6 July 2017


By Jessica Chapman

I've been working with Indigenous ranger groups and Traditional Owners in the Kimberley region for just over a year now, and it's been an incredible education in Indigenous culture.

I never travel anywhere without a little notebook, in which I jot down the Aboriginal words for the places and culturally important threatened species we talk about. My spelling isn't brilliant, but I'm starting to get my tongue around some of the tricky pronunciations.

The importance of Indigenous languages and the retention of those languages was brought home to me again a few weeks ago. I was travelling to Mowla Bluff with Traditional Owners John Watson and Roger Nada Green, and the Nyikina Mangala Rangers, who WWF has partnered with to protect the endangered wiliji. This black-flanked rock-wallaby, which is now restricted to the cliffs and escarpments of isolated ranges in the west Kimberley, is well-known to the Nyikina Mangala people, and on this trip, we'd hoped to find new populations in previously unsurveyed areas.

When I asked John where we should start looking, he considered some maps and suggested Munggadah, but he warned that he hadn't been there for many years.

When we hopped into the helicopter to fly to the remote outcrop, we didn't need the sophisticated GPS system. At almost 80 years of age, John proudly and confidently pointed the way to a place unnamed on our maps.

At Munggadah, we found numerous wiliji scats and even a skeleton still containing fur. It was proof that animals may survive east of their known range. It gives us an important new study site to focus on and renewed hope for this species.

The experience reminded me just how important Aboriginal language is. It links Indigenous people to their land and expresses their deep spiritual connection with everything in that landscape. It also holds important scientific information for kkadya (white fellas) like me, that may help us to restore the balance in those altered landscapes.

Traditional Owners like John truly know their country, its animals, their names and their stories, and are usually only too happy to share that cultural knowledge. That's why my little notebook is filling fast. When they teach me something, I try to incorporate it into my reports, to keep those words alive.

I often feel that without Indigenous culture, and the stories passed down generations through language, that something fundamental is missing in my understanding of the Australian continent. I’m deeply indebted to people like John, Roger and the Nyikina Mangala Rangers for helping to fill that gap.

WWF-Australia thanks the significant support of many organisations with respect to our work on wiliji, including the Walalakoo Aboriginal Corporation and the Kimberley Land Council. Our work would not be possible without the financial support of Lotterywest, the Department of Parks and Wildlife and Rangelands NRM.