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Aboriginal fire hunting leads to more lizards

Nyalanka Taylor prepares her harvest of monitor lizards for cooking. (Credit: Rebecca Bliege Bird)

The way Aboriginal people in Australia’s Western Desert go about hunting lizards for food leads to many more of the animals, not fewer, researchers say.

The finding offers insights into maintaining animal communities through ecosystem engineering and co-evolution of animals and humans.


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,” says Rebecca Bird, associate professor of anthropology at Stanford University. “In the case of indigenous communities, the everyday practice of subsistence might be just as effective at maintaining biodiversity.”

Martu refer to their relationship with the ecosystem as part of “jukurr,” or dreaming. Part ritual, part practical philosophy and a body of knowledge, jukurr tells Martu how to interact with the desert environment, including hunting practices and 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.

More than sacred ritual

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.

Published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B, 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.

Source: Stanford University