28 Sept 2023


Animals have been a vital part of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture for tens of thousands of years. They feature heavily in the Dreamtime, a collection of stories passed down through generations illustrating how the Spirits created all life in connection to Country. According to the Dreaming, the Spirits brought life to a lifeless landscape. As the course of the Spirits’ life would change, so would their creations. Little wonder that lore sees the incredible wildlife that live across the nation not just as key to First Peoples survival but “also as spiritual beings that deserve respect and dignity”.

Find out what incredible culturally significant wildlife can be discovered in your backyard by checking out our My Backyard tool. Here is just a snapshot of the species that might be living in your backyard and why they are so important for First Peoples and the landscapes the wildlife call home. Find out more by searching where you live in the My Backyard Tool, and check out part 1 of this blog to discover even more culturally significant species.

1. Australian sea lion

Australian sea lion
Australian sea lion © Shutterstock / Andrea Izzotti / WWF

The Wirangu people, who serve as the original custodians of the Chain of Bays area in South Australia, hold the Australian sea lion (Bulgura) in significant esteem as their totem.

Indigenous communities traditionally saw Australian sea lions as a valuable asset. They combined the seal's oil with ochre to use for decoration.

Find out if the Bulgara is in your backyard.

So, what is a totem in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture?

Totems help define First Peoples 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.

2. Silver perch

Silver perch
Silver perch

The scientific name of silver perch (Bidyanus bidyanus) comes from the Gamilaraay name of the species, vidian. But there are many Aboriginal names for the species, including bunngulla (Ngiyambaa), cheerey (Ngarrindjeri) and kubery (Wiradjuri).

It’s a tradition among the Aboriginal communities along the lower Murray River in Victoria that anyone visiting from different tribes should refrain from making physical contact with, smelling, or eating the prepared meat of silver perch. This practice is due to a deep respect for long-held spiritual beliefs. Interestingly, this rule didn’t apply to any other fish species like cod, showing the importance of this silver perch to many language groups.

Find out if the bunngulla (silver perch) is in your backyard:

3. Greater bilby

A bilby spotted at night
A bilby caught on camera at night (banner) © Martin Harvey / WWF

This much-loved Aussie species is commonly known as a bilby. While this iconic animal is known by many Traditional names, the famous name ‘bilby’ actually comes from the language of Yuwaalayaay/Yuwaalaraay Peoples in New South Wales, where it was lovingly referred to as bilba. The bilba is special to many First Peoples. It is a cherished totemic emblem, intricately woven into the tapestry of Dreamtime narratives. Their songlines and stories spread across Country throughout Australia. In certain regions, the bilba traditionally served as a source of sustenance, while its distinctive tail was used for decoration. 

The bilba was once widespread across 70% of Australia's mainland. Despite the bilba’s incredible ability to survive even in the driest parts of Country, it is now listed as Vulnerable and inhabits a mere 20% of its former range. Introduced predators including feral cats and foxes are one of their biggest threats.

The surviving populations are primarily confined to specific regions, including the Tanami Desert in the Northern Territory (where it is known as walpajirri), the western deserts, the Pilbara (where it is known in Manjilyjarra language as mankarr) and Kimberley areas in Western Australia, and the Diamantina region in Queensland. Unfortunately, the remaining count of these remarkable creatures is estimated to be fewer than 10,000. 

Are you near the bilba where you are? Find out by using WWF’s My Backyard tool.

4. Freshwater sawfish

Freshwater sawfish

The freshwater sawfish holds deep cultural significance. It serves not only as a vital food source but also as an integral element in numerous narratives and belief systems of the Fitzroy River's many language groups. In the local languages, it carries distinctive names: galwanyi in Bunuba and Gooniyandi, wirridanyniny or pial pial in Nyikina, and wirrdani in Walmajarri. 

The Nyikina People traditionally use bark from a freshwater mangrove (known as mudjula in Nyikina) to stun pial pial (freshwater sawfish) so that they were able to catch them. 

Like all fish, the freshwater sawfish are part of the river totem for the Nyikina People.

For people from the Walmajarri language group, freshwater sawfish are an important food source during pregnancy.

5. Native bee

Native bee

Native bees, known as gudji in Bundjalung language, have been an intrinsic part of First Peoples heritage for millions of years.

Indigenous communities across many regions of Australia have attributed significant cultural value to this incredible species.

Honey, a cherished resource, held exceptional importance, often exchanged as gifts or traded as a precious commodity. Moreover, its medicinal properties were used for ‘gut cleansing’ purposes.

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 what can be done to protect them.

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: