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A map showing the location of the Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area in Western Australia.

Established: 2011
Partnership area: 6.6 million ha / 66,000 km2
Location: 900km north-east of Perth, 500km south-east of Port Hedland

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The Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area covers an area, roughly the size of Tasmania, in the Little Sandy and Gibson Deserts of Western Australia.

The Birriliburu Traditional Owners are the Martu people. Their traditional, ecological and cultural knowledge stretches back more than 25,000 years. They're determined to continue to protect and preserve the plants, animals and landscapes of the Western Desert region.

The Martu were granted native title to 136,000 square kilometres of their country in 2002 – the largest native title determination in Australian history at the time. The Birriliburu Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was declared in April 2013. The Martu then established an Indigenous ranger program employing locals from Wiluna and surrounding areas.

The rangers lead a number of land management activities in the Birriliburu IPA, including reinstating traditional fire patterns, threatened species monitoring and baseline fauna surveys.

Our partnership

Bush Heritage has been proudly supporting the Birriliburu ranger team since 2013, using 'two-way' learning with both traditional skills and science, particularly with regards to fire ecology. The partnership has provided an opportunity for cross‑cultural exchange and better outcomes for the people and their land.

Dr Vanessa Westcott and the Birriliburu Rangers. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Dr Vanessa Westcott and the Birriliburu Rangers. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

In 2015 our CEO and board members Chris Grubb and Nick Burton Taylor visited Birriliburu country to formalise our partnership for a further three years. This has seen Bush Heritage provide funds for equipment, project resourcing and ranger wages, and the continued support of our regional ecologist to work closely with the rangers.

Central Desert Land and Community are also key partners and are working with us to establish a science and monitoring program with a focus on fire management, feral animals, threatened species and bush tucker. This initiative is already well underway.

Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Photo Vanessa Westcott.

Embracing traditional knowledge

The Birriliburu IPA is astonishingly diverse, ranging from sand dunes and sandstone mountain ranges to salt lakes and claypans. It covers three bio‑geographic regions – the Little Sandy Desert, Gibson Desert and Gascoyne.

The Thorny Devil (Moloc) looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
The Thorny Devil (Moloc) looks fearsome but is harmless. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

The area is home to many nationally significant species such as the Greater Bilby, Mulgara and Marsupial Mole to name just a few.

It's with great pride that Bush Heritage is able to play a part in maintaining Martu people’s connection to country, and that we can continue to share knowledge for the mutual benefit of Birriliburu and the plants and animals that call it home.

Collecting a bush tucker herbarium. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.
Collecting a bush tucker herbarium. Photo by Annette Ruzicka.

Birriliburu researchers, land managers and the Birriliburu rangers are bringing together science and traditional knowledge to establish a bush tucker database. Our regional ecologist has been working closely with Martu rangers such as Rita Cutter and Lena Long, to document this knowledge for the first time; recording traditional and scientific names and uses for desert food and medicine plants unique to the region.

We’ve got 60 odd plants on the list at the moment. And every time we come out with different elders, we fill in some gaps because they remember different names. And that’s really important – to document that knowledge – because we really want to make sure it gets passed on.


Greater Bilby. Photo Jiri Lochman, Lochman Transparencies.
Greater Bilby. Photo Jiri Lochman, Lochman Transparencies.

In the south-western pocket of the Birriliburu IPA is Katjarra – a vast landscape and area of significant cultural and ecological value. The hard, red sands provide an ideal breeding habitat for the Greater Bilby (Macrotis lagotis), which dig burrows to keep their young safe from predators.

Bilby numbers have declined dramatically since European settlement and 10% of that decline has occurred in the past 12 years, with the current population estimated to be fewer than 10,000.

Katjarra represents one of the only remaining, confirmed Bilby populations in the south-western extent of their current range, so the Birriliburu rangers, Central Desert Land and Community staff and Bush Heritage scientists are working together to track and monitor the vulnerable species in order to help safeguard their survival.

“Right now, the Bilby population in this area is only just hanging on; with feral cats and foxes representing a major threat. There is a great urgency to monitor burrow systems, manage the land and do all that we can to protect the species and help ensure they remain in this area.”  –  Dr Vanessa Westcott.

Fire management

Ranger Leoni Anderson recording feral cat tracks and scats. Photo Vanessa Westcott.
Ranger Leoni Anderson recording feral cat tracks and scats. Photo Vanessa Westcott.

The Birriliburu team are using fire management, informed by both traditional knowledge and modern ecological science, to protect areas with significant rock art sites and others that are habitat for the Greater Bilby. Fire scars are being mapped and management burns are being used to prevent damage caused by wildfires.

Mapping of fire scars using satellite imagery enables us to build up an understanding of the fire history of priority areas. We're also now able to distinguish between fire scars that were created by ranger burns and wildfire. This mapping allows the rangers to demonstrate the difference they're making. Gradually, through time, as we burn more areas, and create a real patchwork of spinifex ages, hopefully we’ll see a reduction in the areas that wildfires are taking out.

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