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Emu tracks across a dry clay pan in Currawinya NP, Queensland. (Photo: Mitch Reardon)

Aboriginal hunting practices threatened

  • BY Julian Swallow |
  • August 19, 2010

As native species decline and traditional practices are lost, Aboriginal hunting is becoming unsustainable, says a report.

AUSTRALIA'S ABORIGINAL PEOPLE have lived sustainably from the land for tens of thousands of years, but a new study suggests this way of life may be under threat from declining land and wildlife management.

"Today the long-term sustainability of Indigenous wildlife harvesting is threatened. Where Indigenous communities lack leadership and other social problems exist, their capacity to apply customary land- and sea-management practices and to operate cultural constraints on wildlife use is reduced," says the report published recently in the CSIRO journal Wildife Research Management and Conservation.

Lead author Dr George Wilson from Australian Wildlife Services, a wildlife management consultancy in Canberra, says that in pre-colonial Australia, adherence to customary law allowed indigenous Australians to maintain sustainable populations of wildlife species used for hunting.

Vehicles and guns

However, a decline in traditional society, along with pressures caused by growing human populations and the use of modern technology, such as vehicles and guns, is putting this in jeopardy. Research has linked recent declines of species including bustards, emus and echidnas in Central Australia to hunting.

The aim of the study was not to criticise Aboriginal rights or practices, says George, "but to emphasise that any rights to hunt should coexist with [wildlife] management that accounts for all factors affecting sustainability."

Indigenous people typically "place great importance on land and wildlife management," he says, but government support for this remains limited. The Federal Government presently allocates $150m for indigenous land management, out of a total budget of $4.6bn for indigenous programs.

"Yet Aboriginal people say that sustainable land management and the management of wildlife resources is one of the most important elements of their lives," George told Australian Geographic. "Expenditure and support for indigenous communities should have a greater emphasis on land and wildlife management."

Rhythms of nature

Wanyubi Marika, an Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) Manager with the Northern Territory's Laynhapuy Rangers, says that Aboriginal people traditionally rely upon the rhythms of nature to ensure the sustainable management of animal populations.

"When a particular flower blooms, that tells us it is time to collect a certain type of plant or hunt a certain animal," says Wanyubi. "But we only take what we need and then we leave it alone for four, five, or six months to give it time to regenerate."

As some people in Aboriginal communities give up their traditional ways of life, this knowledge is being lost. George says that scientists have a major role to play in providing greater support to communities to assist them to retain this knowledge and improve their management practices.

"There are opportunities for science to support indigenous hunting practices, including through surveys, land and population management, and controlling the populations of feral animals," he says.

The benefits of this cooperation will flow in both directions, with scientists able to learn from the way in which the Aboriginal community has traditionally looked after their land. "For example, the use of traditional burning processes maintains a range of age classes (of plants) across the environment, which is a major benefactor for the diversity of wildlife," says George.

One example of this cooperation is the ongoing kuka kanyini (looking after game animals) project in Central Australia, which is a partnership between scientists and the traditional owners of the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytiatjara lands.

Kuka kanyini draws on traditional land-management practices, integrating indigenous knowledge with western science to ensure a sustainable wildlife populations, says George, as well as providing opportunities for economic development and the retention of traditional culture.

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