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A program that combines local Indigenous knowledge with Western science to track and protect the bilby population in Australia has shown great promise and reflects the biodiversity theme of World Environment Day.

Habitat destruction and greater numbers of predators such as foxes and cats have seen a decline in the number of bilbies, with the population confined to lands managed by Indigenous people in the north-west of the state.

Martu Traditional Owners, Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) rangers have collaborated with scientists to design a monitoring program for mankarr, which means the greater bilby. The “Martu mankarr search” method is based on Martu knowledge of desert ecology, classification of habitat types, fire patterns, food resources, threats and management practices that affect desert animals.

Over time, the monitoring program will detect trends in the bilby populations and give information to Mart to make decisions about burning, or controlling feral animals and weeds.

The program also provides ongoing employment and training opportunities and strengthens awareness of the importance of animal tracking, desert ecology and caring for Country.

“The method encourages an organic process of planning and thinking about fire, the landscape and mankarr needs,” Dr Anja Skroblin from the University of Melbourne said. “The new methodology is much more suited to the needs of Martu rangers to track bilby populations on their country.”

This project is a collaboration between KJ, the University of Melbourne, the Nature Conservancy and is supported by BHP, the National Environmental Science Program’s Threatened Species Recovery Hub, National Indigenous Australian Agency Working on Country program along with other agencies. 

BHP has partnered with the Martu for more than a decade, and employ nearly 400 rangers who operate at the Jigalong, Punmu, Kunawarritji and Parnngurr remote Aboriginal communities. The Martu are the Traditional Owners of a 13.6 million hectare area of desert lands – twice the size of Tasmania - in central WA, near BHP’s Eastern Pilbara operations.

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