Connecting country, community and conservation in central Australia

29 Jun. 2022
Brad Leue/AWC

The spinifex sandplains of central Australia were the historic scene for students from Nyirripi School to welcome the return of Ninu, the Greater Bilby, to the traditional lands of the Ngalia-Warlpiri and Luritja people.

As the sun was sliding down the sand dunes, students ranging from pre-school to year nine burst from their bus eager to learn about the new native arrivals and help with their release.

The 32 Bilbies had just landed on the red and dusty airstrip at Australian Wildlife Conservancy’s (AWC) Newhaven Wildlife Sanctuary in the Northern Territory and were being measured by AWC ecologists who fitted radio transmitters to nine of the Ninu.

Newhaven Bilby Release Brad Leue 1 Brad Leue/AWC

Known to local Warlpiri people as Ninu, the Greater Bilby, is culturally significant to Indigenous People in Central Australia and is an important ecosystem engineer that facilitates key ecosystem processes through burrowing and digging for food.

Although once widespread across Central Australia, Bilby numbers have drastically declined, due to the threats posed by feral predators such as feral cats and foxes, and destructive fire regimes.

While the Bilbies, who had made the long journey from Taronga Western Plains Zoo in Dubbo, NSW, were prepared for their new home, a sunset story-time session was held for the fascinated students. Newhaven Warlpiri Ranger, Alice Nampijinpa Henwood, shared her knowledge of country and the Ninu in Warlpiri and AWC, Senior Science Communicator, Joey Clarke, offered conservation insights in English.

Newhaven Bilby Release Brad Leue Joey Clarke Nyirrpi Visit 1 Brad Leue/AWC

Alice said it was an emotional day: “When the plane came it make me feel sorry – they had to come from a long way away to get here, back to Newhaven. When the kids saw them they got real happy, and I got happy too – Ninu! My mum and my dad learn me how to find Bilbies, dig them up. When I was a teenager I walked a long way and I found Ninu.”

The strong connection between the school and the sanctuary facilitates connection to country and learning for the Nyirripi community which lies some 400 km north-west from Alice Springs.

Nyirripi teacher, Tracey Millar said the school prioritises connection to language, community and country.

“This is the children’s country and it is very important for their Culture that they know about and understand the various species of native animals that have existed throughout history,” Tracey said. “We go on weekly bush trips with local Elders and TOs to various sacred sites and other locations so the children can learn the stories.

The school employs local Yappa staff in the classroom to teach lessons in Warlpiri to assist in keeping the language alive and so the students learn both standard Australian English as well as literacy in the Warlpiri language.

Brad Leue/AWC

AWC’s Newhaven Sanctuary Manager, Henry Brink was delighted to host the Warlpiri students and community for the Bilby release.

“We love having the students and community on country with us,” Brink said. “It is a wonderful learning opportunity for all of us as we share knowledge with each other and experience the joy of witnessing the return of natives species to our beautiful arid land.”

To commemorate the Bilby return the students brought drawings of the Ninu and they came brimming with pride, enthusiasm and questions.

Newhaven Bilby Release Nyirripi School Brad Leue Brad Leue/AWC

“The children absolutely loved the experience,” Tracey said. “They have never seen Bilbies and thought they were very cute. Some of our students continued to draw pictures and write stories about the experience. They also talked about wanting to be rangers when they grow up which is a wonderful pathway to work for them.”

According to Henry, the Bilbies are already making Newhaven home and have created lots of burrows that are transforming the landscape.

“It is a joy to see signs that the Bilbies are making themselves at home and we will continue to track their progress and keep the school updated on their progress,” Henry said. “The connection to country and community is key to conservation success and also a pleasure to be a part of.”

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