How indigenous expertise improves science: the curious case of shy lizards and deadly cane toads



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The Balanggarra Rangers are land management representatives of the Balanggarra people, the indigenous traditional owners of the East Kimberley. (L-R) Wes Alberts, Bob Smith (coordinator) James ‘Birdy’ Birch, Isiah Smith, Quentin Gore.
The Kimberley Land Council, Author provided

Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney and Rick Shine, University of Sydney

It’s a common refrain – western ecologists should work closely with indigenous peoples, who have a unique knowledge of the ecosystems in their traditional lands.

But the rhetoric is strong on passion and weak on evidence.

Now, a project in the remote Kimberley area of northwestern Australia provides hard evidence that collaborating with Indigenous rangers can change the outcome of science from failure to success.




Read more:
We’ve cracked the cane toad genome, and that could help put the brakes on its invasion


Fighting a toxic invader

This research had a simple but ambitious aim: to develop new ways to save at-risk predators such as lizards and quolls from the devastating impacts of invasive cane toads.

Cane toads are invasive and highly toxic to Australia’s apex predators.
David Nelson

All across tropical Australia, the arrival of these gigantic alien toads has caused massive die-offs among meat-eating animals such as yellow-spotted monitors (large lizards in the varanid group) and quolls (meat-eating marsupials). Mistaking the new arrivals for edible frogs, animals that try to eat them are fatally poisoned by the toad’s powerful toxins.

Steep population declines in these predators ripple out through entire ecosystems.

But we can change that outcome. We expose predators to a small cane toad, big enough to make them ill but not to kill them. The predators learn fast, and ignore the larger (deadly) toads that arrive in their habitats a few weeks or months later. As a result, our trained predators survive, whereas their untrained siblings die.




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What is a waterless barrier and how could it slow cane toads?


Conservation ‘on Country’

But it’s not easy science. The site is remote and the climate is harsh.

We and our collaborators, the Western Australian Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions, decided at the outset that we needed to work closely with the Indigenous Traditional Owners of the east Kimberley – the Balanggarra people.

So as we cruised across the floodplain on quad bikes looking for goannas, each team consisted of a scientist (university-educated, and experienced in wildlife research) and a Balanggarra Indigenous ranger.

Although our study species is huge – a male yellow-spotted monitor can grow to more than 1.7 metres in length and weigh more than 6kg – the animals are well-camouflaged and difficult to find.

Over an 18-month study, we caught and radio-tracked more than 80 monitors, taught some of them not to eat toads, and then watched with trepidation as the cane toad invasion arrived.




Read more:
Yes, you heard right: more cane toads really can help us fight cane toads


Excitingly, the training worked. Half of our trained lizards were still alive by the end of the study, whereas all of the untrained lizards died soon after toads arrived.

That positive result has encouraged a consortium of scientists, government authorities, conservation groups, landowners and local businesses to implement aversion training on a massive scale (see www.canetoadcoalition.com), with support from the Australian Research Council.

A yellow-spotted monitor fitted with a radio transmitter in our study. This medium-sized male was trained and lived for the entirety of the study in high densities of cane toads.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney



Read more:
Teaching reptiles to avoid cane toads earns top honour in PM’s science prizes


Cross-cultural collaboration key to success

But there’s a twist to the tale, a vindication of our decision to make the project truly collaborative.

When we looked in detail at our data, we realised that the monitor lizards found by Indigenous rangers were different to those found by western scientists. The rangers found shyer lizards, often further away from us when sighted, motionless, and in heavy cover where they were very difficult to see.

Gregory Johnson, Balanggarra elder and ranger.
Georgia Ward-Fear

We don’t know how much the extraordinary ability of the rangers to spot those well-concealed lizards was due to genetics or experience – but there’s no doubt they were superb at finding lizards that the scientists simply didn’t notice.

And reflecting the distinctive “personalities” of those ranger-located lizards, they were the ones that benefited the most from aversion training. Taking a cautious approach to life, a nasty illness after eating a small toad was enough to make them swear off toads thereafter.

In contrast, most of the lizards found by scientists were bold creatures. They learned quickly, but when a potential meal hopped across the floodplain a few months later, the goanna seized it before recalling its previous experience. And even holding a toad briefly in the mouth can be fatal.

Comparisons of conditions under which lizards were initially sighted in the field by scientists and Indigenous rangers (a) proximity to lizards in metres (b) density of ground-cover vegetation (>30cm high) surrounding the lizard (c) intensity of light directly on lizard (light or shade) (d) whether the lizard was stationary or moving (i.e. walking or running). Sighting was considered more difficult if lizards were further away, in more dense vegetation, in shade, and stationary.
Georgia Ward-Fear, University of Sydney

As a result of the intersection between indigenous abilities and lizard personalities, the overall success of our project increased as a result of our multicultural team.

If we had just used the conventional model – university researchers doing all of the work, indigenous people asked for permission but playing only a minor role – our project could have failed, and the major conservation initiative currently underway may have died an early death.

So our study, now published in Conservation Letters, provides an unusual insight – backed up by evidence.

Moving beyond lip service, and genuinely involving Indigenous Traditional Owners in conservation research, can make all the difference in the world.

Georgia Ward-Fear (holding a yellow-spotted monitor) with Balanggarra Rangers Herbert and Wesley Alberts.
David Pearson, WA Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions

This research was published in collaboration with James “Birdy” Birch and his team of Balanggarra rangers in the eastern Kimberley.The Conversation

Georgia Ward-Fear, Post doctoral fellow and Conservation Ecologist , University of Sydney and Rick Shine, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, University of Sydney

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Indigenous peoples are crucial for conservation – a quarter of all land is in their hands



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Maasai women on a conservation project in Kenya.
Joan de la Malla, Author provided

Stephen Garnett, Charles Darwin University; Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, University of Helsinki; Catherine Robinson, CSIRO; Erle C. Ellis, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Hayley Geyle, Charles Darwin University; Ian Leiper, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, The University of Queensland; John E. Fa, Manchester Metropolitan University; Kerstin Zander, Charles Darwin University; Micha Victoria Jackson, The University of Queensland; Pernilla Malmer, Stockholm University; Tom Duncan, Charles Darwin University, and Zsolt Molnár, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest

Indigenous peoples have a deep and unique connection to the lands they inhabit. This connection has persisted throughout the world, despite centuries of colonisation, displacement and suppression of their cultural identities.

What has never been appreciated is the contemporary spatial extent of Indigenous influence – just how much of Earth’s surface do Indigenous peoples still own or manage?




Read more:
Remote Indigenous communities are vital for our fragile ecosystems


Given that Indigenous peoples now make up less than 5% of the global population, you might imagine the answer to be “very little”. But you would be wrong.

In our new research, published in Nature Sustainability, we mapped Indigenous lands throughout the world, country by country. We found that these covered 38 million square kilometres – about a quarter of all land outside Antarctica.

Purple shading shows the percentage of each square degree mapped that is under indigenous management.
Garnett et al. 2018

Some 87 countries around the world, on every inhabited continent, have people who identify as Indigenous and contain land that is still owned, managed or influenced by Indigenous people.

These areas are very valuable for conservation. About 65% of Indigenous lands have not been intensively developed, compared with 44% of other lands. Similarly, just 10% of the world’s urban areas, villages and non-remote croplands are on Indigenous peoples’ lands.

By contrast, Indigenous lands encompass nearly two-thirds of the world’s most remote and least-inhabited regions. These are the places with the lowest levels of built environments, crop land, pasture land, human population density, night-time lights, railways, roads and navigable waterways.

An incredible 40% of lands listed by national governments around the world as being managed for conservation are Indigenous lands. Some of this has official recognition. For instance, Australia would never meet its promises under the Convention on Biological Diversity if its Indigenous peoples had not been prepared to allocate more than 27 million hectares of their land to conservation.

A great contribution

This highlights the great contribution that Indigenous peoples are making to conservation. Many groups have instituted land-management regimes that are already delivering significant conservation benefits.

Yet there is danger in making assumptions about the aspirations of Indigenous peoples for managing their lands. Without proper consultation, conservation projects based on Indigenous stewardship may be unsuccessful at best and risk perpetuating colonial legacies at worst.

Conservation partnerships will only be successful if the rights, knowledge systems and practices of Indigenous peoples are fully acknowledged. Many Indigenous peoples have acknowledged this fact, by calling for partnerships that respect, understand and follow local processes. There is no one size that fits all – Indigenous peoples are hugely diverse.

Indeed, so important are local perspectives to Indigenous relationships with land that we pondered for a year on the ethics of creating a global map. However, we also felt that the story of enduring Indigenous influence needs to be told. Our final map shows that broad swathes of Asia, Africa, the Americas, Australia and the far north of Europe are Indigenous lands.

Adapted from Garnett et al. 2018.
On every inhabited continent there is a significant overlap between Indigenous management and natural lands.

Our results are particularly important at this time when goals for sustainable development after 2020 are being developed. The results also feed into assessments by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), the international body that assesses the health of the world’s wildlife diversity and ecosystems. It is much more than biodiversity that relies on Indigenous management of land. So too do many of the ecosystem services that allow humans to thrive.




Read more:
Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories


Finally, we should note that, for many countries, the areas we have mapped are the minimum – further work will almost certainly discover that Indigenous influence extends far further than is currently acknowledged.

Yet our crucial message remains the same: that Indigenous peoples hold the future of much of the world’s wilderness in their hands.


The ConversationThe authors acknowledge the contributions of Beau Austin, Benjamin McGowan, Eduardo S. Brondizio and Neil Burgess to this article and the research that underpins it.

Stephen Garnett, Professor of Conservation and Sustainable Livelihoods, Charles Darwin University; Álvaro Fernández-Llamazares, Researcher, University of Helsinki; Catherine Robinson, Principal Research Scientist, CSIRO; Erle C. Ellis, Professor of Geography and Environmental Systems, University of Maryland, Baltimore County; Hayley Geyle, Research Assistant, Charles Darwin University; Ian Leiper, Geospatial Scientist, Charles Darwin University; James Watson, Professor, The University of Queensland; John E. Fa, Professor of Biodiversity and Human Development, Manchester Metropolitan University; Kerstin Zander, Senior Research Fellow, Charles Darwin University; Micha Victoria Jackson, PhD candidate, The University of Queensland; Pernilla Malmer, Senior Advisor, Stockholm University; Tom Duncan, , Charles Darwin University, and Zsolt Molnár, Scientific Advisor, Hungarian Academy of Sciences, Budapest

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Explainer: the seasonal ‘calendars’ of Indigenous Australia



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Lalin in Western Australia is ‘married turtle season’.
Brian Gratwicke/Flickr, CC BY

Alice Gaby, Monash University and Tyson Yunkaporta, Monash University

On Wangkumarra land, in the corner-country near the borders of Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia, stands an ancient stone arrangement. It has been placed to the side of a huge complex, rivalling Stonehenge, featuring megaliths polished, carved and placed to balance precariously on each other.

Ancient stone arrangements on Wangkumarra land.
Tyson Yunkaporta

They should fall, but they don’t, as this is a place where time runs differently. In contrast to the Western “arrow of time”, the small rock formation pictured shows the non-linear, infinitely interconnected cycle of time followed by the First People who built the site and used it over millennia. It is a stone calendar, aligned within a fraction of a millimetre to the points of the compass.

The stone calendar on Wangkumarra land.
Tyson Yunkaporta

The key to understanding this temporal reality is the shape of the stone calendar. It is round, not a continuum. There is no beginning or end, and as such, there is no “New Year”. Seasons do not serve as a basis for linear metaphors of new life in spring to death in winter.

Instead, both seasons and humans are viewed as components of cycles. Around Australia, Indigenous languages vary in both the number of season words in their lexicon and their precise meaning. This is at least partly due to the very different kinds of weather experienced around the year in different parts of the country.

A tour of the seasons

In the Tiwi islands just to the north of Darwin there are three major seasons named in the Tiwi language: Kumunupunari (the dry season of fire and smoke); Tiyari (the season of hot, humid weather); and Jamutakari (the wet season of daily rain and full rivers). These three seasons subsume 13 overlapping, more precisely defined seasons.

For example, in the Mumpikari season (which overlaps with the start of the Jamutakari “wet season”) the first rains after the dry time make the ground soft and muddy enough to retain the footprints left by possums returning to their trees, which makes the possums easier to track when hunting.

Understanding the meaning of a word like Mumpikari “season of muddy possum tracks” entails knowledge of the type of weather experienced at that time (first rains following a long dry spell), consequent changes in the local ecology (muddy ground), as well as changes in human behaviour and potential sources of food (it’s a good time to hunt and eat possums).

In the Tiwi Islands Mumpikari is ‘season of muddy possum tracks’
Marcia Cirillo/Flickr, CC BY-NC

The changes in weather, ecology and potential food sources over the course of the year are dramatic, but vary significantly across a continent as large as Australia. The season experienced in tropical Cape York in January is very different to January in Tasmania. Likewise, the middle of the year brings radically different weather patterns to the tropical north, temperate south and central desert regions respectively.

The definitions of seasonal terms tell us a lot about the ecology that a language is spoken within and how speakers interact with it. In the Warlpiri language of the Tanami Desert, for example, several seasonal terms (such as karapurda) make reference to the prominent westerly winds that blow at the onset of the hot season.

Common food sources also feature prominently in the definitions of season terms, such as mangkajingi, “season of year when goannas are easily found in shallow burrows”. In the Bardi language of the Dampier Peninsula (WA), the build up to the wet season is named Lalin and colloquially referred to as “married turtle season”, because the mating turtles are a prized food source at this time.

In Gulumoerrgin (Larrakia) language group, spoken around Darwin, the year is divided into seven named seasons. Each of these seasons is associated with distinctive patterns of weather, but also changes in flora, fauna, and human activity. The Gurrulwa season, or “big wind time”, is heralded by the flowering of wattles, which in turn indicates that the local stingrays are plentiful and good to eat. The flowering of the Yellow Kapok at this time in turn indicates that it is the time for important traditional ceremonies to be held.

Connections

These connections between species are often cemented in language by using a single word. In the Dalabon language of Arnhem land, the word yawok has two meanings: (1) a species of yam (Dioscorea bulbifera); and (2) a species of grasshopper (Caedicia spp.). To the untrained observer, the yam and grasshopper might appear to have little in common.

In Arnhem Land, when the yawok (grasshopper) calls, the yawok (yams) are ready for harvesting.
Wikimedia/JJ Harrison, CC BY-SA

But for Dalabon speakers, this naming practice is a useful mnemonic that helps them remember that the yam is ripe for harvest precisely at that time of year when the grasshopper’s mating call can be heard. Similar principles have been found to underpin the naming of plant and animal species in languages such as Bininj Gun-Wok and Ndjébbana.

The words of any language tell us a lot about the history of its speakers; who they’ve been in contact with, where and how they have lived. This is certainly true of the English calendar months. It is also seen in the number and nature of the seasons named by different Indigenous communities, from the tropical north of Australia to the chillier climates down south.

The ConversationWith around 370 languages and many hundreds more dialects originally spoken in Australia, it is impossible to do justice to the wealth and variety of traditional systems of tracking time and seasons. But a recurrent theme is the interconnectedness of human activities and the cycle of changes in flora and fauna that attend the tilting of the earth’s axis.

Alice Gaby, Senior Lecturer in Linguistics, Monash University and Tyson Yunkaporta, Senior Lecturer Health, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Indigenous ranger programs are working in Queensland – they should be expanded


Emilie Ens, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, James Cook University

Indigenous ranger programs are a rare good news story of a government initiative that delivers outstanding social, economic, cultural and environmental outcomes. Now, new data have revealed that many Queenslanders would like to see these programs expanded.

Recent polling shows that 80% of Queenslanders, including 70% of One Nation voters, support Indigenous land and sea management, while 88% of Queenslanders support a proposal to create 200 new ranger jobs over the next ten years.


Read more: Friday essay: caring for country and telling its stories


The 2017 Queensland budget pledged 25 new Indigenous ranger jobs over the next three years. That would bring the total number of state government-supported ranger positions to 101. As our research below shows, there should be much more support to bring Queensland Indigenous ranger numbers into line with other big states.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities see these programs as a cornerstone of cultural maintenance and management of their ancestral estates. There is a strong case for the program to be dramatically expanded in Queensland and beyond.

Why do Queenslanders support more Indigenous ranger jobs?

Indigenous Natural Cultural Resource Management (NCRM) organisations and ranger groups perform many tasks. These include management of heritage sites, surveillance, monitoring and management of wildlife, fire management, feral animal control, weed control and recording of Indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge.

Local communities, and even the United Nations, have widely acknowledged the benefits of Indigenous ranger programs.

Gerry Turpin, a Mbarbaram man from Northern Queensland and ethnobotanist at the Queensland Herbarium, explains:

For us, it’s about meaningful employment for our young people including training and opportunities to develop a career. The program not only benefits the individual but is significant for their families and the wider community. Benefits are not only employment but also physical, mental and spiritual health, and pride in our culture and country.

We need rangers on country as our country has been under assault since colonial times. Impacts include mining, cattle and weeds, which then impacts on our flora and fauna. Our strong and diverse presence on country presents an opportunity to work with Indigenous biocultural knowledge systems and Western science.

Participants for the ‘Skills on Country – Cultural Mapping Workshops for Young Traditional Owners’ project on Mbarbaram Country. Funded by the Queensland Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program.
Gerry Turpin, Author provided

A 2015 Australian government review quantified the benefits of the national Indigenous ranger program.

Using the Social Return on Investment methodology, the review found that an investment of A$35.2 million from government and a range of third parties between 2009 and 2015 generated A$96.5 million in social, economic, cultural and environmental returns. That’s nearly a threefold return on investment.

The review also found that, unlike many Indigenous community development programs of the past, the ranger program is:

…effectively overcoming barriers to addressing Indigenous disadvantage and engaging Indigenous Australians on country in meaningful employment to achieve large-scale conservation outcomes, thus aligning the interests of Indigenous Australians and the broader community.

Planning for the Future on Mbabaram Country.

The Indigenous ranger community-based initiative has grown to produce many well-established organisations with expertise in knowledge integration, planning, geographical information systems (GIS), research, training and management.

History of the Indigenous ranger program

In 2017, both the Australian government’s Indigenous ranger program, Working on Country, and Queensland’s Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program celebrated their 10th anniversaries.

Indigenous rangers are also funded through other avenues such as non-government organisations, national parks and other supporting institutions.

The Working on Country program supports 109 ranger groups and 777 full-time equivalent ranger positions across Australia. The map below shows the breakdown of state and territory funded positions in 2014-15. It highlights that the Queensland Indigenous ranger workforce is substantially smaller than those of Western Australia and the Northern Territory.

Queensland rangers make up only about 8% of the Working on Country program. Queensland Indigenous Protected Areas make up less then 6% of Australia’s government-funded Indigenous conservation estate. However, Queensland is Australia’s second-largest state or territory, covering 22.5% of the country.

According to the 2016 census, 29% of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people live in Queensland, most of them in the central, south and southeast of the state.



PM&C/The Conversation, CC BY-ND

The disproportionately low allocation of Indigenous ranger positions and Indigenous Protected Areas in Queensland relative to its size and Indigenous population warrants attention at the national level.

Greater support needed in Queensland

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Queensland are not receiving support for Indigenous rangers to match the size of the state and Indigenous population. Most Queensland Indigenous ranger jobs are offered in the remote north of the state and southeast.

Our research reveals large gaps in documented Indigenous biocultural knowledge in southwest and central Queensland, where many Aboriginal people live. This points to the need for enhanced biocultural resource maintenance and possibly revival, which expansion of the ranger program in this region could achieve.


Read more: Remote Indigenous communities are vital for our fragile ecosystems


The Queensland government has called for donors to support the Indigenous Land and Sea Ranger program. Considering the outstanding environmental, economic and social benefits of Indigenous rangers and their overwhelming support by Queenslanders, more could be done in-house.

The Queensland government pledge to add 25 ranger positions, for a total of 101, should be increased fivefold. This would reflect the geographic, cultural and environmental challenges the state faces.

The ConversationWhile the Indigenous ranger support by the state and federal governments to date is to be commended, the Queensland community clearly has an appetite to expand and enhance the Queensland program.

Emilie Ens, Senior lecturer, Macquarie University and Alana Grech, Assistant Director, ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies, James Cook University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.