Conserving Uluru-Kata Tjuta

Now we are living together, white people and black people. We are working together, white and black, equal. Everything at Uluru still runs according to our Law. All the rangers wear badges carrying the image of Uluru. That is as it should be. 
- Uluru-Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre

Anangu land management kept the country healthy for many generations. A lot of damage has been done since piranpa (non-Aboriginal) people arrived.

Today, Anangu work together with park rangers and scientists to look after the land, plants and animals according to traditional law. Piranpa (non-Anangu) rangers receive training in traditional land management. Piranpa rangers bring scientific knowledge to the park. Young Anangu are training to be rangers. They are studying science as well as learning from the old men and women.

At Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park our conservation work is focused in two main areas – fire management and weed and feral animal management.

Fire management

Our annual fuel reduction burning program takes place in the cooler months, generally July through to September.

Burning is an important part of our park management - many of our plants rely on fire to regenerate. Burning also reduces fuel loads, preventing the risk of large wildfires.

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Prior to European settlement, Anangu conducted traditional patch burning, which left a pattern of burnt and unburnt terrain similar to a mosaic. Unfortunately traditional burning stopped when Anangu were driven off their land in the 1930s.

Today traditional owners work with park staff to plan and manage our fuel reduction burns.

It may sound strange, but rainfall can increase fire danger at Uluru. The higher the rainfall, the greater amount of plant growth there is and more potential fuel for a wildfire.

As part of the central desert region, Uluru receives around 280 mm to 310 mm of rain per year, falling mainly in the late summer months.

Natural fires or wildfires occur mostly in the early summer months, usually started by lightning strikes from dry electrical storms coming in from the north west. When the storms arrive the weather is usually hot, dry and windy – ideal conditions for a raging fire.

We have had at least two serious wild fires in the park since European settlement. The first in 1950 wiped out about a third of the park. In 1976 two fires burnt around 76 per cent of the park.

Fire and desert vegetation types

There are two main vegetation groups in the park, one dominated by spinifex and one by mulga.

The highest fire danger occurs after a few years without fire, giving spinifex the chance to build up and growth of grasses in mulga shrublands has peaked following heavy rain. If these two factors collide, uncontrolled wildfires will carry long distances through both types of vegetation, devastating plants and wildlife.

To avoid wildlife, we manage spinifex and mulga dominated landscapes quite differently.

Spinifex (known as tjanpi in Pitjantjatjara)

Spinifex dominates the dunes and higher plains, making them look grassy with some trees dotted about. Spinifex reproduced by sprouting from underground, while the trees, such as desert oaks, drop seeds above ground.

Spinifex grows following rainfall, but unlike other grasses does not die off and then blow away. Instead it remains highly flammable. With rain, there is increased growth and the amount of fuel builds up.

Widespread fires in spinifex country can wipe out birds, small mammals and lizards. Small, patch burns are ideal for this landscape. By creating neighbouring patches of burnt and unburnt spinifex we create the best conditions for wildlife survival in the park. We call this patch burning or creating a fire mosaic.

Mulga (known as wanari in Pitjantjatjara)

The mulga-dominated lower plains look quite different to spinifex areas, with groves of trees. Most of the plants in this area regenerate from seed.

Wildfire in a mulga-dominated landscape kills much of the plants. New growth comes from seeds, which often need heat from a fire to crack the seed coat and encourage growth. It takes two good seasons of rain to germinate the seeds.

Mulga trees need to grow for around 10 to 20 years before they become mature enough to seed. Fires in immature mulga forests can destroy the whole forest. Frequent fires wipe out this type of vegetation, so the areas can only afford to be burnt in a wildfire every 50 years or so.

In the mulga shrublands, it’s grasses and herbs that make up the fuel for fires. They grow after rain and die off after only a short dry spell. Within six months they have blown away and there is too little ground cover to keep a fire burning. So the fire danger period for mulga shrublands is short and follows within six months of rain.

We protect our mulga shrublands from frequent fires by creating fire breaks around the young mulga groves.

Introduced or feral animal management

Desert environments are sensitive. Introduced or feral animals do a lot of damage in Central Australia. Our park rangers spend a lot of time trying to minimise of feral camels, cats, rabbits and foxes.

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What is an introduced animal?

An introduced animal is one that has arrived from a different country or region, establishing wild populations which cause problems in their new environment. At Uluru introduced species include rabbits, mice, red foxes, camels, dogs and cats.

Introduced species are recognised as the major factor in the extinction of native species of Central Australia.

Who is responsible for introduced species?

Human beings are responsible for the introduction of all non-Indigenous species into Australia, so we are responsible for solving the problems they have caused in a humane manner.

Some species were imported into Australia deliberately as they served some purpose to people – dogs as domestic pets, foxes and rabbits to provide game and camels to provide transport for example. Mice are an exception, most likely to have arrived in imported food stocks.

What impact do they have?

Introduced species compete for food and water with our native animals. This competition can become severe during a drought.

Researchers estimate there might be as many as one million feral camels in central Australia, with an estimated economic cost of $10 million per year.

At Uluru, camels do significant damage to waterholes and soaks. Camels are desert specialists, making the most of scarce water, with a thirsty camel drinking up to 200 litres of water in three minutes.

Without water nothing can survive, so by polluting and draining waterholes, camels pose a significant threat to the people, plants and native animals of Uluru.

Rabbits and camels are herbivores, eating the grasses and other vegetation which holds soil together. The danger to bare soil is wind and water erosion. Rabbits also eat the roots of some plants and enjoy sapling trees and shrubs. Camels are believed to be one of the main causes of the reduction of the desert quandong plant species, an important bush food.

Foxes and cats are carnivores, hunting smaller animals, having a devastating impact on native mammals in our park.

An Anangu perspective

Anangu have a different way of looking at introduced animals than non-Indigenous Australians. Anangu have adopted some introduced species into their lifestyles, for example, using rabbit as a food source. Anangu are aware of the threats that foxes, cats and camels pose to native species and fully support their control in the park. Anangu knowledge and tracking skills are invaluable in our management of introduced animals.

What is being done here in the park?

With no fences around our park, working in partnership with our neighbours across the region, including Northern Territory Parks and Wildlife, the Central Land Council and private landholders, is the most effective way of controlling introduced species.

Camels

Opinions among Anangu regarding culls to manage camel numbers is divided. The park closely consults with traditional owners before carrying out any culling on the ground to help manage their numbers inside the park.

Cats

Feral cats are the biggest threat to native animals in our park. We trap or shoot cats every winter, because that’s when food is the least available in the park, the cats are hungrier and more easily trapped.

In 2012 we installed six new permanent traps. The traps are a cage with more room to move – the cats are more willing to enter the trap without realising they cannot exit. The traps are baited with dead rabbits, sourced from inside the park.

Rangers check the traps along with our non-permanent traps every second day during winter. We shoot or trap between 50 to 60 cats per year.

Rabbits

We first introduced our rabbit control program to the park in 1989. We introduced the calicivirus to the population. Results indicated a great reduction in populations, a noticeable improvement in our park’s plants and a reduction in introduced predator numbers.

We continue to bait rabbits every year in the park to manage their numbers.

Foxes

We monitor foxes in the park and have recorded tracks at all the monitoring sites. We manage foxes by baiting them.

Weed management

By far the most invasive weed we manage in the park is buffel grass.

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Buffel grass ukiri kutjupa malikitja, mununa kulilpai malikitja nyanga pakanu kura-kura ka nganana Ulurula putula katalpai wiyalpai putu pulkatu pakalpai. Warka wirula palyaningi Pularila itingka ukiri kura-kura pakannyangka mai iluntankunyangka mai iluntanu uwankara wangunu wakati munu mai iluntanu kaltu-kaltu munu mai kulu kunakanti nyara paluru tjulpungku kulu tjungungku ngalkupai ngaltutjara. ©
Barbara Tjikatu
Buffel grass is a different sort of grass that does not belong here and I think this introduced grass is pretty poor. At Uluru we have tried in vain to cut it out and finish it off. So much has grown. We were doing some good work near Pulari where the buffel grass had grown killing all the plant foods. It killed off all the native grasses like naked woollybutt, inland pigweed, native millet grasses and others used to make seed cakes. They are grasses with seeds that many birds eat as well, poor things. ©

Buffel grass is a perennial tussock grass native to Africa, India and Asia. It was first introduced to the deserts of Australia in the 1870s, for erosion control pastoral purposes, and has since spread widely across most land types. Its seeds can be easily spread by wind, water, cattle or camels and machinery.

The problem with buffel grass is it chokes out native grasses, destroying habitat for our native animals. It provides further fuel for wildfires in areas not previously burnt, especially in our mulga shrublands.

Currently our management consists of removing buffel grass by hand, a resource-intensive process. We have been fortunate that many people have volunteered to help us with this work.

In 2012 our rangers began trialling other methods of control, including for different burning and herbicide combinations. We are now examining the results of the trail; to help inform a longer-term buffel management plan. Watch this space.