Fire, Fruit and Emus

by Dean Yibarbuk, Bawinanga Association and Peter Cooke, Caring for Country Unit, NLC from Savanna Burning—Understanding and Using Fire in Northern Australia, Tropical Savannas CRC, 2001

Eighteen thousand years ago, on a rock wall on the west of the Arnhem Land escarpment, an Aboriginal artist depicted an emu being speared by a hunter. Emu hunting has continued to present times through major changes in the landscape.

Dean Yibarbuk

Jimmy Kalariya

Dean Yibarbuk, chief ranger with the community-based Djelk Rangers at Maningrida, says, "Emu is very important, not just for food, but it’s also an important animal in ceremony and totemic associations for some clans. It’s an unusual bird as it is not classified in our taxonomy with other birds, but is included with large game animals like kangaroos.

"It has been a favourite food of our people for tens of thousands of years but there is now a concern that the numbers are going down.

"Perhaps the problem lies in changes in fire regimes. Too many hot fires will kill the fruit trees or stop them producing for years while they recover. Predators like dingoes or pigs could also be having an effect— or maybe it’s a combination of factors."

Dean says: "People want to see the numbers of emus come back again so they can continue to have natural ‘emu farms’ for their own domestic use. And perhaps there may be some commercial future there as well."