Indigenous Biodiversity

Australian endangered species registers make sobering reading. They list animals and plants that are vulnerable, threatened, endangered and extinct. Each listing includes detailed information such as scientific and common names, habitats, particular threats, estimated numbers and management plans.

Absent from these lists are the Aboriginal language names, cultural knowledge and connections that for thousands of years have been celebrated through song, ceremony, stories and art. All of these animals were named and included in Aboriginal culture prior to being ‘discovered'—and endangered—post-contact.

The Many Nations section of the First Peoples exhibition in Bunjilaka Aboriginal Cultural Centre at Melbourne Museum provides a unique opportunity to learn from Aboriginal artists and material culture about their deep connections with over 150 of these animals and birds, including around 20 that appear on the Threatened Species list.

The Animal Creations case contains many endangered animals: Nganamara, Dilmirrur, Kuniya, Ulhelke, Mala, Mewurk or Goodoo, Itjaritjari, Purinina, Garun, and Pokka. There are also several introduced species: the Ngaya, Rapita or Pinytjatanpa, and Camel, whose stories connect to the demise of the Mitika, Wintaru and Mala. Other cases also contain beautiful pieces connected to listed animals and birds including the Gunduy, Gudurrku, Puntukan, Bilby, Rufus Bettong, Black-billed Stork, Stone Curlew and Kakalhalha.

pink cockatoo
Lithograph of Major Mitchell's Cockatoo from Gould's Birds of Australia, 1840-1848, vol 5, pl 2

The latter is a beautiful pink bird that has been given several names since it was ‘discovered’ – firstly Major Mitchell's Cockatoo in honour of explorer Major Sir Thomas Mitchell. It was also named Lophochroa leadbeateri to commemorate the British naturalist Benjamin Leadbeater. To the Arrernte people, this important bird remains known just as it always has been: the Kakalhalha, for the sound it makes. It likes to eat some of the same bush seeds as the Western Arrernte, making it a good indicator of the harvest season, telling the community when it is time to collect the seeds for damper.

Some of the animals on the Threatened Species list include these from the lands of the Pitjantjatjara in Central Australia, the Yorta Yorta in Victoria and the Trawulwuy in Tasmania. Yorta Yorta artist Treahnna Hamm's Mewurk or Goodoo (Murray Cod) artwork highlights the declining health of this magnificent fish and its river habitat.

woman holding artwork of a fish
Treahnna Hamm with her Murray Cod artwork, 2013.

Most commonly known as the Tasmanian Devil, the Purinina made by Trawulwuy artist Vicki West is made from kelp, another species in decline. Said Vicki in 2012: ‘I like using kelp, a plant fibre from the ocean, the old people used it to create the water carriers; I use it as the metaphor of survival… The Devil plays an essential role in the cleaning of and caring for our country through scavenging. I find it ironic that the medium I chose to represent survival has been used to create an animal under threat, itself endangered.’

Woman holding artwork of tasmanian devil
Trawulwuy artist, Vicki West holding her Purinina (Tasmanian Devil), 2013

Itjaritjari (marsupial moles) live in the sandy river flats and sand dunes in the desert of inland Australia. They are rarely seen and spend most of their time underground. Aboriginal traditional ecological knowledge is crucial to piranpa (western) science's understanding of this reclusive animal. Virtually all Itjaritjari specimens have been captured by the Traditional Owners of the desert, who play an integral role in Itjaritjari research. The Itjaritjari has great cultural significance also: during the formation of the western face of Uluru, a number of caves and potholes were created by a Totemic Being called Minyma Itjaritjari.

indigenous carving depicting a marsupial mole
Itjaritjari (Marsupial Mole) made by a Pitjantjatjara artist circa 1920s.

Increasingly, joint management and conservation projects rely on the cultural knowledge and expertise of Aboriginal communities to protect animals at risk.

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