By Danae Moore, Wildlife Ecologist and Steve Eldridge, Operations Manager
Earlier this year, Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) announced the establishment of a new and exciting partnership in Central Australia that is delivering conservation outcomes on a colossal scale. The partnership sees Traditional Custodians, the Central Land Council (CLC) and AWC working together to protect and enhance the conservation values of Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust. Together with adjacent Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary, this brings almost 600,000 hectares of the country’s red centre under conservation management – an area about half the size of Sydney or roughly equivalent to 4.8 million Olympic swimming pools.
Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust sprawls across 338,000 hectares on the eastern edge of the Great Sandy Desert bioregion in the Northern Territory. The landscape is breathtaking, punctuated by shimmering chains of salt lakes, vast red dunefields and dramatic purple-red quartzite mountains. Diverse plant communities form a green, yellow and grey patchwork that mirrors the topography, cresting at Karrinyarra’s (Central Mt Wedge) peak of 1,067 metres – the highest peak on the Stuart’s Bluff Range.
The Ngalurrtju Partnership
In these early stages, the focus has been on building relationships with Traditional Custodians and developing a shared vision for Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust. AWC staff have been spending time on Country with senior people, learning and sharing ideas about future management. Custodians are overwhelmingly supportive of the partnership and excited to collaborate.
‘I think it’s great for all our Traditional Owners to come back home and work together as one and look after the country and the plants and animals. It’s really special for us in this area.’ Terrence Abbott, senior Custodian.
Currently, AWC and the CLC are establishing a Steering Committee which will oversee the work undertaken on Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust and endorse work programs and management activities. There are four estate groups connected to the property, and each of these will be represented on the Committee.
A key objective of the Ngalurrtju Partnership is to provide the opportunity for Custodians to be able to do conservation work on their own Country. Two Indigenous ranger teams are being developed, each consisting of eight paid positions, to work with AWC to deliver a conservation land management program. With intimate knowledge and observation of their Country and incredible tracking abilities, Indigenous rangers will bring many skills and abilities to the program. AWC also plans to provide training opportunities for rangers to develop skills in contemporary conservation land management techniques.
Conservation science and land management
AWC and Traditional Custodians are developing an overarching five-year plan to form the basis of future management activities. The plan will identify biodiversity and cultural assets to be protected, how threats to these assets will be managed, and how the health of assets will be monitored over time.
Over the coming months, survey work will commence to gather information on the distribution and abundance of threatened animals by combining the expert tracking skills of Traditional Custodians with contemporary scientific techniques such as live trapping and camera trapping. Motion cameras will be deployed on Karrinyarra to survey for the Critically Endangered Central Rock-rat (recently reintroduced to Newhaven). Despite a relatively low chance that the rock-rats still occur on Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust, the species is currently in a boom phase of its population cycle and this is the optimal time to conduct surveillance monitoring. The resulting data will provide valuable baseline information for future reintroduction discussions.
In late October, when the onset of summer heat breaks the Great Desert Skink’s period of winter inactivity, a group of Custodians and rangers will travel to Newhaven and take part in a ranger exchange program. This program, funded by the Australian Government, will facilitate knowledge sharing between Newhaven Rangers and Ngalurrtju Rangers. Equipped with the knowledge of how to identify Great Desert Skink burrow systems in the landscape, Ngalurrtju and Newhaven Rangers will spend time searching for likely habitat on the property and begin building a picture of the skink’s distribution.
Plant and animal species records are scant for Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust, but the species inventory is already growing steadily. Black-footed Rock-wallaby populations have been found on both major range systems (Siddeley and Stuart’s Bluff Ranges), as well as several pairs of Grey Falcons breeding in response to booming rodent populations, and a Fat-tailed Pseudantechinus living in one of the sheds.
AWC’s land managers have been busy setting up the old homestead as an Operations Base. After almost 30 years of lying vacant, there’s a lot of work to do including restoring water supplies and re-connecting power and communications. The bore has been equipped with a solar submersible pump and is now supplying an abundance of fresh water. Inspection of the electrical system unfortunately revealed significant damage and underground cables and wiring in the homestead will need to be replaced. Restoration of buildings and sheds will be ongoing for many months to come, but the old house and several sheds are now in use. The site has significant historical value and the aim will be to preserve the unique character of the old homestead and its outbuildings.
After two good years of rain, fuel loads and fire risk across the property are high. AWC land managers have been busy burning breaks around the Operations Base to protect buildings and infrastructure. They are also working to build control lines by grading and opening old vehicle tracks, many of which have become overgrown since pastoral operations ceased. These will be used to control any wildfires that eventuate in summer. In the meantime, planning is underway for landscape-scale fire management across the entire property.
Feral camels are seen regularly on Ngalurrtju Aboriginal Land Trust and Custodians have already identified several significant sites being damaged by these feral herbivores. Maintaining the camel population at an acceptable level will be key to protecting the property’s biodiversity and cultural assets. Other significant pest species include feral cats, foxes and rabbits. Strategies for managing these species will be developed in collaboration with Custodians.
Fortunately, only a handful of weed species have been recorded on the property. The most abundant of these, buffel grass, is widespread in certain habitats and rare or absent in others. Managing this species will focus on minimising impacts at significant sites rather than broad-scale control.
Watch the video to learn more about this inspiring partnership.
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