Cultural burns helping to save threatened koalas
Dan Morgan retraces steps he has taken hundreds, maybe thousands of times through the forest surrounding Biamanga mountain. Somewhere, dispersed through the canopy above, lives the last-known population of koalas on the NSW far south coast. “Biamanga is a place of initiation, it’s where we get taught lore,” says Morgan, a Yuin-Djiringanj traditional custodian. “And the koala, he is like the protector-custodian of this area. When we grow up, we’re taught that all the animals that live on our sacred sites are our ancestors, and it’s our obligation to protect them.”
Back in early 2020, in the space of a few terrifying hours, bushfires tore through hundreds of hectares of bushland and paddocks to the west of Biamanga. The fires destroyed hundreds of homes and flattened buildings on the main streets of Cobargo and Quaama, then climbed toward the ridge line of Biamanga mountain. The 2019–2020 bushfire season saw the koala declared endangered across most of eastern Australia. But another legacy of that Black Summer has been a surge in support for a different kind of fire.
Morgan is a cultural fire practitioner, working with Firesticks Alliance to return traditional Indigenous fire management to koala country, on land sacred to the Yuin people, spanning the boundaries of national parks, state forests and private landholdings.
He says once the Black Summer fires got to the top of Biamanga mountain they “just sat down, and they trickled around here for more than a month”. It was “like the old spirits of the land just sat that fire down and protected the koala habitat”.
When he first came back into the forest after the bushfires, Morgan found fresh koala scats on the burnt ground. Surveys suggest the estimated 50–60 koalas living in the forests between Bega and Bermagui survived.
Chris Allen, a former Senior Threatened Species Officer with NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service, says the country had originally been scheduled for logging. “In 1998, the NSW and Commonwealth governments committed millions of tons from these forests to the woodchipper and sawmill, without knowing about the koalas here,” he notes.
In the 1970s, the newly-built woodchip mill in Eden transformed the region’s forests into a battleground, with heated protests against intensive logging, thousands of arrests and deep division within the community.
After a number of reports of koala sightings by local landholders, Allen initiated a community-based koala survey. For more than 25 years, community volunteers, agency staff and local contractors, including from local Aboriginal land councils, have searched the leaf litter under more than 100,000 trees to look for koala scats. “Our survey program extended right through the coastal forests, and our results were trusted, even by Forestry,” he says. “We established that, although numbers were low, koalas were dispersed across more or less the entire landscape, each animal possibly having a home range of hundreds of hectares.”
The Aboriginal community added its own powerful voice to the conservation movement when significant cultural sites on Biamanga mountain were threatened by logging. “Forestry were pulling a lot of trees down, and they were about 50 metres away from a huge, sacred rock,” says Yuin Biripi traditional knowledge holder Lynne Thomas. “My dad tried to explain to them. When you go up to the sites up there on the mountain, it’s like our churches.”
Thomas was a little girl when her father, tribal elder Guboo Ted Thomas, led a campaign with Percy Mumbulla and other elders to recognise and protect the cultural heritage on Biamanga and Gulaga mountains. After decades of activism, Biamanga and Gulaga were proclaimed national parks and handed back to traditional custodians in 2006.
With conclusive evidence of a significant koala population, four state forests near Biamanga Mountain and further north toward Gulaga Mountain were reclassified as the Murrah Flora Reserves in 2016, and protected from logging.
For Morgan, the next, crucial step to secure the future of the forests and vulnerable wildlife is to restore the country’s traditional fire regime. And he’s now working with Yuin traditional knowledge holders and the local Koori community to reclaim and apply cultural fire practices on their traditional lands.
“Our old people knew every insect, every animal and every tree, and how they all connected with the winds and the seasons,” says Yuin-Djiringanj traditional knowledge holder Warren Foster said. “They knew the signs the land gave us that it was the right time to burn. All that knowledge is still here, locked away in the landscape.”
Private landholders are also embracing traditional Indigenous burning. Anne Browne watches as Morgan and a small crew of cultural fire practitioners apply a traditional burn on her property, on the edge of Biamanga National Park. “I think people are getting desperate now, and realise that things are changing so quickly,” she says. “We’re at a very critical stage with the country. We can’t just go on the way we are, with one catastrophe after another.”
Browne, now 94 and who has lived on the edge of Biamanga National Park for close to 40 years, has witnessed the degradation of the forest by logging, the steady depletion of wildlife, and the horror of bushfires at her doorstep.
In the wake of the Black Summer bushfires, the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements and the NSW Bushfire Inquiry both called for greater support for traditional Aboriginal land management practices, and there has been a flood of interest in cultural burning from private landholders.
For Morgan, it presents the chance to start caring for country as one cohesive landscape. It is a complex path to navigate: reclaiming ancient fire practices within the constraints of the prescribed burning regimes and regulations of different land tenures, and supporting a koala population that is more vulnerable than ever.
But Morgan’s determination is deep-seated. “It’s our cultural responsibility to care for the land the way our ancestors did for thousands of years,” he says. “Because that represents who we are. It’s going to be an awakening, for country, and for people, to realise that we need to be connected to this land.”
TOP Warren Foster, traditional knowledge holder and cultural advisor to the burning program at Biamanga
ABOVE LEFT Koala spotted in the Murrah flora reserve in September 2020
ABOVE RIGHT Anne Browne
BOTTOM LEFT Scott Parsons and Byron Lonsdale-Patten are among the next generation of traditional fire practitioners
BOTTOM RIGHT The use of cultural fire practices around Biamanga mountain
ALL PHOTOS EXECPT ABOVE LEFT Vanessa Milton
PHOTO ABOVE LEFT David Gallan