New Indigenous Protected Area the 50th in Australia

By Hannah Seward 23 May 2012
Reading Time: 3 Minutes Print this page
Aboriginal land has been protected as part of the Northern Territory’s newest Indigenous Protected Area.

COMMUNITY PRIDE AND EMOTION shone through as the Yanyuwa people gathered on 17 May, 2012 to witness an official ceremony to celebrate the protection of 1,300sq. km of traditional Aboriginal land in the heart of the Gulf of Carpentaria.
The Northern Territory’s newest Indigenous Protected Area, the Yanyuwa IPA, is the 50th in Australia but only the second to officially incorporate a national park. A total of 260,000 sq. km of land is now protected under IPA agreements across Australia. (See a map of IPA areas in Australia)

The wider IPA falls under the protection of the Yanyuwa traditional owners and the li-Anthawirriyarra sea rangers. Yanyuwa traditional owner and li-Anthawirriyarra sea ranger Leonard Norman has been waiting for this day since formal preparations began in 2006.
“This IPA is very important. It encompasses all of the islands to protect them for my grandchildren and their children. We want everyone to work together to look after this land for future generations,” he says.

Sacred Aboriginal land protected

Situated two hours south-east of Darwin by plane, the Yanyuwa IPA borders stretch from the south of Borroloola, alongside the mighty McArthur River, and to the vast mangrove fringed mudflats and out across to the Sir Edward Pellew archipelago.

For the Yanyuwa, the health of land, sea and people is interlinked. They have a long history on the land often told through physical songlines embodied in the landscape, and known as kujika. These songlines stretch across Yanyuwa country holding the land and sea together in a strong bond.

During the wet season the river level in this region can rise as high as 30m, filling the many lagoons and waterholes, providing Yanyuwa with bushtucker such as barramundi, black bream and longneck turtles. The Yanyuwa people regularly collect food and bush medicines that grow in the areas along the river, including berry tree, bush plum and bush potato.

“We have waited so long and at last it came,” says Yanyuwa senior traditional owner Billy Miller. “My country means a lot to me. It’s important to protect my land.”

Some of the IPA team. (Credit: Hannah Seward)

Aboriginal traditional owners working in partnership

Traditional owners will work in mentoring roles in partnership with sea ranger groups and three Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife rangers, sharing skills and resources to look after the IPA, including existing Barranyi National Park, which covers 8 per cent of the terrestrial area of the archipelago.

The IPA contains six main islands, the largest being Vanderlin Island, which spans 26.3sq. km and the smallest covering less than 0.01sq. km, with more than fifty sandy islets, reefs and rock formations scattered in between. The islands contain varied habitats including open forests, mudflats, mangroves, vine thickets, sandstone heaths and sand dunes.
The larger islands are the homelands of Yanyuwa families, and are internationally significant nesting sites for colonial sea birds and marine turtles. Endangered green turtles and threatened flatback turtles nest annually on the quiet island beaches. Herds of 30 dugong at a time feed on the thick beds of sea grass fringing the islands, and elusive snubfin dolphins are frequently spotted.
The islands provide a refuge to rare mammals such as the brush-tailed rabbit-rat, northern brush-tailed phascogale, northern quoll and Carpentarian antechinus, all threatened species on the mainland. The archipelago is also believed to be the last stronghold in the Northern Territory of the canefield rat, another mammal in danger of being decimated by feral cats.

A key IPA management goal is to reduce feral animals including cats, pigs, goats and more recent pests such as cane toads, which arrived on the islands in floodwaters in 2003. Dr Stuart Blanch, Director of the Environment Centre NT, a non-government organisation based in Darwin, welcomes the official protection of a unique area.
“This will improve land and sea management efforts and build stronger partnerships for a key group of islands in Northern Australia,” he says. “The good ecological health of the island ecosystems is due in large part to the relatively good condition of the catchment of the McArthur River, which bathes the rich shallow marine waters around the islands with monsoonal floodwaters each wet season. The hydrological connectivity extends 300km from the top of the catchment to the islands – a rare situation in Australia, and the tropics globally.”

Nicholas Fizpatrick, li-Anthawirriyarra sea ranger. (Credit: Hannah Seward)