Western Desert

Desert Rangelands

Traditional Owners have been working to protect the habitat of rare and threatened fauna in the remote Western Deserts through combining traditional knowledge with contemporary science. 

Numerous projects have been undertaken in the Western Deserts including:

  • KJ – Western Desert
  • CDNTS – Western Desert / CDNTS – Keeping Desert Country Healthy
  • Indigenous engagement and biodiversity program development on western deserts of WA rangelands
  • Western Desert Traditional and Contemporary Fire
  • Empowering Martu women to manage their country / Martu women looking after Country
  • Supporting recovery of threatened species in Birriliburu and Kiwirrkurra / Managing Birriliburu and Kiwirrkurra IPAs
  • Planning and Managing for Healthy Spinifex Country / Managing for Healthy Spinifex Country
  • Threatened species and fire management


Traditional Owners have been working to protect the habitat of rare and threatened fauna in the remote Western Deserts through combining traditional knowledge with contemporary science. This work involves determining frequency and distribution of threatened species by intensive on-ground field surveys. The western desert region contains several nationally listed threatened fauna species which have been lost from large areas of the Australian mainland.

The Martu determination is 13.6 million hectares in size. Martu is a collective name for desert peoples of about 12 language groups whose country extends across parts of the Little Sandy Desert, southern part of the Great Sandy Desert, western part of the Gibson Desert and northern parts of the Gascoyne region. Martu people live in the communities Parnngurr, Punmu and Kunawarritji and the towns of Jigalong and Newman. In 2002 the Martu People were granted native title of Martu Country in the western desert. Kanyirninpa Jukurrpa (KJ) has been working with Martu traditional owners to drive engagement and participation in conservation activities in this area.

Birriliburu country covers nearly 7 million hectares of the Little Sandy Desert and Gascoyne and Murchison bioregions. Traditional owners from the Birriliburu determination also identify as Martu people. Most Martu from Birriliburu live in Wiluna. The Central Desert Native Title Service (CDNTS), have been working with the Birriliburu (in the Little Sandy & Gibson deserts), and Kiwirrkurra traditional owners to manage key threatened fauna species and priority biodiversity assets in their Indigenous protected areas (IPAs).

The Spinifex determination covers 5 million hectares and the Pilki area covers 2.4 million hectares of the Great Victoria Desert. The Spinifex area borders South Australia in the east. The Spinifex and Pilki areas are on the traditional land of Pitjantjatjara speaking people. Most of the people live in Tjuntjuntjara, and some live in the small community of Ilkurlka. The Pila Nguru Aboriginal Corporation are assisting the Spinifex community (in the Great Victorian Desert) to create a Healthy Country Plan.

The 1.2 million hectare Yilka native title claim is within the Great Victoria Desert. The main community is Cosmo-Newberry mission.

Delivery organisation


The Martu focused on critical threats such as altered fire regimes and feral predators to increase native habitat for threatened species. They have also developed their capacity to address broad scale fires that have the potential to burn wildly across wide areas of the desert. The re-establishment of small Martu communities in the desert has led to an increase in burning close to communities. This has resulted in a return to a fine patchwork of burnt and unburnt areas, providing wildlife access to shelter, with bush food resources more common in the managed areas around communities. The on-ground work has predominantly focused on the reinstatement of traditional burning regimes, waterhole maintenance, feral animal control, treatment of invasive flora species and visitor management.

A particular focus has been on the development and on-going implementation of a Bilby Healthy Country Plan for Jigalong area, as advocated by the Martu Women Rangers. The project maintains an on-going focus on undertaking planning and on-ground activities for the benefit of threatened fauna species and other priority biodiversity assets in the Martu determination. Female Traditional Owners will undertake activities using both traditional and contemporary NRM practices to reduce key threatening processes. The project will not only focus on short term abatement of threatening processes for the species but it will also focus on increasing the traditional owners skills, knowledge and engagement in NRM, which will have beneficial long term outcomes. Also through ongoing two way education in communities and by providing employment opportunities in NRM. The project targets natural and cultural assets identified in the Martu Healthy Country plan of management and the Rangelands NRM regional plan.

Projects in the Birriliburu and Kiwirrkurra IPAs have focused on several threatened fauna species–the crest-tail mulgara (Dasycercus cristicauda), greater bilby ‘Mankarr’ (Macrotis lagotis) and the great desert skink (Egernia kintorei)–as well as significant natural and cultural areas. Additionally, the women of Wiluna have been engaged to provide environmental services that will support the recovery of the Jundee pastoral lease.

The Spinifex Community is being supported to implement the priority activities identified in the Spinifex Healthy Country Plan (SHCP). The plan has a threatened species focus–particularly malleefowl (Leipoa ocellata), southern marsupial mole (Notoryctes typhlops), and the sandhill dunnart (Sminthopsis psammophila). It will also work to build indigenous capacity to manage country, including encouraging the development of business enterprises on country. The SHCP has identified eight targets (assets) for protection and maintenance, and eleven threats to them. This project will focus on the highest priority: the eradication of Buffel Grass from Spinifex Country within 5 years with a further 5 year monitoring and treatment program to ensure total eradication. Other activities included and/or linked to this project are management of camels in priority areas, Waru Palya (“good fire”), ranger patrols, track-based monitoring for threatened and introduced species in association with ranger patrols, “kapi” (rock hole) protection, maintenance and monitoring at (initially) five priority sites and plan coordination, review and adaptation. The intergenerational transfer of cultural knowledge and the building of skills in survey and monitoring techniques to inform on-ground management actions is also being supported.

All groups have provided short term, casual engagement of traditional owners as rangers on Country, to undertaking natural resource management work.

In 2017, hundreds of unique records describing the biodiversity of the Western Desert were added to WA’s NatureMap, developed by the Department of Parks & Wildlife. The data was collected over the course of the 2008¬2013 Western Desert project by ranger groups working on Martu Country (in the Great Sandy, Gibson and Little Sandy deserts), Ngururrpa Country (in the Great Sandy Desert), Birriliburu Country (in the Little Sandy & Gibson deserts), Spinifex Country (in the Great Victoria Desert) and Yilka Country (in the Great Victoria Desert).


This project has been ongoing since 2009 with funding from the National Heritage Trust, Caring for our Country and the National Landcare Programme.


Chris Curnow


Video – On Country in the desert rangelands

Video – Waru, kuka, mirrka wankarringu – lampaju (Burning, bushfoods and biodiversity) – Martu persepctives of fire

Video – The Art of Fire


“By combining traditional ecological knowledge with contemporary natural resource management techniques [Aboriginal] rangers are looking after country and increasing biodiversity through ‘right way’ fire, monitoring of threatened species and through the removal of feral animals.” Tristan Cole, Environmental Strategy and Services Manager at KJ

To learn more, contact Chris Curnow at chrisc@rangelandswa.com.au