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U. study: Aboriginal fires helped kangaroos thrive

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(Brian Codding | University of Utah) This map shows an area of western Australia (see inset, upper right) surrounding the Parnngurr community occupied by roughly 100 of members of an Aboriginal people known as the Martu. Different shades of brown to yellow indicate the ages of patches of grassy vegetation that grew after the Martu set small fires to catch sand monitor lizards. The circles indicate traditional hunting areas where fires are most set and the Martu hunt for kangaroos.

By lisa schencker

The Salt Lake Tribune

First published Aug 05 2014 01:15PM
Updated Aug 6, 2014 07:11AM

Modern conservationists might learn something from the strategies some native people have been practicing for thousands of years, suggests a new study co-authored by a University of Utah researcher.

Brian Codding, an assistant anthropology professor at the U., and his co-researchers found that, in Australia, the Aboriginal Martu people’s practice of setting small grass fires to catch lizards actually boosts kangaroo populations. The Martu people have been setting such fires for at least 2,000 years to expose burrows dug by 2-foot-long sand monitor lizards, which they then drag from the holes, cook and eat.

In the fires’ aftermath, different types of vegetation grow, aiding kangaroos. For example, the marsupials hide from predators such as dingoes in older bush grass and eat shoots and fruits in areas of younger vegetation.

"The significance, really, is that we sort of uncovered a situation where traditional subsistence practices have a benefit to the broader ecosystem," Codding said. "I think this is probably going to be the case in many situations around the world where humans have stable, long-term interactions with their environments.

"This really isn’t a focused conservation effort, but it has the same effects that people might get through conservation."

The fires set by the Martu people average about 10 acres — much smaller than those sparked by lightning, Codding said.

Codding and three other anthropologists — his formal doctoral advisers at Stanford University, senior author Douglas Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird and Peter Kauhanen — visited western Australia between 2007 and 2010 to conduct the research. The study was published online Monday in the journal Human Ecology.

The study concludes: "To be successful, management schemes should facilitate traditional burning and hunting regimes in remote communities, and incorporate this traditional ecological practice into future management protocols."

Codding said it came as no surprise to the Martu people that their burning has helped kangaroos. In their belief system, known as the dreamtime, they see themselves as part of a larger ecosystem with spiritual elements. Setting the small fires is part of the behavior and law passed down to them through the dreamtime.

The fires seem to have helped the kangaroos even in areas where they’re hunted.

Codding and his colleagues found that kangaroo populations tended to be highest at moderate distances from villages, rather than very close (where kangaroos are first hunted) or very far (where there’s little hunting and burning). The finding seems to suggest that the benefits of the burning outweigh even the hunting.

lschencker@sltrib.com

Twitter: @LisaSchencker

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