Kiwirrkurra rangers take to the skies to track Ninu (bilbies)

Payu West getting ready for take off

The Kiwirrkurra rangers took to the skies to conduct Ninu (bilby) surveys in some of the most remote country on the Kiwirrkurra Indigenous Protected Area (IPA).

This information makes an important contribution to our research into the link between presence of people, fire regimes and biodiversity in the desert landscape. 

Dr Rachel Paltridge, Kiwirrkurra IPA coordinator

Tracking surveys have been conducted on Kiwirrkurra country for the past 20 years. Searching for bilby diggings and burrows from a helicopter is a relatively new way of integrating traditional tracking expertise with modern technology and scientific survey principles. The recent surveys aimed to determine whether there were additional Ninu colonies that had not been detected during other tracking surveys and to obtain an independent measure of Ninu activity that can be repeated in the future.

Previous tracking surveys have indicated that small populations of Ninu persist in the vicinity of Kiwirrkurra Community and Murruwa (west of Lake Mackay) but have disappeared from the area around Nyinmi Outstation sometime between 2002 and 2012.

Ninu tracks

Five expert tracker rangers, Payu West, Mary Butler, Nolia Napangati, Yalti Napangati, and Mantua James; a scientist and the pilot conducted the recent surveys. Whenever any possible Ninu sign was detected they circled back and either landed or hovered just above the ground until the presence of Ninu could be confirmed by observations of their distinctive tracks.

Flight paths and bilby sign recorded during the aerial survey, Kiwikurra IPA July 2020

These helicopter surveys supported previous on-ground surveys by finding that Ninu are absent from the Nyinmi area and present at low densities in the Kiwirrkurra and Murruwa areas. 

In the Kiwirrkurra area (where Kiwirrkurra people conduct most of their hunting activities, and cover the greatest proportion of the area on the ground), all Ninu sign detected was within 500m of previously known sites, although they had been unable to find Ninu sign at one of these sites (where only a single digging was observed) for the past two years. 

Payu West at an active bilby burrow near Tjutalpi. Bilbies were recorded 0.5-2km away in 2017-2018 but no sign was found during searches in 2019-2020. Only a single digging with a fresh track was detected at this site during the aerial survey but when we returned to follow the tracks from that digging this burrow was found

At Murruwa, the four sites where Ninu were detected were considerable distances from vehicle tracks, and it is unlikely that they would have been detected without the use of a helicopter.

Results of this survey provide a baseline dataset that can be used for future monitoring, to determine the success of any changes in land management which may instigated, for example fox control. The data on relative abundance of bilbies will be examined in relation to the forty-year finescale fire histories that have been compiled for each of the three areas to determine fire regimes that have allowed Ninu to persist, and those under which they have disappeared in the past 20 years.  

We will continue to liaise with researchers, government and the National Bilby Recovery team to learn from each other and share information on best practice survey and analysis techniques.

Dr Rachel Paltridge, Kiwirrkurra IPA coordinator

Words and images by Dr Rachel Paltridge, Kiwirrkurra rangers and the 10 Deserts Project team

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