Traditional Owners and area of operation
A number of clans of the Bininj Kunwok language group are the traditional owners of the west Arnhem plateau. Bininj ownership of their land is recognized under the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act 1976. Warddeken Land Management was established in August 2007 and operates from the Kabulwarnamyo outstation community, re-established in 2002. It represents over 10 years work by the traditional owners of the west Arnhem plateau in formalizing their cultural and natural resource management activities and re-connecting people with country.
The Bininj Kunwok clans that are part of Warddeken Land Management are Mok, Mirarr Gundjeihmi, Warrdjak/Worgorl, Danek, Ngalngbali (Succession to Nguluminji), Warrdjak, Yurlhmanji, Maddalk, Bolmo, Badmardi, Wurnkomku, Barradi, Madjawarr, Marrirn, Wurrik, Mayirrkulidj, Durlmangkarr, Rol, Djordi/Djorrolom, Murruba, Buluwunwun, Bulumo, Karnbirr, Berderd/Mimbalawuy, Wurrbarn, Warridjnu, Bularldja, and Lambirra.
Warddeken Land Management operates across the remote and rugged western Arnhem Plateau. Most of the terrain is dominated by the heavily dissected sandstone, and access is mainly by foot or by helicopter. In the dry season a few rough tracks are accessible by 4WD, connecting up the handful of outstations that have been established since the mid-1980s. There are four other communities on the Plateau, three of which are permanently occupied and one which is currently unoccupied for cultural reasons. They are Malkowo, Manmoyih, Kamarrkawan and Kumarrirnbang.
Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area
In 2009 The Warddeken Indigenous Protected Area (IPA) was declared. It covers some 14,000 square kilometres of country. The Warddeken IPA is contiguous with the Djelk IPA, declared at the same time. They share a common 50 km border and a narrow 286 km overlap (representing customary integration of adjoining clans responsibilities for country). These two IPAs cover some of Australia's most biodiverse regions and will exceed the area of both Kakadu and Nitmuluk National Parks.
For Aboriginal people it means - unlike joint-management arrangements for national parks - that they remain the primary managers of their country. Aboriginal people are able to develop their own partnerships and determine their own priorities and outcomes.
The Arnhem Land Plateau is recognised under the NT Parks and Conservation Masterplan as an international site of biodiversity significance and one of the highest priorities for conservation across the Northern Territory. The plateau is the home of 166 species of plants that occur nowhere else in world along with 20 species of vertebrate. (NRETA 2005: 118). The plateau is highly significant for numerous nationally and Territory-listed threatened species. It is also of great cultural significance locally and globally with experts stating that the extraordinarily rich and diverse body of rock art across the plateau is of World Heritage standard.
The Arnhem Land plateau covers the entire Arnhem Land Plateau Bioregion. The plateau covers some 32,000 sq km of country and is the home of an extraordinary high diversity of animal and plant communities and includes many relictual (an animal or plant known to have existed in the same form in previous geological ages) and endemic species of flora and fauna.
The dominant ecological community of the plateau is the Arnhem Land sandstone heath. This community is a complex of closely interdigitated (interlocked like the fingers of folded hands), intergrading plant formations including Eucalyptus, Corymbia or Callitris dominated forests, woodlands, open woodlands, shrublands and hummock grasslands united by the presence of a well developed scleroplyllous shrub component (IPA Tech Report). The relatively small areas of Myrtaceae (Allosyncarpia ternata) forest surviving in the upper basin are also highly valued by landowners for their association with ancestors.
The prevailing fire regime is leading to broad-scale loss of obligate seeders (woody plants which cannot re-sprout from their trunks and are dependent on seed for regeneration), which provide much of the ecological fabric of this ecosystem. To maintain the extent, diversity and intactness of this ecosystem, traditional owners have been active in reducing the frequency of extensive hot late season fires. The reoccupation of the Arnhem Land Plateau and the West Arnhem Fire Abatement Program, discussed below, is assisting with this major task.
Monsoonal rainforests throughout the basin are highly valued for yams and other food plants. However, the prevailing fire regime is also degrading and diminishing these rainforests, particularly those dominated by Myrtaceae. The monsoonal rainforest appears to be in retreat over a large portion of its range. It is not only late hot season fires that are degrading this ecosystem but also feral animals, particularly pigs, and weeds (IPA Tech Report).
Feral buffalo (Bubalus bubalis) also have a negative impact on the plateau. Buffalo are held in ambivalent regard by landowners. They are valued highly for subsistence hunting and also for the potential commercial value they hold. At the same time landowners recognise the negative impact that buffalo have on wetlands, springs and water quality. The National Brucellosis and Tuberculosis Eradication Campaign (BTEC) in the 1970s significantly reduced buffalo numbers in the low-lands of coastal west Arnhem Land. However, mustering was impossible and shootout difficult on the Plateau. Furthermore, migrating buffalo from the Gulin Gulin herd, near Bulam, (which was determined to be disease-free and not subject to destocking, and is now estimated to number 30,000 animals) have been identified as a major threat to biodiversity of the plateau.
Cane toads entered the bioregion in the 2001 Wet season from the east. Their presence and impact on native fauna caused great distress to traditional owners. Feral cats are also found on the plateau escarpment their population and impact on native species is not known. European bees have been in the Plateau east of the Gumardir River since the early 1990s their impact on the culturally important and highly valued sugar bag native bees (Trigona and Austroplebeia sp) is also unknown.
Threatened species on the Plateau include: Bustard (Ardeotis australis), Emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), Northern Quoll (Dasyurus hallucatus), Nabarlek (Petrogale concinna), Black Wallaroo (Macropus bernardus), Arnhem Land Rock-rat (Zyzomys maini), Arnhem Leafnosed-bat (Hipposideros inornata), Freshwater Sawfish (Pristis microdon), and Nawaran or the Oenpelli python (Morelia oenpelliensis).