This rare and secretive burrowing snake, which feeds largely on skinks, was recorded at Pormpuraaw.
The Burning Country: managing land and biodiversity on Cape York Peninsula’s tropical savannas
This collaboration between traditional owners, government, non-government organisations, researchers and community groups is examining the complex interactions between fire and biodiversity in tropical savannas of Cape York Peninsula.
7 April 2010 | Updated 14 October 2011
Cape York Peninsula (CYP) is an iconic region, defined by its remote, seemingly endless landscapes and tropical climate.
Importantly, Aboriginal people of CYP still live on and manage country in traditional ways, providing a great opportunity for ongoing sustainable natural resource management.
CYP is largely covered by tropical savanna woodlands and grasslands, which form part of the arc of savanna vegetation running across northern Australia. This is considered to be the most intact and best preserved area of tropical savanna in the world.
CYP gives the impression of a healthy, well conserved landscape, however many native plants and animals are experiencing substantial and pervasive declines, a pattern typical across the north.
Species affected include:
- granivorous birds
- mammals such as bandicoots, possums, larger rodents and quolls
- fire-sensitive plants.
These declines are thought to be driven by changed fire management practices, such as where land is managed for cattle grazing or to exclude fire.
Poorly planned and ill-defined fire management is the primary threat to biodiversity on CYP.
This collaborative project, funded by the Australian Government's Caring For Our Country program (2009–10), is improving understanding of the effects of fire on biodiversity and how to manage the fire prone landscapes of CYP.
The primary goal is to increase the area of native habitat and vegetation being managed to reduce critical threats to biodiversity.
As this can only be achieved in conjunction with local communities and local land managers (Indigenous groups, pastoralists, non-government organisations (NGOs), and representatives of government agencies) we are:
- encouraging Indigenous groups and community members to participate in biodiversity monitoring and the subsequent development of fire management plans. This approach combines local knowledge and best fire management practices to drive landscape-scale change.
- training local land managers to evaluate the efficacy of implemented fire management strategies by monitoring indicators of biodiversity.
A key feature of this project is the involvement of Indigenous land managers. We have worked with rangers from the Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Management Centre to select and survey monitoring sites.
The primary goal of this collaborative project is to increase the area of native habitat and vegetation being managed to reduce critical threats to biodiversity.
Findings to date
Very little fauna and flora data exist for the vast savanna regions on CYP, especially the largely inaccessible western portion.
Fauna surveys have been conducted with the assistance of the Indigenous community of Pormpuraaw (western CYP), Strathburn Station and Strathaven Station (central CYP).
These surveys are the first attempt to systematically record and monitor biodiversity in this part of the world. Two hundred and fifty species have been caught or observed across 60 monitoring sites. Significant species include:
- earless frog (Litoria cryptotis)
- palm cockatoo (Probosciger aterrimus)
- green-backed honeyeater (Glycichaera fallax)
- crimson finch (white bellied subspecies - Neochmia phaeton evangelinae)
- striped skink (Ctenotus zebrilla)
- robust burrowing snake (Antairoserpens warro)
- Carpentaria whip snake (Cryptophis boschmai)
- spiney-tailed gecko (Strophurus krisalys).
As has been found across northern Australia, ground cover is directly related to the abundance and richness of small mammals. This suggests that annual, large scale, high intensity fires are likely to have significant impacts on the ability of small mammals to persist in Australia’s tropical savannas.
Historically birds have been surveyed far more extensively on CYP than other vertebrate groups. The numbers of common savanna birds has remained relatively stable over the past 10 years. However, species which have shown significant declines, such as the brown treecreeper, black-faced woodswallow and many finches, remain in very low numbers. This indicates little has changed in land management practices over this time to facilitate a recovery of these species.
Upcoming activities include:
- collaborative surveys with the Department of Environment and Resource Management (Qld) (Mungkan Kandju National Park), Chuulangan Aboriginal Corporation (Wenlock region) and Indigenous groups at Aurakun, involving local traditional owners to work toward a collaborative approach to fire management in these regions.
- working closely with Cape York Sustainable Futures, via Firescape Science, to develop individually tailored fire management plans for the areas we have surveyed. We will use the data collected to inform fire management strategies that meet the aspirations of land managers whilst protecting biodiversity at the landscape scale.
- trialling new bioacoustics monitoring technologies that can be incorporated into fauna monitoring programs. Two remote audio recording devices are currently being trialled at Pormpuraaw, with bird and frog calls recorded at regular intervals and downloaded via Telstra’s mobile phone Next G network for analysis in Townsville. We are developing automated classification of the sounds collected.
- working closely with Pormpuraaw and Aurukun Indigenous rangers and community members to develop fire management strategies that will facilitate the reinstatement of traditional burning on country.