Wildlife & Biodiversity

Indigenous knowledge: Australian Aboriginal fire practices can help protect koalas from bushfires, study finds

‘Cultural burns’ encouraged regeneration of native plants, did not cause any stress in koalas and were cooler and slower than ‘hot fires’

By Rajat Ghai
Published: Wednesday 01 March 2023
Collage credit: Ajit Bajaj / CSE. Photos: iStock

Traditional fire burning practices or ‘cultural burns’ by indigenous Australians can help protect the iconic koala, new research by the University of the Sunshine Coast has found.

Researchers from the university worked with members of the Quandamooka nation on Minjerribah, also known as North Stradbroke Island, the world’s second-largest sand island, for two years to come to the conclusion.

The ‘cultural burns’ were found to be cooler, lower and slower than ‘hot fires’, according to a statement by the university February 27, 2023.

Such fire activity encouraged the regeneration of suitable native plants. On the other hand, they controlled species like banksias and wattle to reduce the risk of fire reaching the canopy where koalas lived.

The 275 square kilometre island is located just off the coast of southeast Queensland and is home to unique flora and fauna.

The research team counted and monitored koalas using drones fitted with thermal cameras and collected koala scats from the ground. They then analysed hormone metabolite levels which could indicate stress.

The research results showed that there were no negative impacts on the densities or stress levels of the animals during or after the traditional burning method was used to set alight 130 hectares of the island’s northeast between Flinders Beach and the East Coast Road in July 2021. The second burn was conducted in August 2022.

The United Nations had taken note of burning practices and techniques of indigenous peoples around the world as a method to control wildfire incidents in a report last year on increasing incidences of fires globally.

The report noted that “indigenous and traditional knowledge of land management in many regions — particularly the use of fire to manage fuel, including for wildfire mitigation — can be an effective way of reducing hazard.”

“It can also ensure that biodiversity and cultural (including understanding traditional gender roles that can govern burning activities) and ecological values are respected, as well as create livelihood opportunities,” authors of Spreading like wildfire: The rising threat of extraordinary landscape fires said.

The document had cited the example of Australian Aborigines’ use of fire to create mosaic landscapes for hunting and gathering purposes. This practice broke up the continuity of fuels and inhibited the extensive spread of wildfires, it had added.

Koalas have become the symbol of the suffering Australia’s biodiversity has had to endure in recent decades as wildfire incidents have risen, aided by climate change.

For instance, Kangaroo Island, just off the coast of the state of South Australia and the country’s third-largest island, had witnessed raging fires during the 2019-20 Australian Bushfire Season, known locally as ‘Black Summer’.

Many species of plants and animals endemic to the island had perished in the inferno.

The koala and the Olive Ridley turtle are part of a list of 110 ‘priority species’ that the Australian government will try to save from extinction over the next 10 years, the country’s environment minister announced October 4, 2022.

Read more:

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.