Breanna tells me that this place is good for hunting kangaroos.
I would like to blame the heavy case of equipment I’m carrying, but the reality is, barefoot, she moves faster and more confidently across the red stones and between the spiky green spinifex than I do.
And while Breanna is talking about kangaroos, I’m thinking about camels. Kangaroos and camels roaming together? In this part of the world, that’s indeed the case. Let me explain.
We are on country that belongs to the Martu people, deep in the Little Sandy Desert of Western Australia. Martu country comprises some of the most remote and intact arid ecosystems on the planet. A couple of years ago I did a global analysis of arid lands, looking at the presence of land clearing, road networks and lights at night: even on a global scale it is easy to pick out Martu country because of the near complete absence of these three features.
Together with other rangers from the Parnngurr (pronounced ‘Bung-or’) community, Breanna Booth, a member of the women’s ranger team, and I are clambering over some low hills of the McKay Range, trying to reach a waterhole that camels can’t reach because of the stony ground. For obvious reasons, water holes are the fabric of life here in the desert, both culturally and ecologically.
And camels have a big and negative impact on them.
By 2008, Australia had more than 1 million wild camels, introduced originally as far back as 1840 for use as draft and riding animals by people pioneering the dry interior.
Camels can go a long time without water, but when they drink they’re serious about it. An adult camel can drink as much as 200 litres of water in a single session. For a small desert water hole, the arrival of a caravan of camels can be devastating.
They also often foul the water with faeces, making it unusable for many native fauna. Through a coordinated control program across the Australian outback, the camel population is now thought to be down to around 300,000.
With the support of BHP Billiton, a major mining company, The Nature Conservancy is working with local partner Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa to help the Martu traditional owners conserve an area spanning nearly 14 million hectares – the size of New York State.
Conservation here involves Martu rangers undertaking traditional burning practices, and also managing the impact of feral animals, like camels.
Breanna and I are out here with the Parnngurr rangers to investigate the impact of camels on water quality (the amount of oxygen in the water), and by extension, the benefits of managing their populations.
It’s a technological challenge.
Dissolved oxygen (the term for the amount of oxygen in the water) changes throughout the day, decreasing at night and then increasing during the day (generally). Unless you compare oxygen readings at the same time each day it’s rather meaningless.
Data loggers – equipment that you leave in the water – overcome this issue by recording samples over a set period each day, such as every 30 minutes.
But in this remote landscape, it takes substantial effort to visit water holes even infrequently (once or twice a year).
This means we need to use data loggers that are extremely low power so that the battery lasts for a long time, but are also able to withstand the harsh conditions of the Australian outback. They also need to be small, because many desert water holes are not much bigger than a bath tub.
Fortunately, we’re testing loggers that meet these tough specifications. With the help of these loggers we’re aiming to rigorously demonstrate the effectiveness of conservation, on the life-giving water holes of this globally significant desert landscape.
This sort of science wouldn’t be possible without the generous support of BHP Billiton, and the openness and commitment of Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa staff.
Frequently fishing spinifex spines out of my shins, I was resigned to the fact that I could never hope to move through this landscape with the ease and grace of the traditional owners.
I felt slightly redeemed late in the day when I spotted a pair of Australian bustard about 50 meters from the car. I called on the UHF radio to the car in front to tell them I had spotted some big kipara (pronounced ‘gibbera,’ the Martu name for bustard).
The car ahead turned around, and one of the rangers prepared to shoot – bustard are a prized meal and bush foods still make up about half the protein in the diet of Parnngurr residents. Foolishly, I hopped out of the car to take a photo, and the two bustard took off into the sky.
As a sign of respect for someone who has passed away with the same or similar name, the Martu give people a substitute name or nyaparu in the Martu language.
I had been told that I needed another name to Eddie but I hadn’t yet been given one. As we drove back to Parnngurr that evening, I suspected that it might be something like “he who scares off dinner.”