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Indigenous Aboriginal ranger Romeo Lane points out an ancient painting of a six-legged goanna lizard to the curious crowd of media and visitors — myself included — that surrounds him.

The painting is just one of thousands that scatter the escarpments of Arnhem Land in the very northern tip of Australia’s vast tropical savanna. This rich cultural heritage belonging to Australia’s first inhabitants is in an important part of why so many of us have traveled thousands of kilometres for what is a momentous day in Australia’s history.

Last week, the Australian federal government and traditional indigenous landowners achieved a major milestone for conservation in Australia: the signing of agreements establishing two immense and globally significant conservation reserves on indigenous lands in the Northern Territory of Australia.

Known as the Djelk and Warddeken Indigenous Protected Areas, the reserves are located in Western and Central Arnhem Land about 300 miles from Darwin, and span 7,889 square miles — more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park in the United States.

The reserves stretch from the high country of the Western Arnhem Land Plateau to the islands off the Northern Territory coast and include sandstone gorges, pristine rivers, tropical savanna and coastal wetlands. The area is of global significance for its natural and cultural values.  

Under the new agreements, traditional landowners will continue to manage the reserves and will be assisted by the indigenous ranger organisations, Djelk Rangers and the Warddeken Manwurrk Rangers. The declaration follows several years of consultation with members of more than 137 indigenous clans in the region and the development of detailed management plans.

Controlled burning in Australia

Warddeken Manwurrk ranger carries out fire control. (Photo: Peter Eves)

A core part of these plans is the reintroduction of traditional burning practices that have been found to cut greenhouse gas emissions by preventing large uncontrolled bushfires. Other management approaches include control of feral animals, particularly buffalo, which cause serious damage to the region’s wetlands.

The Nature Conservancy has been working with both ranger groups in the lead up to the declaration of these protected areas and is honored to support the landowners and the Djelk and Warddeken rangers in their management of the new reserves.

The Conservancy will continue to work with the groups in securing long-term funding from private investment to ensure these extraordinary areas can be managed effectively into the future.

— Text by Michael Looker, Cool Green Science Blog
Indigenous lands conserved in northern Australia
Protected areas are more than twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.