Having just posted a representative of “beauty” with an image of the Rainbow Pitta it seemed only fair to give the “beast” category some exposure. The Bearded Pig (Sus barbatus) is native to mainland Malaysia and Borneo and some other South-East Asian Islands. This cheerful creature was happily pigging out on jungle fruit at Bako National Park, not far from Kuching in Sarawak. The IUCN Red List website warns us that the Bearded Pig is vulnerable (category Vulnerable A2cd ver3.1). The Red List commentary says the Bearded Pig was abundant and widespread in the Malaysian Peninsula until recently but has now probably been extirpated from northern Peninsular Malaysia and northern Sumatra. The species is most widespread in the island of Borneo which might now hold the bulk of the population. Its decline has been attributed to heavy hunting and habitat loss. Bearded Pigs consume roots, fungi, invertebrates in rotting wood, small vertebrates, turtle eggs, carrion, and items from at 50 genera and 29 families of plants. They are NOT fussy easters but fruit supply is the key factor in determining growth rate, fat deposition and reproduction.
The Asian Water Buffalo (Bubalis bubalis) was introduced into the Northern Territory at the time of first colonial occupation. Between 1824 and 1849 they were brought from Timor, Kisar and probably other islands in Indonesia. The first European settlements failed but the imported buffalo thrived. By the early 1960s there were believed to be more than 200,000 feral buffalo living on the coastal floodplains between Darwin and Arnhem Land. They wreaked environmental havoc, in various ways, but creating channels for saltwater intrusion was one of the most damaging. But despite a population explosion on the lowlands, they did not arrive on the Arnhem Land Plateau until the mid-twentieth century, said Bardayal Nadjamerrek who was born on the plateau in 1926 and witnessed their coming. But the people of the plateau had long encountered buffalo on trips to visit other indigenous clans in the lowlands. These big and sometimes dangerous beasts created strong impressions in a landscape where the biggest animals had been emus and kangaroos. These first impressions of buffalo remain, albeit tenuously, in rock art depictions. Keith Nadjamerrek, son of Bardayal, is pictured beside an early and almost lifesize painting of a buffalo on his clan estate of Mankung Djang. The painting is slowly being lost to wind and water erosion. The depiction of the buffalo head is very interesting. The artist has drawn the head in both plan and side elevation views — the plan view showing the ears and horns and the side elevation showing the jaws and teeth. Perhaps, stretching reality a little for the sake of good story, the jaws have been drawn with recurved teeth, like a python, hinting at the power and dangerousness of the beast.
On the plateau the buffalo populations escaped much of the cull which wiped out the damaging herds on the floodplains in the 1990s. The highland buffalo have been causing great damage to the delicate upland wetlands through trampling, pugging and creating erosion channels. For about eight years now the indigenous land management group, Warddeken Land Management Limited has been undertaking an annual buffalo cull with highly trained shooters operating from helicopters and targeting the areas where most damage is happening. This important action has turned around a dismal future for the upland wetlands which are returning to health.
When Mandy Muir pointed out these Sarus cranes (Grus antigone) [top two photos] on the plains at Yellow Waters in Kakadu this time last year, I didn’t realise quite how lucky I was to see and photograph them in our part of the Deep North. Professor Stephen Garnett from Charles Darwin University tells me that this was the first time they had been noted in the Top End. Only three birds were seen and they have since departed. Sarus cranes have been sighted in years past down near Borroloola and reported once from the Ord River in Western Australia. Their stronghold is North Queensland and the Gulf Country. Amazingly, they are believed to have been present in Australia for perhaps 10,000 years but were only first recorded officially in 1968. Since they were first noticed their numbers seems to have been growing and it’s believed there are around 5,000 birds now. They benefit from some kinds of farming but other crops like sugar cane are bad news for them. Habitat loss in Thailand and the Phillipines has seen the sub-species in both places become extinct. A population of about 700 is being studied in northern Cambodia. This population is regarded as “steady” but nevertheless vulnerable to threats from changes in land use. India has been paying special attention to their Sarus crane population and Professor Garnett reports that there are about 10,000 birds doing quite well there. Superficially, the Sarus looks like the more common and widespread Brolga (Grus rubicundus) [bottom photograph] but on closer inspection there is plenty to distinguish between them. Brolgas have dark legs and Sarus crane legs are pinkish to reddish. The Sarus has more red on its head and neck, with the red extending down the neck a little. A size difference is also noticeable amongst adults, as the Sarus is about 10% bigger than the Brolga. The Sarus has a lighter beak to that of the Brolga. Given the fate of the Sarus in Thailand and the Phillippines, we need to pay more attention to make sure we don’t overlook these cranes again…as settler society did in Australia until 1968.
Helen Davidson writes in the Guardian from Cardwell in Queensland:
“Girringun: the trailblazing indigenous corporation caring for 1.2m hectares of North Queensland.
“The mammoth task of protecting a huge area of land and sea, as well as fighting to keep local languages and traditions alive is all in a days work for Girringun’s extraordinary rangers”
Saturday’s Guardian newspaper features a long article which reports on the threat to Australia’s extraordinary treasure house of indigenous rock art — much of which is still not recorded, let alone being properly conserved.
The Guardian’s Oliver Milman writes that experts warn that half the country’s rock paintings – some dating back 30,000 years – could disappear within 50 years. Oliver Milman met with the Indigenous rangers and researchers working to protect delicate sandstone from the triple threat of mining, graffiti and feral animals on Cape York and produced this report which can be found at:
On the Arnhem Plateau, within the Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area indigenous rangers are working to locate, document and protect what has been described as a “painted landscape”, with thousands of sites and countless images.
A recent threat to the art is the arrival of feral buffalo, pigs and cattle on the plateau. Feral buffalo came up into the high country around the mid 20th century and feral pigs and cattle much later.
Where the sites are accessible the buffalo, pigs and cattle are known to rub up against paintings — with predictably disastrous results. Where they choose to make a camp in what are often old human habitations the soil is pounded into a fine tilth, mixed with powdered dung.
In the times of strong SE winds this dust is blown onto paintings and in times of high humidity becomes to a degree attached to the painted surfaces.
Some problems require a high level of technical conservation expertise — something often beyond the budgets of organisations like Warddeken.
However, rangers are doing what they can and in particularly important and vulnerable sites they are flying in prefabricated metal cattle yard panels which clip together in an attempt to fence the ferals away from paintings and out of the occupation sites. The buffaloes, cattle and pigs also damage the integrity of the archaeology of occupation sites, breaking fragile stone tools and sometimes fibre and wooden implements found there.
In the picture at the top Warddeken Rangers proudly show fencing they installed at a site called Yenamarraway where the many images include a horse painted by the venerable elder Wamud Namok in his youth.
The other picture is at a site in Djok clan country where the images include two almost-life-size horses, (one with a rider) as well as a buffalo shooter, guns and a goat. At this site feral cattle had been camping right inside the large shelter during the wet season.
The Guardian is right in asserting that the conservation of Australian rock art urgently needs help. Technical conservation expertise is needed to support indigenous initiatives and most importantly greatly increased Federal funds need to flow to save a heritage that is both indigenous heritage and the heritage of all humanity.
You won’t find Yilingkirrkkirr anywhere other than in the rugged sandstone massif of Kakadu and Western Arnhem Land. Yilingkirrkirr is the name for this handsome and elusive bird in the languages of Kundedjnjenghmi and Gundjeihmi. The scientific name is Amytornis woodwardi and the common name is the White Throated Grasswren.
Yiilingkirrkkirr is listed as a vulnerable species by the Northern Territory Government. It’s not travelling as well as its close relative the Black Grasswren from Western Australia but much better than the Carpentarian Grasswren, to the south-east. The Carpentarian Grasswren is listed as endangered with less than 2000 breeding pairs.
The fall of Yilingkirrkkirr to vulnerable status is believed to be associated with a decline in Aboriginal customary fire management practices brought on as Aboriginal people were drawn off their rugged homelands from the late nineteenth to mid twentieth century. Since about 1970 Aboriginal people have been returning to re-establish themselves on the remote Arnhem Land Plateau. They began re-instituting customary burning patterns from the late 1990s and have been very successful in reducing the huge late dry season wildfires that impacted so badly on Yilingkirrkkirr.
The Aboriginal rangers of Warddeken Land Management are delivering the recommendations for conservation of Yilingkirrkkirr: implementing a fire management program that maintains or enhances habitat quality across the range of this species and establishing a monitoring program for at least representative populations.
The return to customary indigenous fire management means longer intervals between fires in critical habitat and smaller, patchier fires which provide habitat with variations from recently burned to long unburned.
Yilingkirrkkirr seems to be surviving the effects of predation by feral cats on the plateau. Feral cats are believed to be a major cause of a catastrophic decline in the population of small native mammals across North Australia. Yilingkirrkkirr nests in the midst of thick and spiky spinifex tussocks and cats probably find it easier to hunt small native mice, lizards and insects.
photo by petercookedarwin