Indigenous knowledge has been used to document a substantial decline in native mammals in a large part of the monsoonal tropics of northern Australia in a four-year study led by a James Cook University researcher.
Adjunct senior research fellow with JCU’s Centre for Tropical Environmental and Sustainability Science Mark Ziembicki said the decline of native mammal species hadbecome one of Australia’s most pressing biodiversity conservation issues.
“One of our problems has been that because northern Australia is so sparsely populated and the distances so vast we have limited understanding of where and when these declines have been happening,” he said.
To address this problem a collaborative research project between scientists and Indigenous communities was launched to document Aboriginal people’s knowledge of the region’s mammals.
The study was undertaken with leading mammal conservation researcher John Woinarski, an Adjunct Professor at Charles Darwin University, and Professor Brendan Mackey, Director of the Griffith Climate Change Response Program, while the three researchers were with the Australian National University and the Northern Territory Government.
The researchers travelled to remote Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory with a car load of stuffed mammal specimens which they would show to the locals and discuss where and when they had seen the animals.
“Aboriginal people that have maintained close connections to their lands have an intimate knowledge of their local environments,” Dr Ziembicki said.
“Many of the people we interviewed were concerned that the animals they once valued for food and ceremonial purposes could no longer be found on their lands.
“These days local people have largely western diets and no longer hunt animals that were once staple foods.
“Paradoxically, stopping hunting may have contributed to the decline of some mammal species.
“Because people no longer hunt they also no longer practice traditional land management techniques which benefited the animals.
“Unfortunately, this also means that knowledge is not passed on to the next generation so these traditional practices are in danger of being lost, and with that, thousands of years of experience in managing Australia’s environment.
“It suggests there is a close relationship between the decline of Indigenous knowledge and the decline of biodiversity.”
Dr Ziembicki said the knowledge of traditional people was especially valuable in places like northern Australia where relatively little scientific study of native mammals had taken place.
“In the mid-80s an extensive study that interviewed elders in central Australia mapped the widespread decline of mammals in the region over the preceding decades and documented numerous records of mammals that would not have otherwise been available,” he said.
“At that time northern Australia was regarded as a refuge for mammals with minimal changes, yet now these declines appear to be repeating themselves across the north.
“There is evidence also that mammals are disappearing even from our biggest and best resourced national parks.
“Worldwide, land clearing and intensive development are the major drivers of biodiversity decline, yet the landscapes of northern Australia are largely intact.
“In this area, the cessation of Indigenous land management techniques such as patch burning, combined with the effects of introduced predators such as cats and widespread pastoralism are the most likely contributing factors to the declines.”
With other collaborating researchers, the team hopes to replicate the study across northern Queensland and Western Australia and use the information to better understand the impact of factors responsible for the declines and what can be done about them.
Dr Ziembicki said the challenge was to use Indigenous knowledge and science together to more effectively to address contemporary environmental problems.
“This study demonstrates the value and capability of Indigenous knowledge to help address serious environmental issues and argues for its greater recognition before we lose more of both our valuable biological and cultural heritage,” he said.
Issued December 19, 2012
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