How Indigenous Rangers Help Preserve Australian Culture


Chasten Hunter is the first to hear the colt cry from deep in the Queensland bush. He greets the other five rangers and they soon walk through the thick forest to find the injured animal. Her once white hair is now matted and brown and it is shaking uncontrollably. A severe gash on his leg makes his attempts to get up painful to watch.

The Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji rangers decide to take the colt back to their base camp in Yarrabah, a small town an hour’s drive from Cairns. The men carry the injured colt down a nearby dirt road and load it onto Ranger Coordinator John Wilson’s ute. Hunter and ranger Victor Bulmer join the animal on the ute tray to make sure it stays calm on the way home.

Gunggandji Land and Sea Rangers Victor Bulmer and Chasten Hunter tend to a horse found in distress deep in the brush. The horse was picked up by the rangers and brought back to town on the back of their ute.Credit:Brook Mitchell

“John, the horse said slow down,” Hunter yells as the car slams into the dirt road, sending everyone flying through the air and crashing into the metal bed of the ute. Despite the bumpy road, flying rocks and speed, the colt has stopped his awkward attempts to stand and poses with his head down. It’s relieved to have been rescued.

Back at the rangers’ base, the men find a paralyzing tick in his mane, suggesting the prognosis is not good. A traveling veterinarian in town agrees: the animal will have to be put down unless the owner can afford the necessary medication. The foal, about three months old, is loaded into another van by a municipal employee who will see if he can find the owner. Despite the dark atmosphere at the ranger camp, the colt’s determination to survive offers a small glimmer of hope that he could last through the night.

The Age and Herald spent two days with the native rangers to observe them at work. They say it’s a dream job to work in their country, where there is something different every day. The land they work on covers 8,200 hectares of Aboriginal land and was determined to be exclusively Aboriginal title by the Federal Court of Australia in 2012. The area is held in trust by the Gunggandji-Mandingalbay Yidinji Peoples Prepressed Body Corporate (GMYPPBC), which manages the land on behalf of the Gunggandji and Mandingalbay Yidinji peoples. About 18 months ago, the organization launched a ranger program that employs eight rangers from Yarrabah. It works alongside two other ranger programs in the area.

The township is the seventh most disadvantaged postcode in the country and has a population of approximately 2,500, 95% of whom are indigenous. Its unemployment rate is over 40% — the national average is 3.8% — and its crime rate is staggering. Driving through town, Ranger Fredrick Lefoe points to the gas station: “This place is always robbed,” he says. At the local primary school, he notes that the shade cloth had to be removed after children kept climbing on it and pulling it down.

“Some boys don’t have jobs,” says Hunter. Like the other young men, the community often asks him if there are other jobs as a ranger.

Chief Ranger Roszaly Aitken grew up in Yarrabah but left to spend time in the navy and as a carpenter. He always intended to come back. There’s a saying seniors love: “Every time you go away and learn something new, bring it back.” That’s exactly what the years away have taught him, says Aitken. “There are places greater than Yarrabah and [I’ve also learnt] the skills needed to mentor young guys.

The Gunggandji Land and Sea Rangers are monitoring resident crocodiles by drone to keep the community informed of the risks of swimming and crossing streams in the area.

The Gunggandji Land and Sea Rangers are monitoring resident crocodiles by drone to keep the community informed of the risks of swimming and crossing streams in the area.Credit:Brook Mitchell

Rangers conduct cultural burns, organize educational programs for local children, and install cameras to monitor feral cats and pigs. But their favorite activity is to fly a drone over a small creek to watch about fifteen crocodiles, including one called Big John, which is missing part of its tail. This work helps them educate the community about crocodile safety and better understand the animals they share their environment with.

But it is also a question of observing the evolution of their environment. Shatner Patterson, who is employed as a cultural engagement officer, and ranger Justin Keyes say that in their lifetime the shoreline has eroded about 50 meters. Years ago, houses lined the beach. But rising tides have seen these families move to safer lands.

Men fear that as climate change worsens, so will their country. Patterson says his people have already lost so much to colonization, including its intrigues, and that’s why the ranger program is so important. It’s about preserving and passing on what’s left to the next generation.

The most recent federal report on the state of the environment notes that Indigenous knowledge and practices are essential to environmental management and that ignoring them can have a negative impact on health and well-being. The report notes that Indigenous land rights and titles have resulted in the recognition of some Indigenous rights to 57% of Australian land.

Director of Indigenous Research at the University of Sydney, Professor Jakelin Troy, says Indigenous ranger programs are essential because they include the voices and knowledge of those who know their country and its needs best. Troy says Australia is leading the way in integrating indigenous knowledge of conservation and land management, but that push has only happened in the past five years.

“What we are seeing in Australia and what is being recognized now is that the future will depend on a thorough understanding of the Indigenous landscape, so that we can…plan for the changes that are going to happen,” she says. .

She adds that state and federal governments must continue to invest in Indigenous Ranger programs and make them integrated practices to help maintain healthy ecosystems. More needs to be done to ensure the knowledge of indigenous elders is passed on to the next generation, she says.

“If these places are destroyed, everyone loses,” Troy says. “Indigenous rangers are aware of what is happening, not only of climate change leading to growing environmental catastrophe, but also of understanding the cultural value of places.

“Our stories are everyone’s story – we have to protect them.”

Federal Environment Minister Tanya Plibersek says Indigenous ranger programs are a way for First Nations to be recognized when they care about the country, while bringing wider benefits to the community, including employment in areas where jobs are scarce.

“The future will depend on our deep understanding of the Indigenous landscape. »

Director of Indigenous Research at the University of Sydney Jakelin Troy

“For 60,000 years, Indigenous peoples have cared for Australia’s environment. We have to respect that and learn from it,” she says.

Through the National Indigenous Australians Agency, the federal government funds 80 organizations for over 128 ranger groups, employing around 1,900 Indigenous rangers. In addition, states and territories fund their own programs.

Federal Minister for Indigenous Australians Linda Burney said Indigenous rangers play an important role in protecting the land and sea by using traditional knowledge and cultural practices to help protect our natural environment and cultural heritage. .

Despite the beneficial role Indigenous Rangers play in environmental, cultural, social and economic outcomes for their communities and the country at large, more resources are needed. The federal government had pledged to double the number of native rangers by the end of the decade. Between July 1, 2022 and June 30, 2028, funding is expected to be approximately $1.3 billion. But government support can often be tied to a funding round.

Some organizations that support ranger groups have created other ways to generate income. For example, the Mandingalbay Yidinji Aboriginal Corporation, with support from the Djunbunji Ranger Program, offers guided tours through their lands, taking visitors to East Trinity Reserve, the site of one of Queensland’s worst environmental disasters. In the 1970s, the 774-hectare area experienced catastrophic acidification after it was drained for sugarcane cultivation, rendering the area uninhabitable. Now the hydrated lime is flushed out to manage acidity, and the river bank teems with mangroves, crabs, and fish. Rangers ferry visitors through the winding canals, before welcoming them with a smoking ceremony and sharing stories and knowledge.

Djunbunji ranger coordinator Victor Bulmer, whose son is a ranger in the GMYPPBC programme, played a central role in the area gaining Indigenous Protected Area status. Bulmer says being able to work on his country and share his story with others gives him a sense of pride. “I will always be here,” he said.

A horse found in distress deep in the scrubland by rangers is taken away to be reunited with its owner.

A horse found in distress deep in the scrubland by rangers is taken away to be reunited with its owner.Credit:Brook Mitchell

The little foal that the rangers saved the day before also wants to stay. Early in the morning and under a blazing sun, the word filters in the group that after a night of sleep and medicine, the colt gets up and walks. As soon as the men have finished, they go to town to see the animal, give it a pat and joke among themselves about the name they are going to give it. In a few days, the little foal is released in the national park.


In the weeks that followed, rangers grew concerned after not spotting the colt. But after a few more days, he was seen walking with his mother on the beach.

“We’re really happy that our team was able to give him a second chance,” Aitken said.


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