Indigenous initiatives for co-management of Miyapunu/Sea Turtle


  • This article was prepared by Dr Rod Kennett (Charles Darwin University c/– PO Box 518 Jabiru, Northern Territory 0886, Australia. Tel. +61-8 8938 1162, Email:, Dr Cathy Robinson (UNSW@ADFA, Canberra 2600, Australia. Tel. +61-4 2104 3954, Email:, and Dr Ilse Kiessling (Charles Darwin University, c/– PO Box 518, Jabiru, Northern Territory 0886, Australia. Tel. +61-8 8922 0046, Email: based on work that was done in collaboration with Yolngu members of the Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, Djawa Yunupingu, Djalalingba Yunupingu and the late Mr Munungurritj (PO Box 1551, Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory 0881, Australia. Tel. +61-8 8987 3992, Email:


A key challenge facing indigenous groups around Australia is the management of conservation projects that reflect their rights and responsibilities to care for their traditional land and sea estates (often referred to in Aboriginal English as ‘country’). Many indigenous people now have legal rights for country that has undergone significant environmental change since European colonization. Some plant and animal species that once existed in these areas are now threatened with extinction or are extinct, new threats and impacts on wildlife and habitat have emerged, and there are limited resources available to implement strategies to combat and reduce further species decline or habitat loss. Indigenous ecological knowledge and management regimes have had to adapt to these environmental challenges within a framework that supports and reflects contemporary community aspirations and indigenous Law.

This paper examines how the Aboriginal (Yolngu) Traditional Owners of north-east Arnhem Land in Australia's Northern Territory have responded to some of these challenges. A specific focus is given to Yolngu concerns over Marine Turtle (Miyapunu) populations and habitats. We show how Yolngu strategies seek to balance and adapt indigenous and western knowledge and practices and facilitate cooperation amongst stakeholders who share the waters across the turtles’ migratory range.

Miyapunu/Marine Turtle

Throughout the Indo-Pacific region, Miyapunu (Box 1) regularly migrate hundreds to thousands of kilometres between foraging grounds and nesting beaches (Limpus et al. 1992). Miyapunu are protected nationally under Australia's Environment Protection & Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. Those species that enter into Northern Territory's coastal waters are also protected wildlife under the Parks & Wildlife Conservation Act(NT) 2000 and have long been incorporated into Aboriginal legal, spiritual and resource management systems. These include globally significant populations of Green (Chelonia mydas), Flatback (Natator depressus), Olive Ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea), and Hawksbill turtles (Eretmochelys imbricata).

Table Box 1. . Miyapunu
Common nameScientific nameAboriginal name
Green TurtleChelonia mydasDhalwatpu
Hawksbill TurtleEretmochelys imbricataGuwarrtji
Flatback TurtleNatator depressaGarriwa
Olive Ridley TurtleLepidochelys olivaceaMuduthu
Loggerhead TurtleCaretta carettaGarun

In recent times, Yolngu have noticed fewer Miyapunu nesting and in the waters of their traditional estates and have observed environmental degradation along the coasts which support Miyapunu nesting and foraging (Kennett et al. 1998). Marine debris is one of the most obvious impacts. Derelict fishing nets are of particular concern to indigenous coastal communities because they are regularly found with many kinds of marine species entangled in them. These include marine turtles, dugong, sharks and other marine species, which indigenous people continue to have strong cultural connection with and regularly hunt as food. The amount of debris on the Northern Territory coast is significant. For example, more than 61 t of debris was documented on 137 km of Northern Territory's Groote Eylandt's beaches in 1997/98, and in 2000 more than 4 t was removed from only 8 km of beach at Cape Arnhem on the Gove Peninsula of north-east Arnhem Land (Kiessling 2003). More than 90% (by weight) of items recorded on Groote Eylandt were derelict fishing nets, while around 60 nets per km were removed from the beach at Cape Arnhem (Kiessling 2003). Around 200 Miyapunu of different species have been recorded entangled in derelict fishing nets on Cape Arnhem beaches since 1996; approximately 55% of turtles are released alive (Roeger 2004) (Fig. 1). The ongoing resources required by Yolngu and other indigenous groups to clean up debris and record marine wildlife stranded on remote beaches is substantial.

Figure 1.

Around 200 Miyapunu (marine turtles) have been found entangled in derelict fishing nets on Cape Arnhem beaches over recent years; one of the many threats to the survival of the various species. Aboriginal (Yolngu) Traditional Owners of north-east Arnhem Land are applying management strategies to protect and conserve marine turtles across their migratory range.

Yolngu Elders are also concerned at the increasing numbers of four wheel drive (4WD) vehicles visiting the north-east Arnhem land region. These vehicles can damage marine turtle nests and nesting habitat by compacting sand, crushing nests, and creating wheel ruts that impede or trap hatchlings (Department of Environment & Heritage 2003). 4WD vehicles are used by tourists to visit beaches and coastal areas, and also by Yolngu to fish, hunt and collect food.

In addition to the perceived ‘waste’ of Miyapunu and Miyapunu eggs (mapu) from the impact of marine debris and unmanaged vehicle traffic, Elders also hold concerns about indigenous hunting pressure. Senior Elder Djalalingba Yunupingu recalls meetings with Senior Traditional Owners to discuss a common concern:

What we going to do with that turtle? We going to look after and protect him properly, not to kill that turtle, like eat and waste it. We kill to eat only, not to waste it. (Yunupingu 1998; p. 9)

These concerns reflect those of Ngapaki (non-Aboriginal) scientists and managers who are also worried about a significant decline in marine turtle populations throughout much of the world but who have little scientific knowledge of marine turtle population numbers and trends in north-east Arnhem Land. Over-harvesting of eggs and adults (particularly in the Indo-Pacific region), destruction of beaches and feeding grounds, accidental deaths in fisheries, and entanglement in and ingestion of marine debris are recognized as important threats to the sustainability of turtle populations (Limpus 1995; Department of Environment & Heritage 2003).

Under Yolngu law and the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (Cwth) 1976, north-east Arnhem Land is Aboriginal land. Approximately 85% of the land along the Northern Territory coastline has now been officially converted to Aboriginal ownership under this legislation. Negotiations are also underway to identify resource and management rights and develop agreements through Australia's Commonwealth Native Title legislation (Robinson & Mercer 2000). Meanwhile, an agreement has been developed between Yolngu and the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage that designates 100 000 ha of the north-east Arnhem coast as an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA). The IPA agreement provides Yolngu with government support for their efforts to care for this area of their country, including the conservation of Miyapunu species and habitats ( Other IPA designations in adjacent areas are currently being discussed.

Yolngu recognize that effective conservation of their land and sea country requires appropriate partnerships to be made with other stakeholders who share this coastal-marine region. To promote the development of such partnerships, Elders have initiated a network of co-operative management (hereafter ‘co-management’) initiatives through their Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation.

Miyapunu partnerships through Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation

The wind carries the moisture right up high into the atmosphere, and we get the feeling that maybe it's going to rain, and that makes us feel happy. And so we’re sitting here, and suddenly we feel a cool breeze. Then the Dhimurru wind arrives from the east bringing rain. This is a giver of life to the plants. (Dhimurru Website)

All Yolngu who feel the rain from the Dhimurru wind on their country and are connected through Yolngu Law have the right and obligation to ‘work together’ in the care of north-east Arnhem Land (Fig. 2) through the Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation (hereafter ‘Dhimurru’– see Box 2). Through their Laws, Yolngu have drawn meanings and metaphors associated with water to act as an important symbolic vehicle to develop a framework to establish co-management agreements (Robinson & Munungurritj 2001). Raymattja Marika-Munungurritj explains this metaphor in the following terms:

Figure 2.

Region of north-east Arnhem Land, Northern Territory Australia. The beach at Nanydjaka has been closed in an effort to protect Miyapunu nesting sites.

There is always a dynamic interaction of knowledge traditions. Fresh water from the land, bubbling up in fresh water springs to make waterholes, and salt water from the sea are interacting with each other with the energy of the tide and the energy of the bubbling spring. When the tide is high the water rises to its full. When the tide goes out the water reduces its capacity. . . . In this way the Dhuwa and Yirritja sides of Yolngu life work together. And in this way Ngapaki and Yolngu traditions can work together. There must be balance, if not either one will be stronger and will harm the other. (Marika-Munungurritj 1992, p. 5)

Two-way co-management initiatives

In the frothy interface where the salt and freshwater boundaries interact, a Yolngu approach to adaptive co-management has been developed whereby new knowledge and management practices are negotiated in a process that is open to review. Such an approach is similar to the ‘adaptive’ planning and management philosophy used to manage complex environmental systems (e.g. Walters & Hollings 1990). Elders have extended these principles to provide a holistic framework that learns from actions and interactions with the social, cultural and environmental dimensions of Yolngu country and its management.

Dhimurru has initiated a number of Miyapunu partnerships using this adaptive ‘two-way’ co-management approach. These include the establishment of a permit system and code of conduct which seeks to improve visitor knowledge and behaviour so as to minimize impacts at key recreational sites, including those that support Miyapunu nesting. Dhimurru has facilitated research into Miyapunu biology and indigenous harvesting effort through a Miyapunu Research and Management Project. Efforts have also been made to establish cooperative relationships with other groups who have an impact on Miyapunu – such as commercial and recreational fishers, other indigenous people in Australia, and coastal communities overseas – in an effort to share knowledge and ‘work together’ to conserve Miyapunu throughout their migratory range.

Non-indigenous residents of, and visitors to, the Nhulunbuy mining township have access to designated recreational areas within north-east Arnhem Land. In the past, unregulated access has resulted in disturbance to sacred sites and degradation of coastal dune vegetation. In response to growing concerns over the degradation of their lands, Dhimurru devised a permit system whereby visitors pay a small fee to enter and use designated recreational areas. The revenue gained from permits, in addition to funds received under a negotiated agreement with the Alcan mining company that operates an alumina mine at Nhulunbuy, provide funds for Yolngu ranger efforts to manage these areas. Dhimurru also provides visitors with cultural information describing how the region is connected to Aboriginal law and people, and how these connections are expressed through paintings, physical features, resource use, and ancestral Dreamings (Robinson & Munungurritj 2001). Yolngu hope that this information will help visitors understand why it is important to care for these sites, and why they are the appropriate people to manage the north-east Arnhem Land region.

Two-way research initiatives

Dhimurru facilitates a Miyapunu research and management project which applies their ‘two-way’ approach to establishing partnerships with groups such as Charles Darwin University, and the Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Service (see Acknowledgements). The project's broad aims are to collect information on marine turtle distribution and abundance in the region and to quantify the indigenous harvest of eggs and turtles (Kennett et al. 1998). Periodic captures by Yolngu hunters of Green (Dhalwatpu) and Loggerhead (Garun) turtles, previously tagged at nesting beaches in Queensland and Western Australia, led Yolngu to wonder about these animals which their Law held to live, forage and nest in local coastal-marine waters. Discussions that revealed western knowledge held a different view of Dhalwatpu and Garun biology and migratory behaviour led to Dhimurru's interest in working with western scientists to research migration patterns.

Early in the project, Dhimurru Rangers visited the Mon Repos Sea Turtle Research Centre in Bundaberg, Queensland where they saw a Garun nesting. Djalalingba Yunupingu, a Senior Lawman for Garun, is familiar with Yolngu law that held that this species did not nest on land in his country but nested under the sea instead. Following the trip to Mon Repos, he spoke publicly of the profound impact of witnessing Garun laying eggs on the beach in Queensland and learning that Garun from his country traveled all the way to Queensland and Western Australia to nest (Yunupingu 1998).

Following the revelation about Garun, Dhimurru undertook a satellite tracking program to trace the migrations of Dhalwatpu as they left the nesting beaches of north-east Arnhem Land (Fig. 3) (Kennett et al. 2004). Previous studies found that Dhalwatpu and other Miyapunu disperse widely (up to thousands of kilometres apart) and may travel up to 2600 km to their home foraging ground (Limpus et al. 1992). Unexpectedly, Yolngu found that their Dhalwatpu remained in the Gulf of Carpentaria with most traveling to foraging grounds in the south-west (Box 3, Fig. 4). Recent genetic studies, in which Yolngu participated, confirm the endemicity of the Gulf of Carpentaria nesting population. This offers a more encouraging management scenario for the north-east Arnhem Land nesting Dhalwatpu in that these animals at least are remaining within Australian waters.

Figure 3.

In recent times, Yolngu have noticed fewer Miyapunu nesting in the waters of their traditional estates and have observed environmental degradation along the coasts which support Miyapunu nesting and foraging. An agreement has been developed between Yolngu and the Commonwealth Department of Environment and Heritage that designates 100 000 ha of the north-east Arnhem coast as an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA), providing government support for Yolngu efforts to care for this area of their country.

Figure 4.

Participants in a Miyapunu research and management project are pictured here attaching a satellite transmitter to track marine turtle migrations across the region so that threats can be managed in the entire region in which the populations occur.

This new knowledge reinforced Dhimurru's conviction that it must work with other peoples who share the region within the migratory range of Garun and other miyapunu. Significantly, it has also required Elders to carefully fuse new information into a framework of traditional Law and ecological knowledge that has been accumulated from past ancestors and a lifetime of observing Miyapunu. Bradley (1998) notes how a young Yanyuwa hunter who lives in the Gulf of Carpentaria also returned from a trip to Mon Repos in Queensland and reported on his new knowledge of Loggerhead turtle migratory and nesting behaviour to his people. However, the reasons behind this young man's challenge to Yanyuwa Law were not understood by other members of his clan and were received by Yanyuwa Elders with confusion. Ultimately, Yanyuwa have chosen to consider, but not totally adopt, this new information until it is clear to them why the synthesis of traditional and scientific information should be made (Bradley 1998).

Similar to their Yanyuwa neighbours, Yolngu are aware that Garun, like other resources and areas within their land and sea country, are not common or free because resources have owners and because these owners are governed by traditional laws (Robinson & Munungurritj 2001). With the assistance of other Elders and managers, Djalalingba is required to be in regular communication with the ecological, social and sacred elements of ‘country’ and its people. His knowledgeable seniority confers ritual responsibilities and the right to decide on resource use and management of clan estates. This includes the issues surrounding how and if new knowledge will be incorporated into Law. As Senior Elders Raymattja Marika-Munungurritj and Mr Munungurritj have argued, the Ganma principles of balance must provide the foundation for Miyapunu management partnerships:

We need to create an awareness and understanding of the turtle and how we can help maintain and preserve and respect it through our knowledge and beliefs, through our clan stories and songs, so that we all can be educated about the life of a turtle in its environment. (in Robinson and Munungurritj 2001, p. 104)

Yolngu have also extended this adaptive Ganma ‘two-way’ learning and management approach to consider the impacts of indigenous harvesting of turtles. Dhimurru established a program that provides a preliminary assessment of the number and type of eggs and turtle that are being harvested by Yolngu. This assessment is based on interviews with hunters and traditional owners, datasheets delivered to communities to record details of egg collection or turtle capture, ground surveys of selected beaches where eggs are regularly harvested, and monitoring of stock-piled turtle shells near hunting areas (described in Kennett et al. 1998) (Fig. 5). These surveys reveal that hunters are targeting adult turtles, mostly female, and in some locations females that are nesting. The monitoring program also showed that there was regular unmanaged visitation to Cape Arnhem, and that the rate of egg harvest at this site is comparatively high.

Figure 5.

Release point and final locations of 20 postnesting green turtles (Chelonia mydas) satellite tracked from Djulpan beach in north-east Arnhem land to foraging grounds (approximate location indicated by a capital letter) in the southern Gulf of Carpentaria in November 1998 and 1999. Turtle ‘E’ was recovered by hunters on Groote Eylandt in early December 1998 and it could not be confirmed that it had reached its home foraging ground. (Figure originally published in Kennett R, Munungurritj N. & Yunupingu D. (2004), Migration patterns of marine turtles in the Gulf of Carpentaria, northern Australia: implications for Aboriginal management. Wildlife Research, 31; 241–48 and we acknowledge CSIRO PUBLISHING ( for permission to reproduce the figure.)

In response to new information collected under the Miyapunu project, Elders decided to fence off the northern end of Cape Arnhem to prevent both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal access to important nesting beaches. In addition, Yolngu hunters are being urged to respect traditional hunting ways in which turtles are harpooned in the water and not taken while nesting. It is hoped that these measures will promote a code of conduct amongst indigenous hunters that is focused on the care of Miyapunu and nesting habitats.

Yolngu are aware that effort on these local initiatives must be balanced with efforts to address the many other impacts on Miyapunu in the region. Miyapunu are killed by fishing activities within and outside Australian waters, including entanglement and ingestion of derelict fishing gear. Analysis of data collected by Dhimurru and other indigenous groups indicates that large mesh nets of the type used by Asian drift and trawl fisheries are largely responsible for the high number of marine turtle entanglements recorded by Dhimurru in recent years (Kiessling 2003). Dhimurru's activities have been instrumental in bringing greater focus amongst communities and governments in Australia and overseas on the complexity of marine debris issues in northern Australia and the need for partnerships to address the international dimensions of the problem.

Dhimurru Rangers are often invited to travel outside their country to talk at national and international fora, and meet with other groups who share responsibility for the waters in which Miyapunu travel. Dhimurru regularly contributes to mainstream as well as indigenous media and produces Yolngu-language information videos on looking after Miyapunu. Yolngu have been highly successful in engaging with western management structures and Government advisory arrangements such as through membership of the National Marine Turtle Recovery Group, and in negotiating partnerships with research institutions and conservation groups. They are also taking a lead role in developing and strengthening networks of indigenous coastal communities across northern Australia, and are actively engaging in discussions with overseas stakeholders such as Indonesian and East Timorese government authorities.6

Figure 6.

Dhimurru has trialed a program to collect information on the size and composition of the Miyapunu harvest. Methods used include datasheets distributed to homeland centres and schools, interviews with hunters, and stockpiling of the shells of hunted Miyapunu.

The Yolngu message at these fora is consistent. It is a message that efforts to restore Miyapunu on country are integrated within a social-spiritual-ecological system. Restoration is not just focused on ‘fixing’ the physical elements of country but improving human knowledge and relationships to this system. It is an approach that is based on extensive and detailed knowledge of the dynamics of local environments but also recognizes that social relations, rights and responsibilities to land must be balanced to restore the health of country (see Yunupingu et al. 1995; Daiyi et al. 2002). Such perspectives highlight the complexities involved if environmental restoration efforts are to be supported by co-managers in such cross-cultural settings. Information that shows what constitutes ‘real’ change, ‘improved’ management practice, and which management attitudes and behaviours have been beneficially influenced by Dhimurru can not just be based on environmental (e.g. records of hunting effort) and economic (e.g. access to resources) criteria. Rather, criteria to judge co-management success, the process used to undertake this assessment, how to determine what lessons can be learnt from past experiences, and how parties should respond to future challenges and opportunities, requires careful and ongoing negotiation (see Robinson et al. in press). To ensure restoration plans and evaluation can balance these cross-cultural approaches, Dhimurru emphasize the need for research, stakeholder and government agency partnerships that are both adaptive and inclusive, and are based on respect for indigenous and non-indigenous law and knowledge.


Yolngu are tackling some serious ecological issues by adapting traditional knowledge and environmental practices to ensure the maintenance of culturally, conservation, and economically important species and habitats for future generations. In particular, Yolngu two-way research and co-management initiatives for Miyapunu and their habitats highlight the importance of restoration methods that take into account Aboriginal people's role in caring for country rather than simply involving Aboriginal people in achieving scientifically derived approaches and objectives. The ongoing success of Yolngu and other indigenous groups in developing strong partnerships and collaborations based on the Ganma principles will be pivotal to the long-term sustainability of coastal and marine resources and species (especially Miyapunu) in northern Australia.


  1. Box 2. Dhimurru Aboriginal Land Management Organizationinline imageYolngu established the Dhimurru Aboriginal Land Management Organization (‘Dhimurru’) in 1992. Dhimurru's two-way partnership approach is encapsulated on the logo depicted on the badges worn by Dhimurru rangers and staff. This logo shows the black (Dhuwa) and white (Yirritja) cockatoo facing each other, encircled by the rowu vine found on both Dhuwa and Yirritja coastal country. The logo calls for a framework to encourage cooperation amongst Yolngu clan groups to work together, and also for a cooperation between Yolngu and Western knowledge systems and management approaches. A large portion of the north-east Arnhem Land region managed by Dhimurru was declared an Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) in 2001. The declaration formalizes a partnership between the Department of Environment and Heritage (Cwth), Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife Commission, and Dhimurru. A Plan of Management for the IPA has been developed which provides a framework to address a range of issues, including visitor management, maintenance of biological diversity, mapping the cultural landscapes, recording of traditional ecological knowledge and oral histories, fire management, and the control of feral animals and weeds (

  2. Box 3. New Knowledge of Miyapunu Migration PatternsNew technologies, such as satellite transmitters, are very useful in tracking dispersing Dhalwatpu (Green Turtles, Chelonia mydas) as they migrate between nesting beaches and home foraging grounds (see Fig. 4 in this box). These results, coupled with genetic studies, indicate that Dhalwatpu that nest in the Gulf of Carpentaria tend to remain in the Gulf rather than migrate to foraging areas further afield. This contrasts with previous studies that found that Dhalwatpu and other Miyapunu disperse widely (up to thousands of kilometres apart) and may travel up to 2600 km to their home foraging ground (Limpus et al. 1992).


The authors wish to thank the many Yolngu communities who assisted in the project and shared their knowledge of Miyapunu. They especially thank the Umbakumba community, the West Island community, and the Mabunji Aboriginal Resource Centre for their support and for allowing access to their land and knowledge. Thanks also go to their Yolngu and Ngapaki colleagues at Dhimurru and the Nhulunbuy office of the NT Parks and Wildlife Service (NTPWS) for logistic support. Support for research and management activities described in this paper was provided by Department of Environment and Heritage, Australian Research Council, NTPWS, Hermon Slade Foundation, National Geographic, Dhimurru Land Management Aboriginal Corporation, the North Australia Research Unit (Australian National University), Charles Darwin University, Alcan Pty. Ltd, Perkins Shipping, Northern Territory Department of Infrastructure Planning and Environment, World Wide Fund for Nature, Humane Society International, and the Australian Trust for Conservation Volunteers.