The indigenous keepers of the Outback’s secrets

Written by The Frontier Post

Anthony Ham

The road to Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary is an abrupt portal between two worlds. At one end of the road is Alice Springs, population 25,000, which is what counts in Outback Australia for an urban metropolis. At the other end are the isolated red-rock desert massifs, salt lakes and spinifex plains of the Great Sandy Desert, Australia’s second-largest desert, covering more than 280,000sq km. One moment you’re in town, sharing the tarmac with 50m-long road trains along the Stuart Highway. Then the traffic thins, and the road across the Tanami Desert narrows and turns to sand. All of a sudden, or so it seems, you’re deep in the desert in the heart of the continent.

Open for self-drive visitors at Easter, and from May to the end of September, Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary is known for its birdlife and the stark beauty of its desert landscapes. It is also what all of inland Australia once looked like.

White settlers arrived in the Central and Western Deserts of Australia’s interior – the Great and Little Sandy deserts and the Tanami, the Simpson and Victoria deserts – in the 19th Century. Before they did, indigenous Australians lived here in harmony with the land and with wildlife that was far more abundant than you might expect.

This is Warlpiri land, and it extends for hundreds of kilometres across the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts. The Warlpiri are one of the largest nations and language groups among Aboriginal people. Along with the Pintupi, their neighbours to the west, the Warlpiri were among the last people in Australia to come into contact with white Australia and leave behind the traditional, semi-nomadic way of life that had enabled them to survive in the desert.

Warlpiri woman Alice Ellis belongs to the last generation who can remember what that life was like.

As a child, she played in the sand dunes in the country north and west of here, moving with the seasons from one waterhole to the next. She and her family communicated with other groups through fire. When she was still young, she remembers, she and her siblings would run and hide whenever they saw white men coming in their vehicles.

In a process that the Warlpiri call yidakimani, or “reading the country”, Ellis learned almost as soon as she could walk how to interpret and track the footprints of the macropod marsupials – including black-footed rock-wallabies, bettongs and bilbies – that you find only in Australia. They also hunted feral cats – “pussy cats” as Ellis calls them – as well as birds and reptiles; goanna, one of Australia’s largest carnivorous reptiles, which can grow up to 2.5m long, was and remains her favourite.

Ellis brings that intimate knowledge of the natural world to her work at Newhaven, a 2,600sq-km sanctuary run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). As a ranger, she is a keeper of the desert’s secrets. Her role is to care for country and to protect the land from the invasive pests that European settlers brought with them, pests like feral cats, foxes and rabbits that have wrought terrible destruction upon Australia’s deserts.

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world: one-third of global mammal extinctions over the past five centuries have occurred in Australia, and most of these have been in the country’s arid zone. No-one knows for sure, but a dozen, probably more, species that once lived alongside Ellis and her ancestors have disappeared forever. Cats wiped out most of them. Other species have retreated elsewhere, pushed by a plague of cats to the outer margins of their former ranges and to the edge of extinction.Australia's Great Sandy Desert is made up of spinifex grassland, salt lakes and endless red sand plains (Credit: Ted Mead/Getty Images)

Australia’s Great Sandy Desert is made up of spinifex grassland, salt lakes and endless red sand plains (Credit: Ted Mead/Getty Images)

Ellis knew many of these animals well. When she was a young girl, Ellis and her family used to hunt the mala, a tiny hopping macropod whose creation story began close to Newhaven; the mala’s sacred sites remain but the mala itself disappeared from here in the 1980s. There was the greater bilby, otherwise known as “Australia’s Easter Bunny”, thanks to its large ears and its role as one of Australia’s best-loved marsupials. Or the burrowing bettong that dug deep burrows and turned over the soil, earning the admiration of scientists who call it Australia’s great ecosystem engineer.

All of this matters for many reasons, not least among them this: 86% of Australia’s 315 surviving land mammal species live nowhere else on Earth.

In 2006, with the scope of the extinction crisis in Australia’s arid interior becoming clear, the AWC began an experiment: they wanted to see if the land in places like Newhaven could be returned to its original state. Ellis, and other Warlpiri rangers, led the way.

For months, Ellis and her colleagues tracked down the feral cats within a 94.5sq km fenced enclosure that lies close to the sanctuary’s headquarters and tourist campsite at the heart of Newhaven.

There are many ways to track cats and other wildlife, but none have proved as effective as indigenous trackers. In the Warlpiri tradition of “reading the country”, Ellis and the others understood cat behaviour. They knew where to find and follow cat footprints, then interpret what the tracks meant. How many cats were there? In which direction were they travelling? When did they pass? “Indigenous trackers are much better than what we can do with live traps or cameras,” said John Kanowski, AWC’s chief scientific officer.

With the feral cats gone, an ambitious programme of mammal reintroductions began.

“Conservation isn’t just a matter of putting a line around a property and saying ‘here’s this ecosystem we’ve preserved’,” said Kanowski. “You haven’t achieved anything if you haven’t got the critical animals back in there. The introductions complete the conservation journey for a particular piece of land.”

Black-footed rock wallabies and red-tailed phascogales, woylies and brush-tailed mulgaras all returned. And yes, the mala and burrowing bettong are also back where they belong, decades after the desert fell silent to their calls. Remarkably, the scientists hope that the bettongs may even return to the same burrows that their ancestors dug nearly half a century ago.One of the nation's best-loved marsupials, the bilby is known as "Australia's Easter Bunny" (Credit: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

One of the nation’s best-loved marsupials, the bilby is known as “Australia’s Easter Bunny” (Credit: Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

For all such successes, there is a danger that the traditional knowledge of the desert people – the knowledge that makes such miracles possible – may soon be lost.

According to Dr Rachel Paltridge, a scientist with extensive experience working with indigenous people across Central Australia, “People just aren’t going out tracking on foot like they used to do. Back when I started 20 years ago, there was still that older generation of people who grew up in the bush and all going out hunting on country for food.” Only at Newhaven, and in the small Pintupi community of Kiwirrkurra a few hundred kilometres west across the desert, Paltridge says, do these tracking skills and practices survive.

Ellis knows that time is short. “We won’t be here forever,” she said. “If we don’t pass on what we know, we lose everything and there will be nothing here for our children and grandchildren.”

Just as new generations of malas and burrowing bettongs are returning to the lands they once inhabited, a new generation of Warlpiri women are helping them get there. It was Ellis’ daughter, Christine, who set some of the reintroduced mala and bettongs free at Newhaven.

We won’t be here forever. If we don’t pass on what we know, we lose everything and there will be nothing here for our children and grandchildren.

Even when she was a young girl growing up in the desert, Christine’s people called her murturna, which means “old woman” in the Warlpiri tongue. While other children were out playing, Christine sat at the feet of her elders or went with them as they tracked and hunted animals. She joined them as they foraged for bush tomatoes and bush potatoes, learning the old ways as she went.

She also learned about the importance of fire. “There is no healthy country without fire,” she said, as she lit a match and set the country alight.Newhaven's indigenous rangers have been instrumental in returning the land to its original state (Credit: Brad Leue/Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

Newhaven’s indigenous rangers have been instrumental in returning the land to its original state (Credit: Brad Leue/Australian Wildlife Conservancy)

“When people were living traditionally on the land,” said Steve Eldridge, a regional fire expert, “they used fire as one of their main tools to stimulate growth, which brought in food – kangaroos, that sort of thing. Because they were such a nomadic nation of people, they were moving through the landscape constantly, always lighting fires, so you end up with this mosaic of fire ages [when a particular piece of land was last burned]. A lot of the native flora and fauna adapted to that regime. When there was this mosaic, just that in itself would stop these huge, fast wildfires from establishing.”

It’s not just Newhaven. The resumption of traditional fire practices here is part of a nationwide trend towards restoring the health of ecosystems through indigenous land-management practices. With fires doing their work, the land itself regenerates and the animals and plant life return. Newhaven is home to 23 desert ecosystems across its 261,501 arid hectares, and each ecosystem tells its own story.

In places, bloodwoods and ghost gums again play their role as shelters for returning native animals; nearby, the wind in the desert oaks sounds like waves on a distant ocean shore. Vast murmurations of bright-green budgerigars chase birds of prey, shape shifting like a single being careening across the sky. Out in the sanctuary’s west, the salt lake that the Warlpiri call Yunkanjini (and which explorers named Lake Bennett) is both sacred site and a vast and beautiful place whose colour palette changes with the light.

“This is what the desert looked like when I was a little girl,” said Alice. “The country is healthy again.”

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The Frontier Post

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