Aboriginal land management & care

Modern First Nations land care methods are very different than traditional methods but address issues such as greenhouse gas emission. Bush rangers are critical for many land care tasks and highly successful.

Close this Cover of Aboriginal Culture Essentials

Wishing you knew more about Aboriginal culture? Search no more.

Get key foundational knowledge about Aboriginal culture in a fun and engaging way.

This is no ordinary resource: It includes a fictional story, quizzes, crosswords and even a treasure hunt.

Stop feeling bad about not knowing. Make it fun to know better.

Sold! Show me how No, thank you

Selected statistics

Number of full-time equivalent ranger positions in Australia in 2015.
Hectares actively managed by rangers in Australia (30 times larger than Australia's largest national park at Kakadu).
Annual funding for ranger programs and Indigenous Protected Areas in 2015.
Number of ranger projects in QLD in 2017-18.
Number of ranger groups across Australia.
Amount of rubbish collected by the Dhimurru rangers in eastern Arnhem Land in 2018; amount in 2016: 0.5 tonnes.

Traditional care for the land

Before the invasion Aboriginal people created a complex system of land management. There was no 'pristine wilderness' as many explorers thought, but rather a patchwork of burnt and re-grown areas. Fire was the biggest ally of Aboriginal people.

In using fire Aboriginal people could plan and predict plant growth and with it attract animals for hunting. They converted the land to grasslands for the "maintenance" of animals, plants and fresh drinking water, according to Bill Gammage's award-winning book, The Biggest Estate on Earth.

Gammage explains that Aboriginal people not only thought of kangaroos when laying out their burn patterns, but also of possums, wombats, birds, insects, reptiles and plants. "Once you have started to lay out country to suit a species, you are on the way to an extraordinarily complex arrangement of the land, which you must maintain very carefully, and over many generations," he says. Burn patterns also need to consider plant cycles and prevent the grasslands from overgrowing again.

Research draws some striking conclusions:

  • No uncontrolled fires. An uncontrolled fire could wipe out food sources—Aboriginal people had to prevent them or die. Evidence strongly suggests that no devastating fires occurred.
  • Aboriginal people were farmers. (see section below)
  • Customised templates. Aboriginal people developed specific templates to suit the land, plants and animals. They knew which animals preferred what, e.g. kangaroos preferred short grass, native bees preferred desert bloodwood etc. Managing the land with fire required them consider these dependencies.
  • No pristine wilderness. Much of the land in Australia had been "culturally formed" by thousands of years of Aboriginal burning – even the world renowned Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area. More trees grow in areas now known as national parks than did in 1788.

Researchers confirmed these fire management techniques with drill samples taken from modern rainforest. The probes showed remains of grass, eucalyptus and charcoal in the deeper layers while the more recent layers were dominated by rainforest and no charcoal.

The researchers were also impressed by how fast the rainforest claimed back burnt areas. It showed the "enormous workload" Aboriginal people had to stem to keep the grasslands open.

This purposeful intervention [of fire farming] demonstrates land ownership.

— Michael-Shawn Fletcher, Associate Professor in Biogeography, University of Melbourne

Aboriginal people were sophisticated farmers

Researchers found that Aboriginal people grew crops of tubers such as yams, grain such as native millet, macadamia nuts, fruits and berries. People reared dingoes, possums, emus and cassowaries, moved caterpillars to new breeding areas and carried fish stock across country.

There is "strong evidence" of "sophisticated farming and agriculture practices". Early explorers watched women harvesting yams, onions, and cultivating the land, creating reserves of flour and grain.

In 2019, the UNESCO added the 6,600-year-old Budj Bim Cultural Landscape near Portland, south-west Victoria, to the UNESCO World Heritage List. The site proves that Aboriginal people built fish traps, channels, weirs and ponds to harvest eels, and also permanent stone houses. The site is considered one of the largest and oldest aquaculture sites in the world and became the first Australian World Heritage site to be nominated exclusively for Aboriginal cultural values.

A growing number of books document this new understanding of Aboriginal land management, challenging the hunter-gatherer stereotype. Besides Bill Gammage’s Biggest Estate on Earth there is also Billy Griffiths’ Deep Time Dreaming: Uncovering Ancient Australia and Bruce Pascoe’s very popular Dark Emu.

Not only does Budj Bim bust the myth that all Indigenous people were nomadic and not agriculturally inclined, it is also considered one of the oldest aquaculture sites in the world.

— Matt Neal, ABC News

Myth alarm: Australia's 'pristine' wilderness

Which of the following statements do you think is true?

1. Aboriginal people have lived in harmony with the Australian landscape for millennia.

2. The Australian landscape is a man-made result, even in the outback.

Many people, including members of political parties, believe that before invasion the Australian bush was virgin and Aboriginal people's lifestyle carefully tried to maintain its delicate balance.

The opposite is true.

Aboriginal people have been fire-farming for more than 50,000 years. The spinifex plains of the Tanami desert in central Australia, for example, are man-made . Aboriginal people burnt the land there every year and used it for hunting kangaroos and other animals.

Governments, environmentalists and many other Australians maintain a distorted view of what 'wilderness' is. They engage to maintain it, not realising that Aboriginal people have always changed the Australian landscape. Native title legislation has fallen victim to this belief, allowing customary but not economic rights to Aboriginal people .

"Aboriginal cultural practice has always had an impact on the landscape—there is no pristine wilderness in Aboriginal lands," says Dr Deane Fergie, an anthropologist at the University of Adelaide.

Explore more myths about Aboriginal life.

Video: Watch Bill Gammage discuss how Aboriginal people managed country, dispelling the myth that they just roamed around doing nothing.

What happens if indigenous peoples are not looking after the land?

From the previous section it is already clear that indigenous care changes the land and, over millennia, influences how animals and plants react to human interference.

Researchers from the University College London found another striking change: the temperature on Earth. When the world temperature dropped during the 16th and 17th centuries, a period known as the 'Little Ice Age', it coincided with the genocide of indigenous nations in the Americas after first European contact in 1492.

Like Australian Aboriginal people, indigenous nations in America cultivated the land and reduced the number of trees and bushes in the process. The fewer trees grow in a certain area, the warmer the local climate gets as less carbon dioxide is absorbed (similar to today).

At the time of invasion in the Americas, Europeans decimated the indigenous population from about 60 million to 5 or 6 million over the next 100 years. This led to an area the size of modern-day France regrow from indigenous land care. More trees could absorb more carbon dioxide, reducing the temperature so much that it led to the 'Little Ice Age', also felt in far-away Europe.

Heal Country

If you forget me, I will remind you.
With flame I will light up the land.
I will stop the rain and turn the fields to dust.
I will close your borders with flooding rivers.
Remember you are here because I exist.
I am the land, you are the people, 
Together we are one.

Michele 'Mickey' Hetherington wrote this poem with 2021 NAIDOC Week's theme "Heal Country" in mind. "I felt the land is angry with us for forgetting our connection," she writes.

Not caring for Country

Modern Australia has a shocking land care record.

A report published in Nature found that Australia is the second worst country for biodiversity decline in the world. Australia is one of seven countries responsible for more than 50% of global diversity loss over a period of 12 years. NSW and QLD are responsible for the deaths of more than 50 million animals every year through land clearing.

Since colonisation, Australia has lost 100 native flora and fauna species, among them 39 species of mammals, about the same number as the rest of the world combined. Of the world's extinct mammals, Australia's share is 38%. The rate of loss in Australia has not slowed since the early days of land clearing.

Land clearing continues to be the main cause of animal habitat loss. The 2022 State of the Environment report says that between 2000 and 2017, there were 7.7 million hectares of land cleared across Australia, and 93% of the vegetation was felled without federal approvals for threatened species habitats.

Not caring for Country has severe consequences. The catastrophic 2019–20 bushfire season burnt more than 30 million hectares of land across Australia moderately to severely, destroyed homes and landscapes, killed or displaced more than 3 billion animals, blanketed cities in thick smoke that caused an estimated 450 deaths due to direct injury or exposure to air pollution, and emitted between 650 million and 1.2 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Experts estimate that Australia needs to increase its investment almost twentyfold to be able to actually prevent the further loss of species.


In 2022, the Koala was listed as "endangered". It was first listed as "vulnerable" in NSW, ACT and Queensland in 2012.

Modern care & bush rangers

Caring for the land does not necessarily mean only the traditional way. Modern carers for land, such as rangers, can both continue traditions (deep knowledge about country passed on from generation to generation), as well as apply modern technologies and innovative land management practices.

Combining traditional methods and contemporary practices can in fact get the best results for the environment, for example in Indigenous Protected Areas or by preventing hot and destructive fires which can offset greenhouse gas emissions.

The success of Aboriginal ranger programs is largely credited to the Aboriginal ownership of the work, guided by the local authority of Aboriginal elders. And people have noticed.

A poll of more than 1,000 people in Queensland in November 2017 found that more than 80% supported Aboriginal land management and 88% supported a proposal to create new ranger jobs. Respondents agreed overwhelmingly that "people living on the land in the outback have an important role to play in protecting and restoring the natural environment".

Working as a ranger benefits Aboriginal people's connection with country. "Being out on country, being one with the country, the feeling is indescribable," raves Ngumbarl/Nimanburr Nyikina woman Devena Cox, who leads the Nyul Nyul female rangers, based in Beagle Bay on the Dampier peninsula of Western Australia. "You’re busy when you’re out there working but when you sit back, you see that everything connects and there’s a purpose to it all."

In remote communities, where there are often no other jobs than with the clinic, school or shop, being a ranger means an income as well as training. Ranger jobs are so popular that some sign up despite being paid less than they would as welfare recipients.

Assisting graziers and farmers with restoring drought- and erosion-affected land can also give a new perspective on caring for country, especially if it involves teaching youth to know Country and how it works. Such jobs can help them move on from environmental land management to applying for a ranger position.

Aboriginal ranger programmes also encourage people to work on their traditional country, support Aboriginal culture and conserve the environment. They are funded through federal and state governments which is a risk as governments can stop funding anytime.

People [working in the ranger program] feel like they own the issues and, more importantly, they own the solutions.

— Ned David, chairman, Gur A Baradharaw Kod Torres Strait Land and Sea Council

Between 1899 and 1902, fifty Aboriginal black trackers were summonsed by the British forces in South Africa to join the Boer war effort. Researchers claim that at the end of the war in 1902 the Australian government denied them re-entry to Australia under the White Australian Policy.

Resource: The Indigenous Desert Alliance connects Aboriginal rangers who are working on desert country throughout Western Australia, South Australia and the Northern Territory to support cultural, environmental and social outcomes.

Land management tasks

Traditional owners often work in partnership with government departments and other non-Aboriginal organisations to conserve and care for land.

In such mutual relationships traditional owners and rangers perform a multitude of tasks:

Spiritual & cultural works

  • protect and maintain cultural sites, stories and songlines,
  • recognise important cultural areas,
  • perform cultural or customary activities,
  • supply meat from crocodile and feral buffalo to the local community.

Environmental works

  • record sites of resource use and special features,
  • create seasonal harvest calendars,
  • survey catchments,
  • hunt for feral animals such as foxes, camels, buffalo, pigs or cats which threaten the delicate ecosystem of the bush,
  • track endangered species,
  • record (new) plants,
  • protect biodiversity,
  • remove seeds and weeds including invasive pests like African buffel grass,
  • remove rubbish left by tourists at camping spots, and ghost nets, plastic and other marine debris from seas and beaches,
  • help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and earn carbon credits,
  • return threatened species to their native habitat (439 animal species were threatened in 2012, up from 353 in 2001; 1344 plant species were threatened in 2012, a 20% increase from 2001 ),
  • manage controlled burns and set fire breaks to prevent devastating bush fires and protect outstations and sacred sites,
  • conduct fisheries surveillance and compliance patrols,
  • help with sustainable water management, including animal rescue.

Educational works

  • teach government departments and tourists about their connection with the land, the seasons and bush foods,
  • assist with providing cross-cultural education and capacity building within their communities,
  • take Aboriginal children out on country so they can learn from their elders.

We come from a people who cherished the land and cared for it better than it will ever be cared for again.

— Julie Kelly, NSW

Joint [land] management is a win-win situation that provides employment, training, a better environment and a bit of hope.

— Rick Hope, Senior Ranger, Rainbow Valley Conservation Reserve, NT

In 2012, Aboriginal people managed 20% of Australia's land.

More than 3 million adult kangaroos and 1 million joeys are "harvested" each year in Australia for human and pet consumption. This is considered the "largest commercial kill of terrestrial wildlife on Earth". For many Aboriginal tribes kangaroos are a sacred animal.

In Australia, invasive species are the number one driver of biodiversity loss, and feral cats have the greatest environmental impact, killing nearly six million reptiles, birds and mammals every night.


View article sources (25)

[1] [1a] [1b] [1c] [1d] 'Funding for indigenous ranger programs must be doubled, report says', SMH 15/11/2015
[2] [2a] [2b] [2c] 'Indigenous rangers: expansion call as support from One Nation voters revealed', The Guardian Australia, 8/1/2018
[3] [3a] [3b] [3c] [3d] [3e] ''We walk with our heads high': the women who care for country by fighting fire with fire', The Guardian 16/9/2019
[4] [4a] 'The first farmers', SMH 1/10/2011
[5] [5a] [5b] 'This rainforest was once a grassland savanna maintained by Aboriginal people – until colonisation', The Conversation 11/3/2020
[6] 'Dark Emu argues against 'Hunter Gatherer' history of Indigenous Australians', ABC 17/3/2014
[7] [7a] 'Ancient Indigenous aquaculture site Budj Bim added to UNESCO World Heritage list', ABC News 6/7/2019
[8] [8a] 'Indigenous Aussies in carbon rights fight', Daily Telegraph 16/1/2010
[9] 'Green and Black', Environment South Australia newsletter Nov/Dec 1994 p.14
[10] 'America colonisation ‘cooled Earth's climate’', BBC News 31/1/2019
[11] Private email 28/7/2021
[12] 'NSW, Queensland lead deforestation figures', SMH 28/10/2017
[13] 'Siblicidal kookaburras, truffle-snuffling potoroos: Why did Australia’s wildlife astonish even Charles Darwin?', SMH 15/8/2021
[14] [14a] [14b] 'Environment scorecard finds Australia’s habitat ‘crumbling rapidly’', SMH 19/7/2022
[15] 'Close the Gap Campaign Report 2021', Close the Gap Campaign Steering Committee, 2021, p.26
[16] 'Indigenous Australians and graziers unite to heal country and restore the environment', ABC News 3/10/2021
[17] '50 Aboriginal trackers left behind at the end of the Boer War', National Unity Government,, retrieved 9/1/2018
[18] 'Land is linked to well-being', Koori Mail 496 p.35
[19] [19a] 'Caring for their country', Koori Mail 485 p.27
[20] 'Coastline protected', Koori Mail 471 p.37
[21] [21a] 'Caring for country', Koori Mail 519 p.64
[22] 'Better lives for people, but nature under cloud', SMH 13/10/2012
[23] 'A word that identifies us', readers letter, Koori Mail 488 p.25
[24] 'Don't cull roos, says Elder', Koori Mail 492 p.41
[25] 'Invasive species lead driver of biodiversity loss in Australia – and feral cats have biggest impact, report finds', The Guardian 5/9/2023

Cite this page

Korff, J 2023, Aboriginal land management & care, <>, retrieved 25 July 2024

Creative Spirits is a starting point for everyone to learn about Aboriginal culture. Please use primary sources for academic work.

Join thousands of Smart Owls who know more!