Cross-cultural systematic biological surveys in Australia’s Western Desert


  • Karl E. C. Brennan,

  • Peter J. Twigg,

  • Alexander Watson,

  • Adam Pennington,

  • Joanna Sumner,

  • Rob Davis,

  • Jennifer Jackson,

  • Byron Brooks,

  • Fred Grant,

  • Roy Underwood

Karl Brennan is a Regional Ecologist with the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (PO Box 10173 Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia; Tel: +61 8 9080 5555; Email: Peter Twigg is Arts Project Coordinator with the Pila Nguru Aboriginal Corporation (Ilkurlka Community, PO Box 1014, via Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia; Tel: +61 8 9037 1147; Email: Alexander Watson is an Ecologist affiliated with various non-government organizations and Edith Cowan University (Email: Adam Pennington is Ecologist for the Pila Nguru Aboriginal Corporation (Tjuntjuntjara Community, PO Box 1014, via Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia; Email: Joanna Sumner is Manager of Genetic Resources with Museum Victoria (GPO Box 666, Melbourne, Vic. 3001, Australia; Email: Rob Davis is a Botanist at the Western Australian Herbarium (Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation, Locked Bag 104, Bentley Delivery Centre, WA 6983, Australia; Email: Jennifer Jackson is Flora Conservation Officer with the Western Australian Department of Environment and Conservation (PO Box 10173, Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia; Email: Byron Brooks, Fred Grant and Roy Underwood are senior members of the Pila Nguru (Spinifex People) with the strongest connection to country in the vicinity of Ilkurlka rock hole. They currently live in Tjuntjuntjarra Aboriginal community (Tjuntjuntjara Community, PO Box 1014, via Kalgoorlie, WA 6430, Australia).


Summary  We describe small-scale biological surveys conducted by a collaboration of biologists and Traditional Owners designed to build scientific knowledge of the biota in remote desert regions of Western Australia. Importantly, while science driven (including systematic survey methods), the project also incorporated Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK). In doing so, it has assisted with cross-generational transfer and preliminary documentation of IEK in this region. Here, we describe a case study of surveys conducted with the Pila Nguru (Spinifex People) in the Spinifex Native Title Determined Area of the Great Victoria Desert. A total of 185 native plant species were recorded (representing 37 families and 94 genera). Only one individual of a weed species was recorded. Three plant species are new to science; Grevillea ilkurlka ms. Dicrastylis sp. ‘Ilkurlka’ and Gnephosis sp., with the first two of these species of conservation interest. The survey recorded 148 species of vertebrates; 72 birds, 21 mammals (of which six were introduced), 54 reptiles and one frog. Many animal names used by the Spinifex People were documented. The following animals that are of conservation interest were recorded: Itjarri-itjarri (Southern Marsupial Mole, Notoryctes typhlops), Nganamarra (Malleefowl, Leipoa ocellata), Murrtja (Brush-tailed Mulgara, Dasycercus blythi), and Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae). We concur with previous authors that biological surveys, when cross-cultural, can not only build scientific knowledge, but contribute to broader social goals of assisting Aboriginal people with cross-generational transfer and documenting of IEK.


Inadequate scientific knowledge constrains science-based conservation

Scientific data that accurately describe the patterning of biota across the landscape are essential when planning to conserve biodiversity. There is a paucity of empirical data for much of Australia’s Western Desert. The Western Australian (WA) portion of the Great Victoria Desert (GVD) typifies this situation (Fig. 1). Aside from some notable research sites (Yamarna (Pianka 1973) and Queen Victoria Springs Nature Reserve), the area has received only limited systematic survey (e.g. Burbidge et al. 1976; Burbidge & McKenzie 1979).

Figure 1.

 The Spinifex native title determined area and Ilkurlka roadhouse in relation to the Western Australian portion of the Great Victoria Desert. Also shown is the location of some other towns/communities.

Inadequate scientific knowledge constrains many aspects of contemporary science-based conservation. It creates scientific uncertainty about the comprehensiveness, adequacy and representativeness of conservation reserves. Only 8.3% of the GVD’s tenure is conservation estate within IUCN categories I–IV. It is difficult for government agencies to prioritize areas for on-ground conservation actions to benefit threatened species. The GVD contains nationally threatened species including the: Itjarri-itjarri (Southern Marsupial Mole, Notoryctes typhlops), Sandhill Dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila), Nganamara (Malleefowl, Leipoa ocellata) and Princess Parrot (Polytelis alexandrae) [Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation (EPBC) Act 1999]. Moreover, species thought regionally extinct might still occur, namely the Tjakurra (Great Desert Skink Egernia kintorei), Ninu (Greater Bilby Macrotis lagotis) and Warru (Black-footed Rock-wallaby Petrogale lateralis). Recently, the GVD has experienced a rapid increase in mining exploration with prospective strikes of gold, uranium and mineral sands. To develop these resources, proponents are required to prepare Environmental Impact Assessments (EIAs). To properly assess the scientific rigour of EIAs, knowledge is required of what taxa are likely to present in particular areas.

A prime example of the sparseness of scientific records for biota in the GVD is the Wanna 1:250 000 map sheet which spans latitudes 28–29°S and longitudes 127.5–129°E. The Western Australian Herbarium (WAH) holds just 33 species, when >150 species are expected (Rob Davis, pers. obs.). Similarly, the Western Australian Museum (WAM) holds two species of native mammals, one reptile and no frogs. Yet, the GVD has 30 species of native mammal (Burbidge et al. 2009) and one of the richest assemblages of reptiles globally with more than 40 species of lizards (Pianka 1973). Moreover, new species are still being discovered (Oliver et al. 2009).

Indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) benefits biological surveys

To rapidly build scientific knowledge, the WA Department of Environment and Conservation (DEC) has been collaborating with biologists from other organizations (see author affiliations and acknowledgements; Pearson et al. 2007; Brennan et al. 2009) and local Traditional Owners. Field surveys have combined scientific survey methods with IEK. Small teams of trained biologists (6–10 persons) have worked with local Aboriginal people (10–30 persons). Aboriginal people have provided on-ground assistance with the scientific survey methods as well as undertaking contemporary hunting and gathering for bush foods. Aboriginal people have also contributed their knowledge. Through a holistic understanding of the local environment, IEK has much to offer contemporary environmental management and can help fill shortfalls in scientific knowledge (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Telfer & Garde 2006; Walsh et al. in press).

Much of the GVD comprises the ancestral lands of the Pila Nguru or Spinifex People (see Box 1). Like many Aboriginal groups, the Spinifex People aspire to engage in more sustainable on-ground land management actions (sensuDavies et al. 2010), including both cultural (e.g. visiting culturally significant (Tjukurrpa) sites and cleaning rock holes/soaks) and natural resource management (NRM; e.g. managing fire regimes and controlling introduced species). The Spinifex People hope that these actions will not only generate employment and economic self-sufficiency but ensure a continuing place for a people who are culturally connected to this ancient landscape.

The Spinifex Arts Project, established in 1997 (run by Pila Nguru Aboriginal Corporation; PNAC), has documented areas of cultural importance and helped establish the Spinifex People’s claim for native title (Cane 2002). The next step is to document the biological values of Spinifex Country. It is essential to consider this requirement from alternate perspectives. The scientific need for biological surveys was described earlier. To the Spinifex People, however, the value of Spinifex Country has never been in doubt – the land, and all the complexities associated with it, is of utmost value. The need for surveys is only for those people who look into, not out from, Spinifex Country. The value to the Spinifex People of building scientific knowledge is that it removes external doubt.

It is also important to the Spinifex People that they sustain their IEK. There is concern amongst some that IEK held by older generations may be lost. Those born during the 1930–1950s have extensive knowledge of the biota as they spent much of their life on country. They were taught by family members who spent their entire lives living in the bush and whose survival depended on their knowledge of bush foods and resources. Their knowledge encompasses some fauna species now globally or regionally extinct (see Burbidge et al. 1988). Transferring IEK from older to younger generations (principally those born from the 1970s onwards) is becoming critical. Many people born during 1960–1970 are often absent from communities, so their role is only partially fulfilled (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992). Transferring cultural and IEK is a complex challenge, mostly beyond the scope of this paper. Like many Aboriginal groups, an important goal for the Spinifex People is cross-generational transfer of cultural knowledge, including IEK (Horstman & Wightman 2001; Telfer & Garde 2006; Walsh et al. in press). Developing mutually respectful and enduring collaborations between scientists and Indigenous communities is one of a suite of strategies used to strengthen IEK (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992, Horstman & Wightman 2001; Telfer & Garde 2006; Ens et al. 2012).

Box 1. The Pila Nguru or Spinifex People

The Pila Nguru (broadly translating to Spinifex People) are 21 Aboriginal families of Anangu (Aboriginal people) from the Western Desert Cultural Bloc. Pila Nguru broadly translates to the flat sand plain country in between sand dunes generally dominated by spinifex grass. Their language has strong affinities with Pitjantjajara and Yankunytjatjara and to a lesser extent Ngaanyatatjarra (Chapman et al. 1995). The Spinifex People’s land adjoins the WA/South Australia (SA) border and is 300 km to the west of where the British carried out nuclear tests during the 1950s. Many of the Spinifex People were forcibly removed from their lands during this period. From the 1980s, people began returning. In 2000, the Spinifex People had their native title rights recognized by the Federal Court. They are well known for their paintings (Plate 1;, and these helped establish a native title claim of over 55 000 km2 (Fig. 1), henceforth referred to as Spinifex Country. We use the term ‘country’ rather than ‘land’ as this better captures the sociopolitical spatial associations between Aboriginal families and their land (Walsh et al. in press). They have lived in, and managed, this area for more than 15 000 years. Cane (2002) provides a major treatise on the Spinifex People.

Figure Plate 1..

 Women working on a collaborative painting. (Photograph credit: Louise Allerton).

Comparing styles of systematic biological survey

The small-scale systematic surveys described here stand in contrast to the large-scale and carefully standardized surveys with complex analyses of regional patterns in biota that are used to assist with regional science-based conservation planning decisions (e.g. Keighery et al. 2004; George et al. 2009). Because both large- and small-scale surveys can be cross-cultural, small-scale surveys might be viewed solely as an inferior interim measure to increase scientific knowledge until a large-scale survey can be undertaken (many biogeographical regions within WA have not yet received a large-scale survey). It is our opinion, however, that small-scale surveys compliment large-scale studies as they can more readily accommodate Aboriginal people’s aims, methods and desire to document and transfer IEK.

We recognize that collaborative biological surveys engaging IEK are well developed elsewhere in Australia (e.g. Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Robinson et al. 2003). As pointed out by one reviewer of this manuscript, however, these are not well established within WA despite WA’s large size, significant environmental issues, large Aboriginal population and large area of Aboriginal managed lands (but see Pearson et al. 2007; Brennan et al. 2009; McGilvary & Kendrick 2011). Fewer still are published in the scientific literature (but see Pearson 1992).

Here, we describe a case study of collaboration following an invitation to the DEC from the Spinifex People to undertake biological surveys within Spinifex Country. The aims of these surveys were as follows:

  • 1 To increase scientific knowledge of the biota in the vicinity of Ilkurlka roadhouse (particularly threatened species) to support NRM decisions and assist with assessing the quality of future EIAs;
  • 2 To increase the number of specimens in museum and herbarium collections for future biogeographical analyses and taxonomic research;
  • 3 To assist PNAC in building upon their existing documentation of IEK;
  • 4 To help build capacity within the Spinifex People so that they can take a more active role in externally funded NRM; and
  • 5 To strengthen the relationship between the Spinifex People and the DEC.


Selection of study sites

Eight study sites were selected to represent various habitat types within a 20 km radius of Ilkurlka (see Appendix S1). This was an iterative process between the Spinifex People (assisted by PNAC staff) and DEC staff. We found it more productive to discuss habitat types on the basis of the fauna both groups knew might be found there. For example, asking ‘where’s some porcupine [echidna] country?’ rather than asking ‘where are dense stands of Mulga [Acacia aneura]?’ Potential sites were then inspected by all and initiated senior men advised if a site was publicly accessible (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Nesbitt et al. 2001). The area surrounding Ilkurlka is crossed by song lines with many Tjukurrpa sites restricted to certain groups of people.


We surveyed fauna in May (autumn) and October (spring) 2010. Various scientific survey techniques were used (including some specifically tailored to detect threatened species), for example, standard and extra deep pitfall traps, funnel traps, Elliot traps, hand foraging, remotely activated cameras, ultrasonic recordings, looking for tracks after lightly grading roads and prey items from predator scats (detailed in Appendix S1). We complimented these scientific survey techniques with the contemporary hunting and gathering methods of the Spinifex People (e.g. tracking, hand foraging and shooting game with rifles). Collecting animals for food while on short day trips to visit local sites of cultural importance yielded additional fauna specimens. The potential for threatened species to be present was also explored through group discussions with the Spinifex People. We showed photographs of threatened species known from the GVD or species thought regionally extinct [see Introduction plus the non-threatened Wayurta (Brushtail possum, Trichosurus vulpecula)] and asked whether a population was nearby.


Flora was surveyed during Spring (October 2010) using two methods. All vascular plants within a 50 × 50 m plot at each fauna site were recorded. Opportunistic collecting of species that were not recorded in the plots was conducted by the biologists over more than 400 km of tracks surrounding Ilkurlka. This occurred using visual searches (from vehicles and on foot) when accompanying members of the Spinifex People to sites of cultural importance.

Voucher specimens

Voucher specimens of selected animals and plants were taken (Appendix S1). Prior to the start of the May survey, the need to take voucher specimens was discussed with the Spinifex People. An agreement was then reached as to how many and which species biologists could take (see Nesbitt et al. 2001).

Preliminary documentation of Indigenous ecological knowledge

The IEK of Aboriginal people from Australia’s Western Desert is holistic, extensive and highly complex. Walsh et al. (in press) provide an excellent framework for conceptualizing such a knowledge system and show how, for particular species (e.g. food plants and game), there are tight connections to multiple elements that sit within three broad domains: society, country and law. Baker et al. (1993) describe the difficulties associated with recording IEK and the need to consider cultural sensitivities (e.g. the Law (Tjukurrpa), and other social aspects; see also Nesbitt et al. 2001; Davies 2007, p.12). They describe some techniques to minimize these influences and we adhered to their recommendations. The information gained from these sessions is the property of the PNAC, and the Spinifex People have approved the information presented here.

The last 25 years has seen some significant studies documenting aspects of IEK from the Western Desert Cultural Bloc. The names and autoecology of many plants and animals have been documented for dialects including Pitjantjatjarra, Ngaatjatjarra, Ngaanyatjarra and Yankunytjatjara (Burbidge et al. 1988; Goddard & Kalotas 1988; Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Baker et al. 1993; Latz 1995). Moreover, Chapman et al. (1995) documented knowledge held by the Spinifex People for 69 plant species and 38 fauna species. However, there are some taxa (particularly birds and reptiles) where we know of no recorded Indigenous names, but it is likely that one or more exists. Within the Western Desert Cultural Bloc languages, many species have multiple names (see Burbidge et al. 1988).

During the May survey, we began documenting the Indigenous names of animals and their distribution. This involved questioning members of the Spinifex People who participated in the survey (Appendix S2) about a live animal or photographs (threatened species) while PNAC staff took audio and video recordings (Plate 2).

Figure Plate 2..

 Audio and video recordings were made during sessions in which members of the Spinifex People recalled the Indigenous name of selected animals and described natural history information. (Photograph credit: Louise Allerton).

We had planned to build on this preliminary documentation of IEK during the October survey by exploring the names of plants and temporal changes in fauna (see Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Prober et al. 2011). However, this was not possible due to cultural commitments that prevented the Spinifex People participating. There is also more information about personal restrictions on the use of resources that could be explored (e.g. Newsome 1980; Telfer & Garde 2006). However, much of this information, including how taxa feature in the Tjukurrpa, is culturally sensitive and was outside the scope of this project. The Spinifex People aspire to record this information assisted by PNAC staff and anthropologists. Capturing complex cultural aspects thoroughly requires a clear understanding of which Indigenous names correspond to which scientifically recognized taxa (Burbidge et al. 1988; Horstman & Wightman 2001). Thus, the recordings made in the present project are invaluable. We tried to include a linguist and anthropologist in our survey team, but they were unavailable. Like others, we advocate their inclusion to future workers conducting similar studies (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Horstman & Wightman 2001).



The survey increased the number of plant specimens held in the WAH for the Wanna 1:250 000 map sheet from 33 to 250. A total of 185 species (representing 37 families and 94 genera) were recorded from the survey (Table C1 in Appendix S3). The dominant families were Fabaceae (28 spp.), Goodeniaceae (20 spp.) and Scrophulariaceae (18 spp.). Three species are new to science (not amongst the existing set of undescribed species of plants known to taxonomists at the WAH); Grevillea ilkurlka ms, Dicrastylis sp. Ilkurlka (R. Davis et al. RD 11637) and a Gnephosis. Many plant species were recorded beyond known geographic ranges (e.g. Bossiaea walkeri, Calothamnus gilesii, Dicrastylis lewellinii, Dodonaea stenozyga, Grammosolen dixonii, Laxmannia arida, Micromyrtus fimbrisepala, Ptilotus blackii, Stylidium humphreysii and Swainsona beasleyana). A single plant of the introduced weed Caltrop Tribulus terrestris was removed from site W31 (located adjacent to a rock hole along the Anne Beadell Hwy). There were no other introduced weeds.


We recorded 148 species of vertebrates; 72 birds, 21 mammals of which six were introduced, 54 reptiles and one frog (Table C2 in Appendix S3). Three bird species are of conservation interest (Table 1). Nganamara (Malleefowl) tracks were observed, along with a recently active mound (Plate 3). An individual was also seen prior to our surveys (Peter J. Twigg, pers. obs.).

Table 1.   Species of conservation interest recorded during our surveys near Ilkurlka roadhouse, Great Victoria Desert, WA.
TaxaScientific nameEnglish common nameIndigenous nameConservation statusLocalities recorded
  1. WA, Western Australian; DEC, Department of Environment and Conservation; EPBC, Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation.

  2. Priority 1 taxa are those that are known from few specimens or sight records from one or a few localities on lands not under immediate threat of habitat destruction or degradation. The taxon needs urgent survey and evaluation of conservation status before consideration can be given to declaration as threatened fauna.

FloraGrevillea ilkurlka ms. Proposed for listing as Priority 1WA DECWithheld
Dicrastylis sp. Ilkurlka (R. Davis et al. RD 11637) Priority 1WA DECWithheld
FaunaNotoryctes typhlopsSouthern Marsupial MoleItjarri-itjarriEndangeredEPBCTunnels: 28°22′04.3″S, 127°30′58.0″E
Hair in predator scats: one cat scat (28°25′148″S, 127°31′08.4″E); three dingo scats (28°09′57.6″S 127°36′51.1″E; 28°21′34.1″S 127°36′06.6″E; 28°21′32.2″S 127°35′54.2″E); and one scat of either a fox or a cat (28°20′01.8″S, 127°23′50.7″E)
Leipoa ocellataMalleefowlNganamarraVulnerableEPBCMound: 28°25′51.1S, 127°36′32.3″E
Tracks: 28°26′15.5″S, 127°27′08.5″E
Bird: 29°00′54.5″S, 127°55′45.2E
Polytelis alexandraePrincess Parrot?VulnerableEPBCBird: 29°02′15.8″S, 128°07′14.1″E
Cacatua leadbeateriMajor Mitchell’s CockatooKakalyalyaSpecially protected faunaWA Wildlife Act28°22′04.3″S, 127°30′58.0″E
Dasycercus blythiBrush-tailed MulgaraMurrtjaPriority 1WA DECTracks: 28°21′13.9″S, 127°31′47.4″E
Animal: 28°12′35.8″S, 127°34′19.5″E (site N42)
Figure Plate 3..

 A recently active nest of the nationally threatened Nganamarra (Malleefowl, Leipoa ocellata) found during the October 2010 survey. (Photograph credit: Karl Brennan).

Two mammals of conservation interest were recorded (Table 1). The backfilled tunnels of Itjarri-itjarri (Southern Marsupial Moles) were observed on the face of trench walls. The three survey trenches represented a sand dune’s top, mid-slope and lower side having five, eight and three tunnels, respectively (Plate 4). The hair of moles was also recorded in scats of dingoes and cats (Table C2 in Appendix S3).

Figure Plate 4..

 The backfilled tunnels of Itjarri-itjarri: (Southern Marsupial Mole Notoryctes typhlops) found near Ilkrulka during the May 2010 survey. Arrows indicate the circular rim of a horizontal tunnel observed in the side-wall of a soil pit. (Photograph credit: Helen Holzheuer).

A Murrtja (Brush-tailed Mulgara) was caught in an Elliott trap, and tracks were observed at other sites. There was no evidence of Ninu (Greater Bilby), but the Spinifex People believed they may still occur near Laverton. Older Spinifex People recalled eating Wayurta (Brush-tailed Possums) when living traditionally in the bush, but they have not been seen in recent decades. The Spinifex People were unaware of any areas near Ilkurlka with Tjakurra (Great Desert Skinks) but thought they might occur north of Spinifex Country. Kuniya (Woma Pythons) were not recorded but have been observed previously (Peter J. Twigg, pers. obs.).

The surveys increased the number of vouchered fauna specimens held in the WAM for the Wanna 1:250 000 map sheet, as follows: native mammals – two to nine species; reptiles – one to 54 species; and frogs – zero to one species. Many species were recorded beyond their known geographic ranges including the Western Desert Taipan Oxyuranus temporalis and Little Long-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis dolichura.

We recorded the following introduced species: House Mouse Mus domesticus, One-humped Camel Camelus dromedarius, Dingo Canis lupis dingo, Fox Vulpes vulpes, Cat Felix catus and Rabbit Oryctolagus cuniculus (Plate 5; Table B2 in Appendix S2). The presence of camels was particularly evident with Munyunpa (Sandalwood Santalum spicatum) and Wintalyka/Wanari/Minyuru (Mulga Acacia aneura) knocked over or with broken branches (Plate 5).

Figure Plate 5..

 A Wanari (Mulga, Acacia aneura) scarred from where a shield has been carved out of it. Also evident is damage from One-humped Camels (Camelus dromedarius). (Photograph credit: Karl Brennan).

The May survey revealed that many Anangu names reported by Chapman et al. (1995) for the Spinifex People are still in use (Table C2 in Appendix S3).


Increased scientific knowledge of biota within the GVD

The Ilkurlka surveys have rapidly increased the scientific understanding of biota in the eastern GVD within WA. In addition to discovering three plant species new to science, our survey recorded species not previously recorded from WA. Grammosolen truncates had not been collected previously from WA. Similarly, Dicrastylis lewellinii had previously been collected only in New South Wales, Queensland, SA and the Northern Territory. For fauna, the Little Long-tailed Dunnart Sminthopsis dolichura was previously thought to occur as two disjunct populations far to the south-east and west (Friend & Pearson 2008). Its presence at Ilkurlka suggests a more continuous distribution. Another notable example is the Western Desert Taipan Oxyuranus temporalis that was previously known only from Central Australia (Brennan et al. in press).

The near absence of weeds throughout the survey area has immediate implications. Strict quarantine standards will be needed to ensure that heavy machinery/equipment entering the region does not bring in soil contaminated with weeds such as Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris).

We recorded three nationally threatened species: Nganamarra (Malleefowl), Itjarri-itjarri (Southern Marsupial Mole) and Princess Parrot. This confirms earlier suggestions by the Spinifex People (Chapman et al. 1995) that Nganamarra (Malleefowl) persist near Ilkurlka. For additional discussion of threatened flora and fauna, see Online Appendix S4.

Herbarium and museum specimens

Our surveys contributed many animals and plants to the WAM and WAH, respectively, making them easily accessible for current and future research. This may result in discovering more species new to science. Molecular analyses from described species can also yield insights into the evolution of Australia’s biota. However, whilst necessary for scientific purposes, taking specimens troubles some Western Desert Aboriginal people. Some areas of concern include how scientists kill animals and/or how they will be cared for in a museum or zoo (Nesbitt et al. 2001). For some animals, killing in a wasteful manner or not observing strict killing, preparation and cooking protocols contravenes the Tjukurrpa (Thomsen et al. 2006; Vaarzon-Morel 2010). There are also strict protocols for approaching and harvesting some plants (Walsh et al. in press). Moreover, many species have a socio-ecological function as well as being important spiritually (Newsome 1980; Walsh et al. in press). For example, some species are the totem of particular individuals and thus embody those individuals, and their continuity is critical to the continuation of a moral code (Cane 2002; Thomsen et al. 2006). Finally, scientists collecting biological specimens can be perceived as yet another example of outsiders coming in and taking away things belonging to local Aboriginal people (see also Thomsen et al. 2006).

Documenting Indigenous ecological knowledge

The showing of animals to members of the Spinifex People and PNAC staff stimulated much discussion not only about which Anangu names were appropriate, but also aspects of autoecology and use. Nganamarra (Malleefowl) are an example of the latter. Like the Traditional Owners in the Anangu-Pitjantjatjara-Yankunytjatjara (APY) Lands of north-western SA (Benshemesh 1997), the Spinifex People ate eggs, not adult birds. Undocumented previously, however, is that an individual person would own the rights to collect the eggs from a particular nest. Moreover, some eggs were always left to hatch (Peter J. Twigg, pers. comm.). Recent modelling shows that malleefowl populations remain viable despite some losses of eggs (Bode & Brennan 2011).

Like Baker et al. (1993), we noticed how peer pressure, if not managed carefully, might distort findings as to which names of animals were appropriate. This facet of ethnotaxonomy is complex and has many elements including concepts of country, birth right, gender, age and societal status. We found that approaching small groups of people, and questioning men and women separately, worked most effectively. Additionally, younger members of the Spinifex People often had less patience. Like Horstman and Wightman (2001), we noticed the frustration of some elders with the repetitive nature of questioning particularly over small, similar-looking skinks. This highlighted a difference in categorizing fauna between scientists and Aboriginal people (Baker & Mutitjulu Community 1992; Baker et al. 1993). These differences are complex, multi-layered and beyond the scope of this paper.

There can be many constraints to documenting IEK. We have already mentioned the need for researchers to appreciate that despite the potential for publishing information previously unknown to science, some aspects of IEK cannot be made public for cultural reasons and intellectual property issues. Another constraint to documenting IEK during our surveys was cultural commitments that prevented the Spinifex People attending the October survey. Ironically, the survey’s timing to coincide with the new moon (to maximize animal captures) coincided with an important cultural activity. This illustrates how cultural commitments often dictate the involvement of Aboriginal people in joint projects. The influence of cultural commitments is complex and involves issues of timing, presence, face, seniority, ownership and voice. Compared to these issues, scientific timeframes and needs do not figure highly. Scientists and non-Aboriginal land managers must respect that agreed plans are subject to change at very short notice (Horstman & Wightman 2001; Nesbitt et al. 2001). Moreover, the pace at which projects proceed was, in our experience, slower than expected. Unless anticipated from inception, cultural differences will make collaborative projects a frustrating rather than the rewarding experience we have found. Like us, other authors have noticed these challenges but also found collaborative biological survey to be rewarding to both Aboriginal people and scientists (Horstman & Wightman 2001; Nesbitt et al. 2001; Davies 2007). In the surveys at Ilkurlka, not only did the biologists develop new insights into the biota, but the Indigenous knowledge and skills of Spinifex People was rewarded through paid employment. Collaborative surveys also promote families visiting country along with cross-cultural and cross-generational sharing of knowledge (Horstman & Wightman 2001; Nesbitt et al. 2001; Davies 2007).

Future directions

While our study has provided valuable scientific data on the biota near Ilkurlka, there remain many areas of the GVD where scientific survey data remain scarce. Threatened species require particular focus, including both extant species and those presumed locally extinct. Moreover, there is much work required to document the Spinifex Peoples’ IEK. We recognize that, with many cultural commitments, Aboriginal people sometimes do not view threatened species surveys and intellectual property issues with the same importance as scientifically trained NRM managers (Davies 2007, p. 79–80). That said there are some good examples of successful threatened species surveys within the Western Desert (e.g. Benshemesh 1997; Nesbitt et al. 2001; McGilvary & Kendrick 2011). It is easy to envisage similar surveys for threatened species operating within Spinifex Country, for example, by combining trips on country for cultural reasons (e.g. to Tjukurrpa sites), with searches for threatened species. These could also document IEK using the approach described by Horstman and Wightman (2001).

When compared to other Aboriginal groups within the Western Desert, externally funded NRM is in its infancy within Spinifex Country. Indeed, there are well-established ranger programs in the Ngaanyatjarra and APY lands (see Muhic et al. 2012; Preuss & Dixon 2012) lands. More recently, externally resourced NRM has developed in the Martu Lands of Central and North-Western WA (see McGilvary & Kendrick 2011). Both PNAC staff, and the collaboration of biologists involved in the surveys at Ilkurlka, hope that the Spinifex People develop similar capacity, particularly if it assists with health, well-being and economic self-sufficiency. Mineral deposits within Spinifex Country may offer opportunities for increased funding of local initiatives. Indeed, there are some good local examples of where mining companies have contributed to biological surveys and scientific research (e.g. Brennan et al. 2009; Bode & Brennan 2011). Mining, however, is not a panacea for inadequate funding of land management programs. Meaningful, long-term commitment and support from Government and non-government agencies is required (see Preuss & Dixon 2012; Hoffman et al. 2012).

Additionally, there is the need to better integrate the Spinifex People’s management of cultural resources with the contemporary scientific notions of NRM (see Davies 2007, p. 79–80). The ecological impacts of feral animals remain underappreciated (Pearson 1992; Wohling 2009) or interpreted from particular viewpoints (Rose 1995; Vaarzon-Morel 2010; Barbour & Schlesinger 2012 ). Here, joint surveys can stimulate awareness (Pearson 1992; Nesbitt et al. 2001). Moreover, we hope that this project will generate interest in co-management between DEC and the Spinifex People.


Inadequate scientific knowledge constrains science-based efforts to conserve biodiversity. By working with local Traditional Owners, scientists can gain additional insights into the biota and assist Aboriginal people to document and facilitate cross-generational transfer of cultural and IEK. Such collaborations can build local capacity to engage more in externally funded NRM. For the Spinifex People, collaboration might also help manage a rich biota in a way that protects and projects the Tjukurrpa for future generations.


For survey assistance, we thank the Spinifex People plus Louise Allerton and Dylan Ferguson (PNAC), Paul Doughty (WAM), Terry Morley (Adelaide Zoo) as well as (from DEC) Neville Hague, Helen Holzheuer, David Pickles, Gary Hearle, Pia Courtis, Kobus Wentzel, Rick Lane and Luke Puertollano. We thank Barbara Triggs for the identification of prey in predator scats, Norman McKenzie for the identification of bat calls and Brad Maryan and Rick How (WAM) for assistance with reptile and mammal identifications. Thanks also to Editors (Emilie Ens and Tein McDonald) plus Melinda Moir, Ian Kealley, Stephen van Leeuwen and two anonymous reviewers for suggestions that improved the manuscript. Fauna were handled under DEC animal ethics project #2007/07 and DEC scientific license #SC001214.