Kakadu - a ‘keeping place’ that needs protection from bad fires and feral species

I met the grandson of the ‘old man’ I worked with 10 years ago, at Ubirr. Young people like Manbiyarra Nayinggul are the new leaders. They care for their country and are determined to save it. They want to extend existing initiatives and experiment with new and innovative means of tackling fire and feral pests. I am determined to support them, the scientists, the dedicated staff of Kakadu National Park, and the Northern Territory Government officials who are working to bring this about.

A decade ago I was living and working in Kakadu with the traditional owners. A very senior old man who has now passed away said “Gregory … this is a keeping place … a place for safeguarding our culture, our plants and our animals.” As Australia’s Threatened Species Commissioner, I see my job as helping to protect that ‘keeping place’. Hence, I was delighted this month to be welcomed back.

Kakadu is still beautiful, and culturally rich. But I noticed a concerning difference compared to 10 years ago. My observations confirmed what traditional owners, park rangers, and scientists have recently come to know after extensive research. A discernible decline has occurred in the volume and diversity of animal species. This comes from a negative combination of fire and invasive species.

I was particularly moved when one senior elder held my hand and, with tears in her eyes, recounted the reduction in bandicoots, quolls, wallabies, birds and other plants and animals she had observed on her country. She was worried about hot and frequent fires burning the animals’ food and shelter. Looking around in the park, the scorch heights of the fires appear too high and are burning out understory and essential mid-canopy habitat. And it was clear that feral cats, cane toads, and weeds were compounding the effects of these fires.

The problem of small mammal declines in northern Australia is wider than Kakadu. But encouragingly, the drivers of depletion can be practically addressed. And Kakadu has been leading with innovative trials such as feral cat exclosures, training toad-savvy quolls and stone country fire-sticks burning activities.

So although I felt a sadness about Kakadu’s losses to date, I left the park optimistic. By bringing Indigenous knowledge and participation together with science-based approaches, we can turn things around. Traditional owners and park staff are already engaged, determined and energised to implement change for the better. I thus flew back to Canberra, motivated to mobilise further resources and efforts to assist.

Kakadu is special. And so is all Australia. We are a ‘keeping place’ for some of the world’s most distinctive and irreplaceable species. If we lose our species, we lose a part of our nation. So, I look forward to supporting all the people in Kakadu to lead the charge in arresting species decline, including by making sure that fire is managed in a sustainable way. And I look forward to returning to Kakadu in the future and observing a rebound in its unique animals and plants.

Lastly, I would like to express my sincere condolences to the Nadji family for the recent loss of their daughter and sister, Ngal-wamud Na-Bunidj. My thoughts are with the family at this sad time.

Gregory Andrews, Threatened Species Commissioner