• Malak Malak Rangers and Charles Darwin University researchers spent five days trudging barefoot in mud to save nearly 40 sawfish pups (NITV News)Source: NITV News
Traditional Owners, Indigenous rangers and Charles Darwin University researchers work together to save critically endangered sawfish pups.
By
Laura Morelli

22 Sep 2017 - 5:21 PM  UPDATED 22 Sep 2017 - 5:25 PM

Hidden under the surface of the Daley River, 220km south of Darwin, lies a dried out nursery that was once home to a group of largetooth sawfish pups.

The breed of animal would have been steps closer to extinction if Indigenous rangers and researchers hadn’t been patrolling the edge of these floodplains.

Malak Malak Rangers and Charles Darwin University researchers spent five days trudging barefoot in mud to save nearly 40 sawfish pups just before their nursery dried out – an issue that has happened far too often, resulting in the animal’s critically endangered status.

“It’s vital to work with the local community – the Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers because the First Nations people have knowledge that we just don’t have.”

The sawfish were discovered trapped in a small waterhole in a channel off Tyumalagun (meaning shark swamp) about an hour’s drive from Naiuyu Community.

In part of a national threatened species management project, CDU senior research fellow, Dr Peter Kyne and research associate, Brittany Finucci helped conduct the major rescue mission.

“The core area where the sawfish were found was a muddy hole with water only 10 to 20cm deep,” Dr Kyne said.

“In total we caught 39 pups in the waterhole; one died in transit. We also found 16 that had already died in another area.”

The critically endangered species is thought to be extinct in almost 30 countries, with Northern Australia and Papua New Guinea the last major population strongholds anywhere in the world.

Dr Kyne says he’s been collaborating with Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers for several years and by being on Country with the knowledge passed on from their ancestors, has helped save hundreds of lives.

“The nursing areas [for sawfish pups] are known to be rivers – we didn’t know they get onto the big open flood plains, but the Traditional Owners allured us to this fact, which is crucial for protecting the species.”

The project, titled “Northern Australian hotspots for the recovery of threatened euryhaline species”, concentrates on large rivers and estuaries of the Top End, including the Daly and Adelaide rivers in the Northern Territory. Dr Kyne believes having a positive relationship with Indigenous local rangers who understand and are aware of the natural resources around them has been an essential part of the project.

“It’s vital to work with the local community – the Traditional Owners and Indigenous rangers because the First Nations people have knowledge that we just don’t have.”

The project is supported through the National Environmental Science Program’s Marine Biodiversity Hub, with research undertaken in the Daly River region since 2012.

The project has seen effort being put into educational awareness programs and tracking and tagging, which has helped not only local people understand more about the endangered species, but tourists too.

“Traditional Owners put up signs to recognise the animals and ultimately be able to help protect the endangered species. Tourists visiting also have been contacting the right people now they’re aware of the status because of the signs around the place.”

The rescued fish, all aged just under 12 months and measuring between 1.1 and 1.2 meters, were tagged for future monitoring, and tissue samples were taken for genetic studies. They can grow up to be some of the biggest fish in the world, hitting a whooping seven meters long. 

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