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Nyul Nyul people have lived on their country — around Beagle Bay on the Dampier Peninsula in the Kimberley region — for thousands of years in a deep relationship with the ocean, rivers, waterholes and Pindan bushland that sustain them. Wetlands are identified as being important not only as a water source for people and all life, but as a central part of the Nyul Nyul people’s identity. They are special places providing habitat for hunting and fishing, and supporting many different plants that are valuable as food, medicine, or materials. Wetlands are places of learning, family time and play, as well as being a source of memories from past times.
Since 2013, through funding from the Northern Australia Hub of the National Environmental Research Program (NERP) and the Hermon Slade Foundation; researchers from the University of Western Australia, Griffith University, and I-Tracker staff from the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance Ltd (NAILSMA), have been working with the Nyul Nyul Rangers to study the freshwater wetlands on Nyul Nyul country. The Nyul Nyul Rangers are part of the Kimberley Ranger Network, facilitated by the Kimberley Land Council, and are employed to manage their country.
Nyul Nyul Rangers and Traditional Owners are committed to the management of their country and invited the project team, including The University of Western Australia’s (UWA) Centre for Excellence in Natural Resource Management (CENRM) — with ongoing research interests in river ecology and collaborations with Indigenous ranger groups in the Kimberley — to work with them to better manage and monitor wetlands by combining Western science and their traditional knowledge. CENRM’s Dr Neil Pettit — and colleagues Fiona Tingle, Rebecca Dobbs, Professor Brad Pusey, Dr Paul Close and Michelle Walker, along with Christy Davies from NAILSMA — made three trips to Beagle Bay, each lasting about a week. The Nyul Nyul Rangers and research team worked together to sample a range of freshwater habitats across the Rangers’ operational area. This provided the opportunity for Nyul Nyul Rangers to introduce researchers to these freshwater systems, and combine scientific sampling of baseline data with Indigenous ecological knowledge, to gain a broader understanding of the biodiversity and pressures/threats to these systems.
During their expeditions to the Kimberley, the research team, comprised mainly of freshwater ecologists, learned a great deal from the Nyul Nyul men and women.
“They had so much knowledge they wanted to share and were keen to educate Western scientists in the importance of acknowledging cultural values. The area is full of special sites and important animals for them. Some of the wetlands are ground-water fed and have water there all year round,” Neil Pettit said.
The team learnt that the Nyul Nyul people were worried about the future of their wetlands; and particularly concerned about how the development of water resources in the region — one of the key pressures across the northern Australian landscape — would take away the water from their waterholes. To address concerns about the potential negative impacts of future water demands, monitoring programs were established to allow the Rangers to assess changes in water quality, vegetation health, aquatic macroinvertebrates and fish communities.
By working together on country knowledge was exchanged, baseline ecological data was collected, and information about the wetlands documented. Sampling methods and monitoring tools were developed to provide the Nyul Nyul Rangers a means of detecting any change in the condition of waterholes over time. The collaborative approach to field work, as well as the integration of cultural knowledge and Western science, further developed the capacity of Nyul Nyul Rangers to manage country.
Developing these skills is important, as working at the landscape scale is difficult, across areas of mixed land tenure and management responsibilities. This means that Rangers need to learn how to manage different views about many factors, for example, fire management, invasive species management, stock incursions from other properties, allocating funding, building community capacity, and preventing the loss of knowledge through people leaving the region (particularly through staff turnover within the ranger group). There are also often competing views in communities about vegetation and animal management (invasive animals versus a food supply).
By working together, Rangers and scientists are continually learning about the Kimberley region; from its inherent and varied values, to how best to sustain them into the future. It is a unique and expansive landscape, encompassing a large network of Traditional Owner groups, each with specific knowledge of the cultural and social needs underpinning approaches to environmental management. This knowledge is being shared in the wider scientific community, and capacity is being built within the Ranger group to share that knowledge. Rangers are now confident enough to deliver presentations at both international (World Indigenous Network conference, Darwin 2013) and national (Australian Society of Limnology and Australian Society of Fish Biology Joint Congress, Darwin 2014) conferences.
“There are women as well as men rangers. We were pleased to see that the young people have a strong feeling for their land. Our research in northern Australia contributes to the knowledge base, providing the science of wetland ecology as well as baseline data crucial in a changing climatic and developmental landscape,” Neil said.
Developing practical tools to assist Rangers
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