Meet Omar, the resident black headed monitor (Varanus tristis) who lives in the roof. Omar likes to walk by the sliding glass window in the afternoon and see what’s going on inside the living room of house 18A in the Rangerville neighborhood at Uluru Kata-Tjuta National Park (UKTNP). He can be a little skiddish but recently he was patient enough to let me get a photo of him.
So in addition to enjoying the presence of the local lizard fauna, I have also recently taken part in my first aboriginal consultation. As a researcher at UKTNP I must make a case for my research project to the traditional owners of the National Park. Uluru is not operated like a national park in the United States. In 1985 the parklands were returned to the local indigenous people of the Mutitjulu community, as part of the deal, the land was leased for 99 years from the traditional owners to the Australian Government to be operated as a National Park. Any significant management, development or research to be undertaken inside the park must first be presented to a committee of community elders who decide if and how any action will proceed.
A committee of 6 elder women and 2 elder men assembled for my consultation. I was asked by park staff to make a power point presentation to introduce myself to the committee. In general most senior indigenous men and women do not speak or understand english very well, so we had to have an interpreter for my talk. Additonally, I was asked to keep any text on my presentation to a minimum. I was asked to include lots of pictures of myself “doing stuff”, but also to explain my research with pictures. In my presentation I put in lots of photos of myself handling critters, which seemed to generate a lot of delight from my aboriginal audience, and seemingly suggested to them that I am passionate about wildlife. The challenging part was explaining my research with images. Since my research objective is to study frogs at water holes, I made the following image for my presentation
My goal with this image was to explain that I wanted to study frogs at the water holes at the base of Uluru, and I wanted to learn as much about each life stage of frogs as possible. This image generated more feedback than my translator could possibly interpret. All 8 members of the committee simultaneously began to talk about water holes, frogs, and rain. The little that did get translated revealed that many Anangu believe that frogs fall from the sky with the rain. I don’t see this as an entirely unreasonable conclusion sense this is a desert and frogs are not active on the surface of the ground unless there is a significant rainfall event. However, it was obvious that many members of the committee did not fully believe this, but some definitely did. One individual who was a devout member of the local Lutheran church plainly stated that not only did he believe that frogs fell with the rain, but that God sends the frogs.
As they kept bantering in the local Pitjantjatjara language I began to feel the conversation becoming derailed. One woman became quite animated and was pointing at me and speaking with intensity. She was convinced that I had visited Uluru a year ago with the intention to study diabetes in the indigenous community, it took a bit of work to convince her that I was not the person she remembered.
The final slide in my presentation was intended to explain my method of making pitfall traps to capture frogs and reptiles around Uluru.
Perhaps it was a little wordy, but I explained that the plywood cover provided inviting shade to frogs and reptiles and when they fall in the trap they do not suffer in the hot sun. This picture received much positive feedback and the committee liked that I was making an effort to keep the animals shaded while in the pitfall trap.
In my experience most landowners in the states are rarely concerned with any wildlife that isn’t a game species, i.e. animals that can be hunted and/or eaten. When referring to non-game wildlife (i.e. small mammals, “varmints”, reptiles, amphibians, etc.) I’ve heard the phrase “they ain’t good for noth’n” literally thousands of times. In contrast the Anangu have a broad knowledge and concern for all of the wildlife of their lands. They are certainly passionate about there favorite food animals like kangaroos, large lizards, emus etc. but they also have important myths and stories for marsupial moles, blue tongue lizards and woma pythons. In the rare instance that they admit to not knowing much about a particular organism they express a desire to learn more about it. They also see themselves as part of their land and they hold themselves responsible to manage and care for their lands and all the organisms that live on it.
I have more consultations coming up later this week, and several traditional owners will accompany me on the ground around Uluru to make sure the locations where I want to put my pitfall traps do not trespass on any sacred ground, and I am looking forward to this process.
Now, how about a Central Australian Sunset.