• Aboriginal landscape burning;
  • Coupled human natural systems;
  • fire ecology;
  • fire management;
  • habitat heterogeneity;
  • landscape history;
  • plant community diversity;
  • tropical savanna


We use the fire ecology and biogeographical patterns of Callitris intratropica, a fire-sensitive conifer, and the Asian water buffalo (Bubalus bubalis), an introduced mega-herbivore, to examine the hypothesis that the continuation of Aboriginal burning and cultural integration of buffalo contribute to greater savanna heterogeneity and diversity in central Arnhem Land (CAL) than Kakadu National Park (KNP). The ‘Stone Country’ of the Arnhem Plateau, extending from KNP to CAL, is a globally renowned social–ecological system, managed for millennia by Bininj-Kunwok Aboriginal clans. Regional species declines have been attributed to the cessation of patchy burning by Aborigines. Whereas the KNP Stone Country is a modern wilderness, managed through prescribed burning and buffalo eradication, CAL remains a stronghold for Aboriginal management where buffalo have been culturally integrated. We surveyed the plant community and the presence of buffalo tracks among intact and fire-damaged C. intratropica groves and the savanna matrix in KNP and CAL. Aerial surveys of C. intratropica grove condition were used to examine the composition of savanna vegetation across the Stone Country. The plant community in intact C. intratropica groves had higher stem counts of shrubs and small trees and higher proportions of fire-sensitive plant species than degraded groves and the savanna matrix. A higher proportion of intact C. intratropica groves in CAL therefore indicated greater gamma diversity and habitat heterogeneity than the KNP Stone Country. Interactions among buffalo, fire, and C. intratropica suggested that buffalo also contributed to these patterns. Our results suggest linkages between ecological and cultural integrity at broad spatial scales across a complex landscape. Buffalo may provide a tool for mitigating destructive fires; however, their interactions require further study. Sustainability in the Stone Country depends upon adaptive management that rehabilitates the coupling of indigenous culture, disturbance, and natural resources.