A huge white marquee on the red-dirt, 150 knowledgeable participants from across the nation, deep abiding respect, lashings of enthusiasm for culture and conservation, and….. the Threatened Species Commissioner in a freaky bilby suit?….. perfect ingredients for the inaugural Indigenous Bilby Festival!
I was lucky enough to attend the festival with a contingent of twelve Martu rangers and Tracy Carboon from Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ). We had driven three days through big-sky-desert-country, criss-crossing several of the Western Australian deserts to get to Kiwirrkurra, a small Indigenous community near the WA/NT border that wasw hosting the festival.
People had come from all over: the locals from Kiwirrkurra were joined by countrymen and women from places like Punmu, Parnngurr, Wiluna, Tennant Creek, Warburton, Kalgoorlie, Broome, Fitzroy Crossing, plus scientists and representatives from government and conservation organisations.
Indigenous and non-indigenous alike, we were there for the same purpose: to share ways that traditional Indigenous methods and Western methods can be applied to better monitor and conserve the remaining populations of bilbies.
The location of our meeting was significant. Kiwirrkurra is in the heartland of the remaining distribution of bilbies. After disappearing from most of a former range, bilbies are now largely restricted to Indigenous lands in the deserts of WA and NT.
Over the three days we heard from each of the ranger teams on the work that they are carrying out on their country, their knowledge of bilbies, and their cultural connections to bilbies. We learnt a multitude of language names for bilby from ‘Ninu’, ‘Mankarr’, ‘Bilba’, ‘Walpajirri’ and my favourite ‘Pingki-tawutawu’, which if I got the translation right, refers to the feathery tuft on the end of the bilby tail. We heard about how the bilby stole pearl shells in the Kimberley and burrowed with them to Roebuck Bay. How bilbies are connected to love, marriage and motherhood, and that bilby stories connect across the Indigenous countries that were represented at the festival.
It was palpable how deeply affected the Indigenous people at the festival were by the loss of bilbies and other native species from their countries. Listening to stories, we learnt that animals, including bilbies, not only provide traditional resources (such as food or decoration), but are integral components of culture, law and spirituality. The messages were powerful and sobering.
Many of the people attending showed extraordinarily detailed ecological knowledge of bilbies (food, habitat, threats) and in-depth understanding of how to use fire to improve the country for bilbies. I was fascinated by how many of the food plants for bilbies are also important traditional foods for people. Traditional knowledge and fire practices are used to encourage these food resources, making it clear that the Indigenous culture and connection to country are strong positive forces to conserve bilbies and other biodiversity.
The afternoon field trips around Kiwirrkurra were a highlight. The festival did a fantastic job of demonstrating Indigenous and Western approaches to monitoring. We saw side-by-side: the Indigenous field methods of food resource identification, bilby tracking techniques, and cat hunting, with the modern scientific methods of collecting scats for DNA analysis, and using drones to identify burrows and diggings.
The festival was a positive and encouraging experience. I am convinced that combining Traditional and Western scientific cultures, through the dedicated work of Indigenous land managers, is integral to biodiversity conservation in the remaining haunts of the bilby.
You can read more about the festival: