Indigenous rangers reclaim knowledge of native species while surveying Great Desert Skinks
Key Points The Great Desert Skink was once a food source for a number of indigenous nations, but is now an endangered species. Indigenous rangers are collecting scientific data as part of a new Indigenous-led national recovery plan for the animal. The Great Desert Skink is also known as the tjakura, mulyamiji, tjalapa, warrana or nampu. A project aimed at securing the future of a native burrowing reptile species in central Australia is also helping indigenous rangers recover lost cultural knowledge.
The Great Desert Skink was once a food source for a number of indigenous nations, but due mostly to predation by cats and foxes, it has disappeared from much of its range since Australia was colonized.
Janice Carroll Walkatjara artist with a Great Desert Skink Source: Provided
Rita Okai, Anangu engagement officer at Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park, admitted she didn’t know much about the skinks in her country until she became part of a team conducting a survey to track them down . family, who often hunt goanna, the animal she knows as the tjakuṟa, was not very familiar to her. Ms Okai is one of a number of Indigenous rangers from across the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia who are collecting scientific data as part of a new Indigenous-led National Recovery Plan for the Great Desert Skink. The lizards usually measure around 20cm long and weighs around 350 grams and the species occurs almost exclusively on Aboriginal land. In collaboration with scientists and land managers they hope to gain insight into the endangered species which will be used to save it from extinction. A decades-old, grainy video of Aboriginal women talking about the lizards was shared with Ms Okai and other Anangu and Pitjantjatjara women taking part in the survey. “They talked about tjakura and wrote it in a picture and talked about it,” she said.
“We learned about the habitats where they live, what their holes look like, what they eat, whether they are edible, the tracks they make and how to keep tjakuṟa.”
As part of the project, local artists created large sculptures of the Western Desert Skink to build interest in the animal and the work being done as part of the survey. Source: Provided / Indigenous Desert Alliance
On their first day looking for the skinks, Ms Okai and the other survey participants located eight active burrows at Uluru Kata Tjuta National Park. “We have to spot the toilet because they have one area on the surface on top of the ground where tjakuras come out to make toilets,” she said.
While the group didn’t spot the nocturnal lizards, they were able to get a glimpse inside a number of underground holes that are home to family groups who all use the same ‘toilet’ on the surface.
Ms Okai said that although it was only day one of a week of skinning in the area, she was excited about the knowledge she was gaining about these animals that once had an important place in the lives of her ancestors. She and others who participate are eager to share that knowledge with their children, so it can be shared with future generations. Raelene Wilson, an Aṉangu Traditional Owner participating in the survey, said: “The tjakuṟa was dreaming. We want the young people to learn from it and stick to it.”
Further surveys will be carried out on the habitat of the tjakura, which in other areas is called mulyamiji, tjalapa, warrana or nampu.
Indigenous Desert Alliance coordinates the surveys of the skinks. Source: Provided / Indigenous Desert Alliance
The project is coordinated by the Native Desert Alliance through federal funding. Minister for the Environment and Water, Tanya Plibersek, said the Great Desert Skink was prioritized for action under the Government’s Threatened Species Action Plan. “The need for action to protect our plants, animals and ecosystems from extinction has never been greater,” Ms Plibersek said.
“We know that any action we take to protect priority species, such as the tjakuṟa, will also have benefits for other endangered plants and animals in our desert regions.”