Is current Indigenous hunting sustainable?

Despite the importance placed on it by Indigenous people, land and wildlife management is a minor component of current Australian Government resource allocation for addressing Indigenous need.  Redressing this situation is urgent because Indigenous wildlife use and hunting in Australia, as it currently practiced, is often unsustainable. Our investigations which have been published in the CSIRO journal – Wildlife Research, examine the opportunity for greater science support for traditional Aboriginal practice.

In pre-colonial Australia, adherence to customary law maintained wildlife species Indigenous Australians wanted. Today the long-term sustainability of Indigenous wildlife harvesting is threatened. Where Indigenous communities lack leadership and other social problems exist, the capacity to apply customary land-and sea-management practices and to operate cultural constraints on wildlife use is reduced. In addition, increased hunting pressure follows human population increases and modern technology such as vehicles and guns.

In raising the question ‘is current Indigenous hunting sustainable?’ the aim of our paper is not to be critical of the rights of the First Australians to carry out customary practices, but to emphasise that any rights to hunt should coexist with management that accounts for all factors affecting sustainability.

Documented examples of unregulated harvesting (Indigenous and non-Indigenous) leading to wildlife population insecurity occur all over the world, including overharvesting of the world’s fish resource, dugong and turtle hunting in Northern Australian waters, and emu and red kangaroo hunting in central Australia. Other non-Indigenous anthropogenic and climactic pressures on wildlife populations only compound the need for harvesting to be based on good science.

In Australia, wildlife managers could be more engaged in supporting Indigenous Australians in activities such as surveying populations and estimating sustainable yields, improving harvesting techniques that reduce waste and are humane, identifying refuge areas, maximising habitat diversity, controlling weeds and feral animals, and exchanging information across regions. The opportunity and need is large. The Indigenous estate is already more than 20% of the Australian land mass and expanding. Indigenous ownership and responsibility for coastal and marine wildlife resources includes vast areas of intact ecosystems.

Western science can support Indigenous passion for caring for the land. It can draw on traditional Indigenous practice and, through reciprocal learning; help reinstate Indigenous law and culture in communities. In Australia and throughout the world, hunting and gathering remain important elements of Indigenous culture and connection with the land and sea. Indigenous people say they want increased bush tucker and game from their country to supplement their diet. They want security for totemic species so as to maintain culture. Doing so will deliver both important environmental and social outcomes.

Indigenous Australians place great importance on land and wildlife management, yet industry, government and philanthropic support for Indigenous participation in land management remains limited. Although support is growing through government programs such as Indigenous Protected Areas (IPA) and Working on Country (WoC), the focus of these programs is on threatened species and biodiversity conservation and rarely on consumptive use. It is parsimonious – $150m compared with the size of the total budget in support of Indigenous need which is $4.6bn.

Wildlife management could be a stronger focus in education, training and employment programs. If greater expenditure were directed to Indigenous wildlife management, wildlife managers, especially Indigenous wildlife managers, could become more engaged in blending traditional and scientific practices, participating in maintaining Australia’s unique wildlife populations and so contributing to programs that address the motivational and social challenges facing Indigenous communities. It has significant capacity to help address urgent Indigenous community health and employment challenges in remote and rural areas. Social and health benefits arise from exercise and improved diet and, through cultural maintenance, improved mental health. Employment and income, learning and training opportunities are available, for example, in Indigenous tourism for which there is a large unmet demand.

One example that is being implemented in a small way in central Australia is called ‘kuka kanyini’ (looking after game animals). Kuka Kanyini was devised in discussion with traditional owners on the Anangu Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara lands in central Australia. The kuka kanyini framework draws on Indigenous land-management practices and sets out priorities for scientists to work with Indigenous wildlife managers. It describes an adaptive ‘learning-by-doing’ management process, integrating Indigenous knowledge with western science. Management plans for the Angas Downs and Watarru Indigenous Protected Areas have been built on the concepts of kuka Kanyini, and are leading to sustainable use of wildlife.

Dr Wilson is a Senior Fellow at University of New South Wales Institute for Environmental Studies and with his colleagues from Australian Wildlife Services, has published the full paper in CSIRO Wildlife Research; Volume: 37; Issue: 3; 10-17.

Editor's Note: The author of this study can be contacted here. More information can be found at his company's website.