Congratulations to Crikey for shining some long-overdue light on the Commonwealth’s “Working on Country” program in the piece by Professor John Altman on Monday.

For too long, western scientists have either willfully ignored indigenous knowledge of Australia’s landscapes, flora and fauna or damned it as ‘unscientific’. This has condemned indigenous knowledge to a kind of biological terra nullius where the facts of Aboriginal ownership and management of and responsibility for land are ignored and western land management paradigms have prevailed.

The number, variety, capacity and quality of Aboriginal land management groups across Australia wasn’t evident to me until I attended the inaugural Indigenous Land & Sea Management Conference in central Australia in April 2005
where over 400 indigenous delegates revealed the diverse nature of their work – from protecting water points from feral camels in the desert, rescuing turtles from ‘ghost nets’ in the Gulf of Carpentaria to protecting traditional mutton-birding grounds in Tasmania from invasive weeds.

There’s an increasing recognition of the value of Aboriginal joint-management of the national park estate in the states and the Commonwealth has long been a leader in this area. But it’s the scientific disciplines that have been slowest to recognise the merits of indigenous knowledge.

Ornithology, the scientific study of birds, is a discipline where Australian scientists have contributed world-class research for many years. Birdwatching is tremendously popular as a hobby and there’s an extensive body scientific and popular literature on birds.

When I first started researching Aboriginal bird knowledge in the late 1990s I expected to find at least a few recent references but, to my profound disappointment, the best references I could find in one volume were in a book written by the father of Australian ornithology, John Gould, in 1865! Since then, Australian ornithology has largely ignored Aboriginal knowledge.

At the time of European invasion, over 250 Aboriginal language groups, each with its own set of bird knowledge lived on Australia. While this linguistic and cultural richness has been much diminished post-invasion, many languages and cultures remain in daily use and, as my research has revealed, contain rich veins of bird knowledge.

I work in the (re)emergent area of ethnoornithology, which is about what people know of and how they use birds, and within this discipline there is an increasing recognition of the value of indigenous bird knowledge as a tool that can fill in some of the yawning gaps in our knowledge of birds and provide a useful tool for bird conservation and landscape management. Ethnoornithology incorporates mainstream ornithological techniques with tools from the social science disciplines to better understand and apply indigenous knowledge.

Internationally, disciplinary peak bodies, the academy, government and non-government agencies are slowly coming to realise the value of indigenous bird knowledge as a complementary tool for bird conservation but also as a means to provide insights into cultural beliefs and traditional practices.

 

One excellent example of cooperation between indigenous landowners and

 

scientists concerns the trans-Pacific migrant the Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus, known in Australia as the Muttonbird and to New Zealand’s Maori as the Titi.

Aboriginal people living on the Tasmanian offshore islands still harvest muttonbirds as a cash crop, as do the Maori. In Australia, Aboriginal owners of the islands are working with European scientists and land managers, to ensure that the harvest is conducted sustainably and to ameliorate threats from feral rats and invasive weeds to the Muttonbird grounds.

In New Zealand the Maori custodians of the Titi grounds have long worked with European scientists and conservation managers on population fluctuations, harvest rates and tracking the cross-Pacific travels of this global migrant. Both of these projects highlight and respect the role of traditional knowledge and uses of the birds and are good illustrations of the value of scientists and indigenous landowners working together as equal partners – each contributing specialist knowledge and skills to reach an outcome that increases the pool of available knowledge about the Muttonbird and provides enhanced conservation and management outcomes.

There are many other examples in Australia and across the globe and I share Professor Altman’s hopes that the Working on Country program can assist with the important and overdue recognition of the contribution that Australia’s indigenous peoples can make to practical conservation efforts.

I will document bird-related knowledge and projects in a book I am writing for publication by CSIRO Publishing for release in 2008 and I would welcome any suggestions, contacts or news of local initiative by email to [email protected].

To find out more about ethnoornithology in Australia and across the globe go to the Ethnoornithology Research & Study Group website.