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Stanford research shows Aboriginal hunting practice increases animal populations

The way that Aboriginal people in Australia go about hunting monitor lizards for food, based on "dreaming," leads to many more of the lizards, rather than fewer.

Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment

Aboriginal hunters in Australia's Western Desert use small fires to clear land, a practice that increases wildlife populations.

In Australia's Western Desert, Aboriginal hunters use an unusual method that actually increases populations of the animals they hunt, according to research by Stanford Woods Institute-affiliated scientists Rebecca and Doug Bird. Rebecca Bird is an associate professor of anthropology and Doug Bird is an ecological anthropologist. 

Their study, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, offers insights into maintaining animal communities through ecosystem engineering and co-evolution of animals and humans.

Their research finds that populations of monitor lizards – a staple of the Aboriginal diet – nearly double in areas where they are heavily hunted. The hunting method – using fire to clear patches of land to improve the search for game – also creates a mosaic of regrowth that enhances habitat. Where there are no hunters, lightning fires spread over vast distances, landscapes are more homogenous and monitor lizards are more rare.

"Our results show that humans can have positive impacts on other species without the need for policies of conservation and resource management," Rebecca Bird said. "In the case of indigenous communities, the everyday practice of subsistence might be just as effective at maintaining biodiversity."

Rebecca Bliege BirdNyalanka Taylor prepares her harvest of monitor lizards for cooking.

Nyalanka Taylor prepares her harvest of monitor lizards for cooking.

Martu, the Aboriginal people with whom the Birds and their colleagues have worked for many years, refer to their relationship with the ecosystem as part of "jukurr," or dreaming. Part ritual, part practical philosophy and a body of knowledge, jukurr instructs the way Martu interact with the desert environment, from hunting practices to cosmological and social organization.

At its core is the concept that land must be used if life is to continue. Therefore, Martu believe the absence of hunting, not its presence, causes species to decline.

While jukurr has often been interpreted as belonging to the realm of the sacred and irrational, it appears to actually be consistent with scientific understanding, according to the study. The findings suggest that the decline in Aboriginal hunting and burning in the mid-20th century, due to the persecution of Aboriginal people and the loss of traditional economies, may have contributed to the extinction of many desert species that had come to depend on such practices.

The findings add to a growing appreciation of the complex role that humans play in the function of ecosystems worldwide. Where people have been embedded in ecosystems for millennia, including areas of the United States, tribal burning was extensive in many types of habitat. Many Native Americans in California, for instance, say that policies of fire suppression and the exclusion of their traditional burning practices have contributed to the current crisis in biodiversity and native species decline, particularly in the health of oak woodland communities.  This suggests that incorporating indigenous knowledge and practices into contemporary land management could become important in efforts to conserve and restore healthy ecosystems and landscapes.

Read more about Rebecca and Doug Bird's research, supported by the Stanford Woods Institute's Environmental Venture Projects seed grant program:

Connecting Aboriginal Land Use Management Strategies, Mammal Extinction Rates and Shifts in Fire Regimes in a Changing Climate: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Inform Conservation Strategies for Threatened Species in the Australian Western Desert

 An Interdisciplinary Approach to Understanding the Role of Anthropogenic Fire in the Desert Grasslands of Australia

Media Contact

Rob Jordan, Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment: (650) 721-1881, rjordan@stanford.edu

Dan Stober, Stanford News Service, (650) 721-6965, dstober@stanford.edu