7 Sept 2022
5 CULTURALLY-SIGNIFICANT ANIMALS YOU CAN DISCOVER IN THE MY BACKYARD TOOL
No matter where you are in Australia, you are never too far away from wildlife with deep significance to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Here are five culturally-significant animals you might be able to discover in your backyard using WWF-Australia’s My Backyard tool and how you can help them thrive again.
Discover what culturally-significant threatened wildlife could call your backyard home and how you can help them thrive again.
Australia’s most iconic creature, the koala (Phascolarctos cinereus) was sadly uplisted to Endangered in early 2022. Unsurprisingly, this beloved animal has incredible significance to many First Nations people.
The name ‘koala’ is derived from the Dharug name for the animal, which translates to ‘no drink’. Given that these cute and cuddly creatures famously mostly hydrate themselves with gum leaves, it makes perfect sense!
Koalas in distress were sadly in many of the most recognised and circulated images from the 2019-20 bushfires.
Interestingly, in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling, koalas are often associated with natural events such as rising seas and drought.
The koala is featured not just in the My Backyard tool, but in many Creation stories – perhaps most famously from the Gumbaynggir people of the mid North Coast of New South Wales. In their Creation story, Dunggirr Gagu (the Koala Brothers) used their long intestines to make a bridge, to reunite the Gumbaynggir people with the Ngambaa people, after rising seas split them apart.
Another treasured story from the Dreaming is Koobor the Koala, who is also known as ‘the drought maker’, thought to have special powers over the rains. Read more about the Kooboor the Koala.
KOALAS ARE A TOTEM FOR MANY FIRST NATIONS PEOPLE
The koala is a totem for many Aboriginal people, and totems are a very significant part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture and identity.
What is a totem in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?
Totems help define First Nations people’s kinship with each other, with their Country, and with nature. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander totems also connect deeply to the roles and responsibilities of mob - at a clan, family and individual level.
Many First Nations clans, families and people have a very special relationship with their totem. Most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander totems are represented by a particular plant or animal. If a person’s totem is a koala, for example, it is usually forbidden for that person to kill, eat or harm them in any way.
The Nargoon (koala) is the tribal totem of the Bangerang people, therefore as a people they are responsible for the protection of their totem.
Find out if the gula (koala) is in your backyard...
The Australasian bittern is famous for its distinct booming call, and its expert hide and seek skills in reed bushes. But in Creation stories, the Australasian bittern is known as ‘the Bunyip bird’. It is portrayed as a dark spirit, a spectre in cautionary tales.
The bittern Creation story tends to be told to children who have been misbehaving a little too much! This very special bird is rumoured to skulk along natural bodies of water like swamps and riverbeds, waiting for an unlucky child to wander off from where they’re supposed to be. Such Creation stories encourage young mob to do as they’re told or beware… especially around dinner time!
The dhuragun or bunbun (Australian bittern) is a sacred bird to the Narrungadera Wiradjuri people of New South Wales. It calls Fivebough and Tuckerbil Wetlands on Wiradjuri Country home, and this is a place of deep cultural connection and significance. The Narrungadera Wiradjuri people believe the bittern to be a messenger of one of their spirits called Wawe (‘One who travels on the wind’).
Did you know? The Australasian bittern is known to Aboriginal people of southwest Western Australia as boordenitj.
Find out if the boordenitj (Australasian bittern) is in your backyard...
3. Green turtle
The green turtle has major cultural significance to many First Nations people all around Australia. That said, the gungu (turtle) has serious importance to Saltwater mob, in particular, Chairperson of Gudjuda Aboriginal Corporation Uncle Eddie Smallwood explains. “My Aboriginal name is Gungu, which is the turtle. I'm very proud of that because it was passed down by the Elders.”
Girringun Ranger Andrew Congoo, who identifies as Jirrbal, Barbarum and Mamu, is concerned that not enough people know turtle numbers are rapidly declining.
“We need to raise awareness, otherwise they're going to be gone and we can't get them back once they’re gone,” he said.“It is important for myself and for all of us to look after our bungaroo (turtle). Not just for ourselves, but for our children and for future generations. To see their numbers decline, it's a big problem.”
Are green turtles swimming near where you are?
Nganamara (malleefowl) is culturally significant to Spinifex People (Anangu living in the Great Victoria Desert of Western Australia), and is a traditional source of food, particularly Nganamara eggs. The malleefowl is also a totem species. To the Anangu people, the Nganamara is not just vital as a food item, but because Nganamara are important Tjukurpa* animals.
But, did you also know there is an ancestral malleefowl found in the night sky? Her name is Neilloan, and to the Boorong people** who lived at Lake Tyrell, she is the creator of all the malleefowl.
Neilloan shared her feathered wisdom with the Boorong clan, teaching them when to look for malleefowl eggs.
_*Tjukurpa is the foundation of An̲angu life and society. Tjukurpa refers to the Creation period when ancestral beings, Tjukuritja, created the world as we know it. From this, the religion, law and moral systems were formed.
** The Boorong clan no longer exists as a separate entity, but was a member of the Wergaia speaking peoples in northwest Victoria._
While it may not be obvious, the name 'Numbat' has First Nations origins. The name comes from the word ‘noombat’, originating from the Noongar Indigenous people of south Western Australia. But that is not the only name this stripey icon is known by. Noongar people also call the species ‘wioo’. And to Pitjantjatjara, Manytjilytjarra, Ngaanyatjarra, Pintupi peoples, this beloved animal is known as 'Walpurti'.
The species is also named by the Manytjilytjarra, Ngaanyatjarra, Ngaatjatjarra, Pintupi, and Pitjantjatjarra Indigenous people of the central and western deserts of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia, reflecting its historical range. Indigenous people from these areas also acquired ecological knowledge of the species, such as preferred habitat, shelter and diet. This species is of considerable cultural significance. The numbat is very important to many First Nations people, and they know its habits very well. For centuries Aboriginal people have learned where noombat or walpurti like to hang out, its favourite bush tucker, and so much more!
There are also ancient stories of how the walpurti got its stripes…
Want to know more?
These are just a few of the many culturally-significant species you can learn about using WWF’s My Backyard tool. Find out how many of these sacred creatures are in your local area, and how well they are being looked after.
Once you’ve found out what wildlife your neighbours are, we offer you some simple solutions you can take to help protect and help them thrive.
We acknowledge the First Nations language groups mentioned in this article as the holders of their language and cultural knowledge, and encourage you to find out more about them: