The apricot-orange, yellow-bellied great desert skink (Liopholis kintorei) goes by numerous names and stars in scores of stories.

Its vibrant colors match those of the vast Australian desert, and it lives almost exclusively on land owned and managed by Indigenous Peoples, who know it variously as mulyamiji, tjakuṟa, tjalapa, warrana and nampu.

Over tens of millennia, these desert communities have learned to trace the animal’s whereabouts using the tracks it makes in the sand.

They can also locate its elaborate, communal family burrow systems based on clues like their ‘latrines’ – the nearby scat piles they make in the sand.

In the past, this knowledge was applied mostly to hunting the hefty skinks for food: growing up to 45 centimeters long, the animal is considered a delicacy for its soft, fatty meat and provides a critical source of calories when food stores are low.

A great desert skink. Indigenous Desert Alliance

Now, that knowledge is being put to a new purpose. Indigenous rangers are joining forces with scientists and the Australian federal government to monitor the skink population – and learn how to protect it from extinction.

Last month, 20 Indigenous ranger teams set out for the second time on what has become an annual event called Mulyamiji March.

They tracked the species across about 100 survey sites, which are scattered across an area of more than 500,000 square kilometers – roughly the size of Thailand. The efforts form part of Australia’s first Indigenous-led National Recovery Plan for an endangered species.

The month of March was chosen not just for wordplay, but also because it’s right at the end of the skink’s active season, before it goes into winter hibernation.

The babies hatch around Christmas, so surveying in March means the trackers can determine whether there’s been a successful breeding event in each burrow, because there are baby-sized scats in the latrine.

“It’s a hard time to be doing field work, because it’s really hot: the temperatures were around 40 degrees [Celsius] most days,” says Rachel Paltridge, a threatened species ecologist at the Indigenous Desert Alliance who participated in the event. “But it’s the best time to do it.”

To cover each site, the project teams would camp out, get up at sunrise, form a line (locally dubbed an ‘emu parade’) and move slowly across the desert searching for tracks and scat, recording any findings on a GPS-enabled tablet.

“We had this big range of ages: lots of young, keen, enthusiastic rangers who’d never seen a tjakura, and then older people that knew lots about them,” says Paltridge. “So it was a really lovely way of working with multiple generations together.”

Payu West and grandchildren
Payu West teaches her grandchildren about the great desert skink in the Kiwirrkurra community. Indigenous Desert Alliance

Some teams also invite local school groups out to participate.

“While the data and the science is a big priority for the government and scientists, for the community groups, the first priority is passing their knowledge on between generations: both the cultural stories and the things like how to find them, what they look like and their life cycles,” Paltridge adds.

The data is relatively consistent between sites, which enables rangers and scientists to track population trends across the species’ habitat as a whole and work out what’s needed to manage them more sustainably.

Chiefly, that requires improved fire management and feral cat control. The skinks can survive huge wildfires, but if all of the undergrowth is burned away, they become extremely vulnerable to predators like cats.

“Their burrows are very obvious, they’ve got these scat piles, and they’ve got regular routines where they’re out around sunrise and sunset every day,” says Paltridge, “so it’s very easy for the cats to find the burrows, wait till they come out and – if there’s no spinifex vegetation for the animals to hide in – pounce.”

Burrow and tracks
A burrow and tracks left by the great desert skink. Birriliburu Rangers

To reduce the likelihood of hot, large, destructive wildfires, Indigenous land managers light small, controlled fires at cooler times of year. This is a traditional practice that burns off some of the fuel load and helps certain species regenerate.

Looking forward, several of the ranger groups are moving towards specific burning and firebreaks around their great desert skink sites.

“We now know that they can occur at quite high densities in localized areas,” says Paltridge. “If you can protect a square kilometer of habitat, you might have a couple of hundred burrows inside it – so you’re protecting a lot of individual animals within a fairly small area.”

Predator control, such as trapping feral cats, is also likely to feature in upcoming management plans.

2023 Mulyamiji March
Noreena Kadibil and Natasha Williams look for great desert skinks during the 2023 Mulyamiji March. Birriliburu Rangers & Indigenous Desert Alliance

Occasionally, locals still eat the animals – mostly when the dirt roads that connect these isolated communities to nearby towns are closed due to flooding and they need to go out hunting instead to find food.

“But that’s one of the things we’re monitoring, and it seems to be a very small number,” said Paltridge.

“And it’s actually kind of the point: ideally, when there’s a lot of good fire management happening, coupled with cat control, then there should be enough for people to go out and eat them sometimes, because it maintains that connection with the species and is a major motivator to conduct good land management.”

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