burrows,” she says.
“Martu and other Indigenous groups have an exceptional ability to read the signs on the landscape, and have incredible bilby tracking skills. From the tracks they can tell the size of the individual, what they were doing and how long ago they were there.
“The ranger teams work on country to manage cultural heritage and ecological values, and threatened species monitoring is one of their key activities. They’re working across enormous areas and will often camp out for weeks to undertake surveys in remote locations.
“We’re working together to develop a monitoring program that gives KJ more power to detect population trends. The ranger teams want to know whether the bilby populations are stable, declining or increasing.
“This will give the ranger teams better information to plan where they monitor, how many sites they need to visit and the effectiveness of their land management practices – which includes patchy fire regimes, feral cat hunting and even baiting in some places.
“Stories that came from different groups at the festival suggest bilbies are doing really well around Indigenous communities which undertake patchy mosaic burns.
“Mosaic burning is part of the traditional hunting and management methods Indigenous peoples have been applying for many thousands of years that suits the bilbies quite well, as it leaves them areas to hide from predators while creating food resources in newly burned areas.”
Another highlight of the festival was the attendance of Walkley Award winning cartoonist First Dog on the Moon, who documented his experience for The Guardian.
Many landscapes in Australia are fire-prone, and increasingly so. Altered fire regimes can have a serious negative impact on threatened plant species and ecological communities. A Threatened Species Recovery Hub project is working to better understand the effects of different fire regimes on threatened flora in order to improve fire management strategies and conservation outcomes.
Almost a quarter of Australia’s possums and gliders are listed as threatened under Australian environmental law, and many more are showing signs of decline. Dr Rochelle Steven from The University of Queensland believes people in the community can do a lot to support conservation, especially in urban areas.
The detection and monitoring of threatened species have been a strong area of research in the National Environmental Science Program and also the two national environmental research programs which preceded it. Hub Director Professor Brendan Wintle takes a look at what we’ve been achieving and why it is so important to the conservation of Australia’s threatened species.
In 2009, the Christmas Island blue-tailed skink and Lister’s gecko were headed for imminent extinction. Parks Australia acted quickly to collect remaining wild individuals in order to establish captive breeding programs on Christmas Island and at Taronga Zoo, Sydney, which have been highly successful. A Threatened Species Recovery Hub project team is working closely with Parks Australia to help secure a future for the two lizards beyond captivity.
The silver-headed antechinus and black-tailed dusky antechinus are carnivorous marsupials found in high-elevation forests in parts of central-eastern and south-eastern Queensland. They were only described in the past six years, but they are already listed as Endangered. Knowing where they occur is essential for effective conservation, but current distribution knowledge is patchy. To address this, PhD candidate Stephane Batista in partnership with the Queensland Herbarium and Queensland Department of Environment and Science is modelling the habitat where these threatened species are likely to occur, and is using detection dogs to rapidly survey these sites.