IPA IN FOCUS: Budj Bim Indigenous Protected Area

Published: 14 Jun 2024

UNESCO World Heritage listed Budj Bim Indigenous Protected Area. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.

With ancient stone structures and an aquaculture system older than the pyramids, the cultural heritage of Budj Bim Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in southwestern Victoria is mind-blowing, and has been acknowledged internationally with one of the highest honours - a UNESCO World Heritage listing.

We caught up with Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Denis Rose and Budj Bim Ranger Ben Church at Budj Bim recently, experiencing firsthand the work that Traditional Owners and Indigenous Rangers are doing protecting nature and culture here.

Budj Bim is located on Gunditjmara Country, in southwestern Victoria. Map: Country Needs People.

Gunditjmara Country

Gunditjmara Mirring (Country) covers southwestern Victoria – from the Hopkins River in the east, the Wannon River to the north and to the Glenelg River in the west. 

Rising up out of Country is Budj Bim. This is where the Gunditjmara people’s creation story begins, 37,000 years ago, when volcanic eruptions created Budj Bim.

The Budj Bim lava flows enabled the Gunditjmara to develop one of the largest and oldest aquaculture networks in the world. Composed of channels, dams and weirs, Gunditjmara stored and harvested the kooyang (eel), which has provided the population with an economic and social base for six millennia.


The ancient aquaculture structures of Budj Bim are over 6,600 years old. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“Budj Bim is a very special place. It's the site of one of the world's oldest agriculture systems still in existence today, constructed 6,600 years ago” says Denis Rose, Gunditjmara Traditional Owner and Chair of Country Needs People.

Gunditjmara people have lived sustainably on the land for thousands of years, in tune with their six seasons, influenced by climate and the lifecycles of eels, birds, bees and reptiles.

“It's a reflection of what our Gunditjmara ancestors achieved. They created a permanent settlement, a village of approximately 140 individual stone houses.”


Ancient stone house site at Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“Budj Bim shows that not all First Nations people were nomadic. We had permanent housing, a reliable water supply, rich food sources - fish, birds, kangaroos, possums. A rich and sustainable lifestyle was developed along the lava flow here.”

The impact of colonisation on the Gunditjmara people was profound.

“I grew up here, but we didn't have access to Country that we do today”, says Denis. “We've had a disconnect for a couple of hundred years. Disconnect from Country, from traditional practice. So getting back on Country again, getting to understand it, is really important with our Indigenous Protected Areas.”


A kangaroo watches over the lava flow at Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


Indigenous Protected Areas

It wasn’t till 1988 that land began to be handed back to the Gunditjmara people, due to the long, committed work of Traditional Owners. It began with the Lake Condah Mission reserve. Then in 2007, after a gruelling 11 years, Gunditjmara people were granted an historic Native Title determination with 133,000 hectares of Gunditjmara Country covering crown land, national parks, reserves, rivers, creeks and sea, including their Budj Bim Cultural Landscape.

Across the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape sits three Indigenous Protected Areas – Tyrendarra (established 2003), Kurtonitj (2009), and Tae Rak (Lake Condah, 2010).


Tae Rak, location of Lake Condah Indigenous Procted Area, Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


Tyrendarra Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) is a site over 27,000 years old and is part of significant Dreaming trails. It houses an important ceremonial site, ancient eel trapping systems, a traditional meeting place and camping area for the Gunditjmara people, and is situated entirely within the Budj Bim lava flow. 

Kurtonitj means ‘crossing place’ and the IPA covers 353 hectares of marshland with historical stone kooyang (short-finned eel) traps and stone channels, stone house sites, and eel smoking trees.

Tae Rak (Lake Condah) has significant wetlands and stony rises, spanning 1700 hectares in total. Amongst stone aquaculture sites lies the habitat of the kooyang and the threatened tiger quoll.


Close up of one of the weirs at Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


Gunditjmara still practice traditional hunting, in particular fishing for kooyang, with the Rangers playing an important role monitoring and tagging species, which all supports cultural practice.


Indigenous Ranger Program

There are two ranger groups that work across the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape – the World Heritage Rangers and the Budj Bim Rangers. Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Ben Church leads the Budj Bim Rangers. It’s a typically cool and overcast day down at the waters of Tae Rak when we chat with Ben on Country.  

“The most important part of my job is giving mob the opportunity to access Country again”, he says, “By looking after Country, we've giving these young ones and mob the opportunity to come out and connect to Country.”



Budj Bim Ranger Ben Church at Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“The kooyang is one of our most significant fish species. With ingenious aquaculture methods, mob farmed and caught eel, and it was a really significant, and staple part of their diet."

“What we try to do as Rangers and Traditional Owners is protect the waterways to protect their migration patterns, so we can tell that story to our young ones for generations to come.”

Indigenous Rangers’ work looking after environment and culture across Budj Bim includes undertaking revegetation, weed and pest mapping and control, protecting cultural heritage sites, protection of threatened species and biosecurity compliance. The Rangers also undertake fire management, using fire to help suppress or control weeds and encourage biodiversity in the landscape.


Budj Bim Rangers Lashay Blurton, Heath Smith, Colleen Hamilton, Ben Church and Alyssa Dunstan. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“The Rangers have been revegetating around Lake Condah for the last few years. We’re trying to create habitat for our bird life and our insects and reptiles too. We’re planting our significant plants back out on the landscape - tea trees and punyaart grasses, which is an important plant for our female basket weavers”.

“Annually we'll plant up to 10,000 plants across the IPAs, particularly out here at Lake Condah, being one of our bigger IPAs.”


Budj Bim Rangers Heath Smith, Alyssa Dunstan and Lashay Blurton. Up to 10,000 plants are planted per year across Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


Management of invasive weeds and invasive species is essential. At present Rangers are doing all they can to cull wild pigs which hunters have released on their property, against the wishes of Traditional Owners. If left alone, feral pigs can cause irreversible damage to their ancient cultural sites.


In Development - Gunditjmara Sea Country IPA

Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation together with Eastern Maar Aboriginal Corporation are now developing a Gunditjmara Sea Country IPA.  The IPA would cover Nyamat Mirring (Sea Country) from the infamous *Convincing Ground in the west to Yambuk Lakes in the east, spanning coast, volcanic plains, estuaries, rivers and coastal wetlands. Indigenous Rangers would play a critical role in the Sea Country IPA, it’s also an opportunity to build skills and capacity, community employment, and work towards sea management priorities.


Looking to the future on Gunditjmara Country. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“Being out here on Country within nature is a privilege”, says Ben Church, “It's more than just a job.”

Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Denis Rose adds “There's a pride there. People have been able to see that with great environmental outcomes are important cultural outcomes, and all those health and social benefits that come with having stable work.”

On completion, the Sea Country IPA will provide more protection and better management of this landmark place, building on the hard work of Elders with Indigenous-led management in place, enabling the practice and transmission of continuous living culture for generations to come, and fostering more constructive working relationships with other users of the area.


Gunditjmara Traditional Owner Denis Rose at Budj Bim. Photo: Annette Ruzicka.


“I think the Budj Bim IPA really reflects what a lot of First Nations Traditional Owners are wanting to do with Country, and that is to improve the health of Country”, says Denis Rose. “We have a cultural responsibility to look after it, but we also have a right to enjoy it and understand it.”


Our deep thanks to Gunditjmara Traditional Owners, Budj Bim Rangers, Gunditj Mirring Traditional Owners Aboriginal Corporation, Winda-Mara Aboriginal Corporation and Budj Bim staff for supporting our trip and sharing their knowledge with us. Find out more about Budj Bim here.


*Convincing Ground is an area in Portland Bay Western Victoria where massacres of local Gunditjmara people by white settlers occurred around 1833.