Kakadu resident and ranger Jessie Alderson talks
with Mark Ziembicki about the status of mammals in the region. Mark
is holding a stuffed nail-tail wallaby. Photo: Carol Palmer
If you are an Aboriginal person living in
northern Australia and you or your community would like to
contribute, contact Mark Ziembicki, Biodiversity Conservation Unit,
NT NRETA and ANU or John Woinarski, Biodiversity Conservation Unit,
NT NRETA, details at the bottom of the page.
A new research project aims to use Aboriginal
knowledge to complement Western science to help explain where and
why our northern mammals are in decline. Mark
Mammals in northern Australia are in trouble. On the surface,
our northern landscapes appear largely intact, but recent evidence
suggests that not all is as it should be with our environments.
Many mammal species and some birds have declined or disappeared
across northern Australia, representing the major loss of
biodiversity in the tropical savannas. These declines reflect those
that have occurred in central Australia in the past where 15
species have become extinct, most of them throughout their entire
Many of the species that appear to be declining in northern
Australia are from the same groups as those that have proved most
susceptible to decline elsewhere in Australia: the so-called
‘critical weight range’ mammals including bandicoots,
possums, quolls, smaller wallabies and larger rodents.
Comparisons of the present situation with historical records
gives us an idea of the scale of these losses. Knut Dahl, an early
zoologist/explorer, wrote of his experiences in the south-east
Kimberley and Arnhem Land in 1897. His accounts provide some
insight into how things have changed. He writes, for example, of
the golden bandicoot in the Broome region: “very numerous in
the coast country around Roebuck Bay... great numbers being brought
Map showing the distribution of the Golden
Bandicoot. Once found in the dark yellow zones, it is now only
found in a small area of the Kimberley, two small islands off
Western Australia and one island off Arnhem Land.
These bandicoots are now only found in a small area of the
Kimberley, two small islands off Western Australia and one island
off Arnhem Land (see map).
Similarly, the golden backed tree-rat: “the houses of
settlers…are always tenanted by (this species)”. It
has not been seen in the Northern Territory since 1969 and now
occurs only in a few small areas of the Kimberley.
Ecological research in northern Australia has historically
lagged behind that of other regions. Although there had been a
handful of baseline studies, pioneering surveys and unrelated
studies of individual species in the past, most studies of northern
Australia’s mammals began 10–15 years ago. Much of the
focus of these recent efforts has been on broad-scale surveys of
representative sites across northern Australia, re-surveys of
baseline sampling sites and targeted, selected studies of
individual, representative species.
The relative infancy of wildlife research in the north
compounded by the inherent difficulties associated with studies of
a largely nocturnal, secretive group of animals over large and
sparsely settled regions means that much of our scientific
knowledge is fragmented, punctuated by gaps in our
understanding—making it difficult to pinpoint the extent and
timing of losses that may have occurred.
Two Tool-Box Approach
Our present study is modelled on a similar
study conducted in the mid-1980s by Burbidge 1 et al. (1988) that aimed to document
the status of mammals across Australia’s deserts using
Aboriginal people living in communities
scattered across Australia’s deserts were shown museum skins
and asked to provide local names, current and past status, and
aspects of biology and ecology of each species.
This study demonstrated very successfully the
use and importance of such knowledge by presenting new information
about the distribution patterns and ecology of many species that
would otherwise have been unavailable. The mammals of the central
deserts were richer and more widespread than generally believed,
but these regions underwent massive and rapid losses of
species—a situation that seems to be repeating itself across
To get a broader perspective in geography and time of the
changes in mammal status in northern Australia, and to fill in some
of these gaps in our knowledge, we aim to complement the scientific
studies and historical records with the perspectives of Aboriginal
By using these two knowledge systems, we aim to use
‘two-tool boxes’ to address a common problem that is
too difficult to tackle with just one set of solutions.
Many Aboriginal people that have been able to remain on country,
or spend significant time there, retain an intimate knowledge of
many of the plants and animals on their lands.
In collaboration with Aboriginal participants, we propose to
chart the pattern of mammal decline across much of northern
Australia through documentation of Aboriginal knowledge of the
current and past status of mammals.
This approach is modelled on that used very successfully across
Australia’s central deserts in the mid-1980s (see Burbidge et
al. 1988) to describe the pattern of decline in the central
Australian mammal fauna.
Over the 2005–06 dry seasons we will visit numerous
communities and outstations across the Top End and Kimberley to
speak to Aboriginal people about the status of mammals that live,
or have lived, on their country. To help stimulate discussions, and
also to help identify each species, we will travel with a suite of
stuffed, museum specimens of each species—in effect a
traveling mammal puppet show!
Mark Ziembicki prepares museum specimens at the
Biodversity Conservation Unit Laboratory for the project. Photo:
The study aims to support a two-way flow of information. Knowing
about science helps Aboriginal rangers and communities look after
animals and country at a time when things have greatly changed
since the old days. And knowing about Aboriginal knowledge helps
scientists understand country and what is important to Aboriginal
people living on country.
We hope to get this exchange in the course of discussions and by
the preparation of educational materials as requested by
communities (for example, teaching materials, videos and
The results of these investigations, together with complementary
information derived from western scientific studies, will enable us
to chart the geographic and ecological pattern of decline of fauna
across northern Australia.
These patterns can then be related to a broad set of
environmental factors (including topographic relief, land use and
tenure, fire regimes, history of settlement, feral animal
distributions, etc.) to examine the processes underlying patterns
and the causes of mammal declines. The information could then be
used to assess the success of the region’s protected areas in
conserving biodiversity and the kinds of management regimes needed
to improve long-term conservation objectives both on and off
This is a collaborative project between the Australian
National University (ANU), the Biodiversity Conservation Unit of
Dept. Natural Resources, Environment & the Arts (NRETA),
Northern Land Council, the North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea
Management Alliance and the Wilderness Society. It is funded by an
ARC linkage grant to John Woinarski (NRETA) and Brendan Mackey
1. Burbidge, A.A. & Johnson, K.A. et al. 1988,
‘Aboriginial knowledge of the mammals of the central deserts
of Australia,’ Australian Wildlife Research, 15: