Indigenous ecological knowledge has been used in powerful combination with western science to enhance the biodiversity and cultural values of wetlands in Kakadu National Park in Australia's Northern Territory.

The challenge

Spreading native grasses have taken over wetlands

Wetlands before burning

Prior to European settlement, Aboriginal Australians successfully lived with landscape fire for tens of thousands of years. Aboriginal traditional knowledge relating to fire management remains strong throughout much of northern Australia, and the opportunity still exists to re-apply such knowledge to landscape management.

For most of last century, the wetlands in Kakadu National Park in the Northern Territory were home to large herds of feral Asian water buffalo. Kakadu’s wetlands are important hunting grounds for water birds, goannas, turtles, and file snakes, and provide a variety of edible water plants. When buffalo were removed from the Park in the 1980s, the native grass Mudja (Hymenachne acutigluma) spread unchecked, taking over many wetlands in the park.

Mudja chokes out other wetland plants, reducing the variety of habitats, preventing water birds from feeding, and limiting access for hunting and food gathering by Aboriginal people. It is thought that the water buffalo controlled Mudja in much the same way that Aboriginal fire management did before European settlement.

Our response

Working with traditional owners to learn about the benefits of Aboriginal fire management

CSIRO and the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre worked with a family of traditional owners in Kakadu National Park to examine the biodiversity and cultural benefits of Aboriginal fire management as it was re-applied to floodplains of the South Alligator River.

Peter Christophersen and Sandra McGregor have demonstrated the value of applying traditional ecological knowledge in partnership with western science.  ©Randy Larcombe

Ms Sandra McGregor and Mr Peter Christophersen’s family, led by Ms McGregor’s mother, senior traditional owner, Ms Violet Lawson, carried out the burning for this project at Boggy Plain and Yellow Water.

The burning of wetlands, with the seasonally shifting land and water interfaces, is a highly complex procedure, requiring intimate knowledge of vegetation, water, weather, and fire behaviour.  Floodplain burning occurs at the end of the dry season, starting in September or October, when fire conditions are at their most extreme.

It is important that the floodplain margins have already been burnt earlier in the year, to prevent fires from escaping into the surrounding savanna woodlands. Such protective burning begins in May early in the dry season, when the grassy fuels are still moist and fire intensities therefore low. Burning continues from the edges of the surrounding woodland down to the floodplain as the water dries up over the ensuing months.

Wetlands may look lush and green, but underneath the dense Mudja there is a layer of dead grass that can carry a fire. Burning occurs multiple times over several weeks, to ensure that Mudja is killed and will not re-sprout. Burning continues until heavy wet season rains arrive, usually in December.

The results

Burning has transformed the wetlands

Wetlands after burning

Results from the Aboriginal wetland burning project include:

  • The transformation of wetlands from a dense monoculture of grass to a mosaic of habitats that is rich in biodiversity.
  • Improved cultural values of wetlands for Aboriginal people through increased availability of food resources such as turtles, water birds and edible water plants.
  • Demonstrated value of applying traditional ecological knowledge in partnership with Western science.
  • The transfer of traditional knowledge to younger generations.
  • The development of a Bayesian Belief Network model to record traditional ecological knowledge, apply it to wetland management, and provide an interactive educational experience for a wide audience.

The project is an outstanding example of joint management in a World Heritage National Park, and serves as an internationally significant model for the effective engagement of Indigenous people in natural resource management.

The project was a finalist in the Environmental Research section of the prestigious Banksia Awards in 2011.

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