ABC: Traditional owners, scientists and cat gizzards key to protecting 4.2 million hectares under Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area agreement

Published: 8 Jan 2015

From ABC News, Kate Wild, Updated 8 Jan 2015.

Rachel Paltridge is bent over the innards of a feral cat under the midday sun of the Great Sandy Desert in Western Australia.

Peering around her shoulders are Josephine Nangala and Nolia Napangarti, Pintubi traditional owners who caught the cat and have kept its stomach in the freezer so Ms Paltridge can study what it has been eating.

It is an unlikely example of threatened species research, but this is the practical work of a new partnership between the Federal Government and Aboriginal land owners.

Pintubi traditional owners, whose numbers include the last Aboriginal people to make contact with white Australians in 1984, have just signed their homelands into history.

Largest protected arid zone on Earth

By declaring 4.2 million hectares of their land an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) under the Kiwirrkurra IPA, the Pintubi traditional owners have helped to create the largest protected zone of arid land on earth.

The Kiwirrkurra IPA is the final link in a corridor of land from Western Australia to the Northern Territory and into the northern corner of South Australia.

"A lot of people think the desert is empty," Lindsey Langford, an anthropologist who works out of the tiny community in Western Australia that gives the IPA its name, said.
"But the desert is full of life. IPAs recognise that the best people to manage country in Australia are the people that have been managing it for thousands of years."

Indigenous Protected Areas are an Aboriginal-led agreement on how country should be managed and by whom. They need to satisfy an Aboriginal value system and a government one to gain approval.

The common ground is preservation - of ecology on one hand and culture on the other.

Land, law and work

"The IPA is about people looking after land. Look after it and keep the culture going," Robin Smythe, a senior figure in Kiwirrkurra, said. 

"Teaching the Tjukurrpa (Dreaming) to the younger people because we don't want to lose that, we want to keep it going."

Mr Smythe sees the IPA as a way to get young people back on their country and interested in learning.

"In that way we can bring more children, while they're at school, they can go out onto the land, learn from there, then when they finish school they know they got the opportunity to work in their own country," he said.

Job creation in some of the most remote communities in Australia is another government draw card.

"It works into tourism and into a whole range of other opportunities that opens up communities to economic developments," Richard Aspinall, state manager Western Australia for Prime Minister and Cabinet, who has worked on the Kiwirrkurra IPA with the traditional owners, said.

"We expect from that we'll get employment outcomes and we'll also start working with kids, getting them inspired that the future is rosy and important for the whole community."

The clues in cat gizzards

Back in the midday sun, Josephine Nangala, Nolia Napangarti and Rachel Paltridge have drawn a crowd of fascinated kids.

As Ms Paltridge pulls a series of tiny bodies from the stomach of the cat, Ms Nangala says each one's name in Pintubi.

"Widgie, wirru wirru. Might be a bird," she adds in English as a tangle of bedraggled feathers emerges.

"Did you eat this cat? You been cook it up and eat it?" Ms Paltridge asks, and Ms Nangala nods.

Hunting feral cats for food is just one of the ways that Pintubi culture coincides with Western ideas of species management.

The PEW Charitable Trusts, an environmental NGO, is a partner in the Kiwirrkurra IPA.

One of its interests in the Kiwirrkurra IPA is in protecting threatened species like the greater bilby and great desert skink, both of which are vulnerable to cats.

"The outback is up there with the Amazon, with Siberia, with the great Canadian boreal forests as one of the few huge places on Earth with outstanding biodiversity," Patrick O'Leary, PEW Charitable Trusts' outback officer, said.

"We need to protect it and that's what IPAs deliver so well.

"You need people managing fire, feral animals, and the research into the threatened species.

"Aboriginal people working with scientists brings the best of both systems of knowledge together."