Arid Lands Newsletter (link)No. 54, November/December 2003
Fire Ecology I

Women who hunt with fire: Aboriginal resource use and fire regimes in Australia's Western Desert

by Douglas W. Bird, Rebecca Bliege Bird, and Christopher H. Parker

"People have participated in the dynamic mosaic of Australia's desert for at least thirty millennia...Research for developing fire and land management policies must recognize this with a focus on Aboriginal burning and subsistence practices."


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A significant component of Australia's biotic web has been shaped by Aboriginal firing practices. Moderate, regular burning decreases potential for devastatingly large wildfires, increases plant species richness, and has an important effect on faunal populations (Allan and Southgate 2002; Allan and Barker 1990; Bolton and Latz 1978; Bowman 2000; Bradstock, Williams and Gill 2002; Burrows and Christensen 1990; Griffin 1992; Haydon, Friar and Pianka 2000a, 2000b; Latz 1996; Lundie-Jenkins 1993; Southgate et al. 1997). Long periods without anthropogenic fire lead to dramatic landscape changes. Between 1953 and 1981, in the Western Desert's eastern part, Aboriginal occupants began to congregate on mission settlements and pastoral stations at the desert's margins. During this time regular fire treatment ceased. Burrows et al. (2000) have shown from aerial photographs covering a 250,000 ha sample of the Western Desert, that in 1953 there were 846 measurable fire footprints, while in 1981 there were only 4; moreover, in 1953 the mean burnt patch size was 64 ha compared to 52,644 ha in 1981. The desert had been transformed from a high diversity patchwork to a sea of spinifex grass interspersed with massive burns.

The diverse mosaics resulting from regular fire disturbance in arid Australia often attract bustard (Eupodotis australis), emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), euro kangaroo (Macropus robustus), and plains kangaroo (Macropus rufa). These are frequently the focus of men's traditional hunting; so, many researchers have argued that Aboriginal burning strategies and beliefs are designed to increase men's hunting success (Bowman 1998; Bowman and Robinson 2002; Burbidge et al. 1988; Burbidge and McKenzie 1989; Gould 1971; Horton 1982; Jones 1969, 1975, 1980; Kimber 1983; Russell-Smith et al. 1997; Yibarbuk et al. 2001). However, women's roles in using and benefiting from burning have generally remained unexplored (but see Walsh 1990, Latz and Griffin 1978 for discussion of plant use and fire). Among the Mardu Aborigines of the Western Desert, women hunt regularly, but differently from men. Over the last few years we have been investigating these differences and their relationship to Mardu burning practices. It is now clear that developing effective and pragmatic fire policy for this region will require understanding of Aboriginal women's subsistence goals and increased collaboration with the desert's traditional owners.

Mardu Aborigines

Link to Bird, Figure 1
Link to Fig. 1, ~ 14K

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The term Mardu (or Martu in many current orthographies) conventionally refers to traditional owners of estates surrounding Lake Disappointment, the Rudall River, and the Percival Lakes in the northwest section of the Western Desert (Figure 1; Tonkinson 1974, 1991; Walsh 1990). Today, the Mardu (about eight hundred people) are primarily speakers of Manyjilyjarra and Kartujarra dialects.

While limited contact between Mardu and Europeans began in the early 1900s, many families, especially from the easternmost Mardu territory, had no such direct contact until the mid-1960s. Throughout the 1960's, prolonged drought and continuing depopulation drew the Mardu into Jigalong (an early government depot and mission) and neighboring pastoral stations (Tonkinson 1974). While many Mardu stayed in European settlements, by the mid-1980's many families (mostly those that were the last to leave the desert) returned permanently to their desert homeland. By 1986 they had established two permanent "Outstation" camps (Punmu and Parnngurr) in the newly designated Rudall River National Park; another Outstation at Kunawarritji, Well 33 on the Canning Stock Route, soon followed (Tonkinson 1991: 174-178).

Especially for the Parnngurr families (a core population of about 100), returning to the desert meant returning to a hunting and gathering economy (Walsh 1990; Veth and Walsh 1988). While wild foods are somewhat less important today, foraging trips to "dinner-time camps" within 50 km of Parnngurr occur almost daily, and extended camps to more distant locales are common, especially during the cool-dry season or Wandajarra (May - August).

Since 2000, our time with the Mardu has been spent mostly in Parnngurr and on extended camps away from the Outstations. Foraging locales are usually accessed by vehicle, then women and children hunt and gather on foot with digging sticks (wana), while men often utilize vehicles and small-gauge rifles. On average, 25 to 50% of the total diet comes from bush foods; on foraging days these comprise 80% of the diet per participant (Bliege Bird and Bird, in press).

Ethnographic fieldwork

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Thus far our analysis covers 422 forager-days in the cool-dry season. During extended camps we conducted daily, detailed, focal-individual foraging follows: each researcher asked permission to accompany a camp member throughout the day and recorded the time a forager spent traveling to and from a foraging locale, searching for a range of potential resources, tracking a particular prey item, capturing a particular item, and field processing. We then recorded the weight of each animal captured, the parcel harvested, and the total weight of the day's catch by resource type. A total of 252 adult focal follows (165 women, 87 men, consisting of 33 different individuals) are used in the analysis below (for children's foraging see Bird and Bliege Bird, in press). Energy values are from published sources analyzing Aboriginal food composition (Miller, James and Maggiore 1993). As used below, foraging efficiency (kcal/foraging-hr) is measured as the gross edible energy gained per focal individual follow, divided by total time spent in search, tracking, and capture.

Burning regimes and habitat mosaic

Mardu landscapes unburned for longer than about five years are dominated by (>80%) old growth spinifex grass (Trodia spp.) with characteristic "donut" shaped hummocks (Latz 1996:10). Mardu systematically fire older growth spinifex, especially during Wandajarra season. Following a fire, the proportion of visible spinifex is reduced to nearly zero; any subsequent rain dramatically increases plant diversity (e.g. Solanum, Eragostis, Dysphania, Trichodesma, and Evolvulus). To characterize habitat mosaics and burn regimes we chose a straight two-km transect in a random direction from each camp. A researcher walked the transect, noting how often they passed from one patch of regrowth to another. Fine-grained mosaics around camps are those in which a researcher passed into three or more types of regrowth patches on a single transect. Such mosaics result from moderate, regular anthropogenic burns. Medium-grained mosaics around camps are those in which a researcher passed into two patches of regrowth on a transect. These mosaics result from larger fires (some greater than 20 km2), usually at intervals >5 years but <10 years. Coarse-grained mosaics around camps are dominated by a single patch: either old-growth spinifex (>5 years old) over a very large area, or a recent very large burn (>50 km2) (Haydon et al. 2000a), where researchers never crossed into another stage of regrowth over a two-km transect.

Mardu hunting and burning strategies

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Especially in fine-grained mosaics, Mardu often encounter and collect a wide array of fruits (especially Solanum spp.), roots and tubers (Vigna lanceolata and Cyperus bulbosus), larvae (Cossid spp.), nectar (primarily Grevillea eriostachya), and grass, shrub, and tree seeds (especially Eragrostis eriopoda and Acacia spp.) (Tonkinson 1991; Veth and Walsh 1988; Walsh 1990). Analyses of these other aspects of Mardu foraging are currently underway. So far our focus is on differences between the major Wandajarra "hunt types": wana hunting for burrowed game and gun hunting for large game.

Wana hunting

Mardu hunt for burrowed game on foot with a wana (a wooden or iron digging stick) exclusively in sandplains and dunes. During Wandajarra season these hunts almost always incorporate burning of spinifex savanna to clear the overburden and facilitate the lengthy search for tracks and dens. Wana hunters search mostly for sand goanna lizards (Veranus gouldii), but also python (Aspidites spp), skink (Tiliqua multifasciata), ridge tailed goanna (Veranus acanthurus) and feral cat (Felis silvestris) (Bliege Bird and Bird, in press). Burning is highly systematic: the size of the fire line and resulting burned patch (nyurnma) depend on wind velocity, accumulated fuels, and surrounding firebreaks (primarily neighboring patches burned within the last 2-3 years). Hunters ignite a line of dry spinifex by flicking matches or dabbing a fire-stick into hummocks as they walk along. Upon ignition of a fire line, a hunter immediately begins searching for tracks and fresh dens within the nyurnma, often following along just behind the advancing flames. Ideally these nyurnma are about 5 km2. Generally each hunter will light his or her own line and search independently, although hunters often signal each other in managing their burns and cooperate to extract burrowed prey. Such hunting requires tremendous skill: highly specialized cues are used to determine the freshness of tracks and detailed knowledge is require to detect and probe for an occupied den.

Gun hunting

While spears and spear-throwers are still ritually important (and occasionally employed during hunts), Mardu now commonly use small-gauge rifles. Gun hunting focuses on larger, more mobile game, typically incorporating long-range search (by vehicle and foot) across widely varying habitats for larger prey, especially bustard (Eupodotis australis), euro kangaroo (Macropus robustus), plains kangaroo (Macropus rufa), emu (Dromaius novaehollandiae), and perenti lizards (Veranus giganteus) (Bliege Bird and Bird in press). Feral cats, although small, are also typical targets because of their mobility. Tracking often involves pursuing an animal over long distances, sometimes for several days. Some larger animals are attracted to recent burns or the new vegetation that follows, but burning is not generally used for gun hunting: it can reduce cover and increase the probability of hunters being detected. Mardu do sometimes burn during these hunts, but usually to flush game or simply "clean up the country."

During the cool-dry Wandajarra of this study, women and men spent equal amounts of time hunting (i.e. searching, tracking, and capturing game animals) but allocated their time quite differently to different types of hunting. On average, women spent 180 minutes per forager-day wana hunting, and only 10 minutes gun hunting. Conversely, men spent an average of 108 minutes per forager-day gun hunting, and only 83 minutes wana hunting.

Burning and hunting efficiency

Much discussion about Aboriginal fire use has focused on its benefits in men's hunting, but gun hunters did not significantly increase their foraging efficiency by burning. On average they obtained about 2300 kcal/foraging-hr whether or not they burned. However, firing the spinifex savanna immediately and significantly improved women's wana hunting efficiency: with burning, wana hunting produced 575 kcal/foraging-hr, while without burning it produced only 409 kcal/hr. Also, while gun hunting is associated with higher average efficiency, gun hunters failed to capture prey on 68% of the focal follows; wana hunters failed on only 3% of the follows. Thus, on any given day wana hunting is more predictably efficient than gun hunting.

Habitat mosaic and hunting efficiency

If the vegetative mosaic that results from regular burning influences the predictable distribution and abundance of indigenous animals, it should also affect hunting efficiency (Yibarbuk et al. 2001). However, our results do not show mosaic grain significantly affecting gun hunting efficiency: gun hunters obtained their lowest hunting returns in fine-grained mosaics (1175 kcal/foraging-hr) and their highest returns in both medium (2059 kcal/foraging-hr) and coarse-grained mosaics (2701 kcal/foraging-hr). The opposite pattern was observed for wana hunting, where our data indicate highest returns in fine-grained mosaics (656 kcal/foraging-hr), significantly lower returns in medium-grained mosaics (480 kcal/foraging-hr), and lower returns still in coarse-grained habitats with long fire intervals (246 kcal/foraging-hr).

Some broader implications

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Our study strongly suggests that moderate, regular burning is important to Mardu women's hunting success. Women focus on tracking and digging for burrowed game, an activity immediately facilitated by firing tracts of old-growth spinifex grass. As such, women failed to burn only when hunting near ritual sites that proscribe burning or when not within their own estates (Tonkinson 1991). We can detect no such effect on men's gun hunting: given the variability in efficiency, men's return rates while hunting for mobile game did not change with burning.

While the immediate benefits of burning while hunting burrowed game are evident, the long-term relationship between hunting efficiency and habitat mosaic is less clear. Thus far our measure of habitat mosaicis rough; nevertheless, at the coarse-grained end of the continuum, the results are intriguing. In these habitats hunters spent all of their time in either old-growth spinifex or large-scale recent burns with little or no regrowth. There, women experienced significantly lower return rates than in fine-grained mosaics. These patterns were not observed for men's hunting. While a 'patchier' environment from moderate burning might tend to attract larger, mobile game more predictably to certain patches at certain times of the year, the potential benefits of this predictability to men's hunting efficiency are negated by such game's ability to traverse numerous patches at will. Thus, the influence of burning and habitat mosaics on mobile game populations are difficult to detect.

Land management and threatened species

Our study was not specifically designed to test the more general hypothesis that burning is a land management strategy designed to prevent or mitigate resource depletion, species extirpation, or habitat degradation (Smith and Wishnie 2000:501, see also Alvard 1998). Because Mardu burning is often associated with increasing immediate hunting returns, it is quite possibly not intended as a land management strategy at all, and long-term effects are only incidental. However, some circumstantial evidence suggests that certain aspects of Mardu burning strategies might be linked to longer-term goals. We have thus far only measured the long-term benefits gained from hunting: many collected plant foods have very high energetic return rates, which should peak one to two years after an area has been burned (Latz and Griffin 1978; Walsh 1990). Thus, hunters may see a small benefit immediately after burning but even larger, more general benefits in the future. But how do individuals solve the collective action problems created by a rather open-access land tenure system that allows those that didn't burn access to a managed landscape? The immediate economic incentives provided to small-game hunters may serve to eliminate such problems: free-riding non-burners simply may not be able to find enough burned area to hunt when burns are small and hunters can search them entirely. Furthermore, for men especially, burning may provide more social than economic capital, as a signal and index of land ownership, an aesthetic interpretation of homeland, and an expression of ritual, linking past and future events (Bradley 1994; Bright 1994; Dayani et al. 2002; Gould 1971; Press 1994; Rose 1994, 1995; Yibarbuk et al. 2001).

The Mardu data may also be relevant for current debates about causes of local extinctions and population declines in small- to medium-sized marsupials throughout Australia's deserts. Mardu hunters say such populations collapsed after the human exodus from the desert--whether due to introduced fauna (Morton 1990; Short and Turner 1994) or changes in burning regimes is unknown. But major declines in smaller sized marsupial populations seem to be coincident with humans' departure from the desert, not with introductions of nonindigenous species. Given the evidence of extreme changes in fire ecology in the Western Desert following Aboriginal exodus (Burrows, Burbidge and Fuller, in press), we might hypothesize that anthropogenic fire is an important factor in maintaining small- to medium-sized marsupial populations (as defined by Bolton and Latz 1978, Burbidge and McKenzie 1989), and that this is primarily due to short-term hunting goals maintained by burning. If so, formal policies to encourage traditional burning practices may help protect a host of threatened and endangered marsupials.

The issue of policy development

People have participated in the dynamic mosaic of Australia's desert for at least thirty millennia (Kershaw et al. 2002; O'Connell and Allen 1998). Research for developing fire and land management policies must recognize this with a focus on Aboriginal burning and subsistence practices. Effective fire and land management in this region will fail along most fronts without incorporating Mardu participation and objectives. This will require a broad anthropological and ecological approach, building from within communities toward a better understanding of the dynamic factors that influence burning strategies and their consequences. The Mardu data show that even within a single community, different people face different tradeoffs relative to their subsistence and burning purposes: women's immediate hunting returns are closely linked to burning practices. If burning is also related to long-term land management strategy, it is apparently not designed to enhance men's success hunting large game but instead relates to diversity of key small animal and plant species. Thus, incorporating women's hunting goals into fire policy will be critical for current conservation efforts in the Western Desert. This is more than necessary for developing operative policy: it will also provide an opportunity for cooperation between land management agencies and remote Aboriginal communities that retain their traditional skills and knowledge associated with burning and subsistence.


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This work has been funded generously by grants from the National Science Foundation (BCS-0127681 and BCS-0075289) and the LSB Leakey Foundation. We wish to thank Jim O'Connell, Eric Smith, Doug Bird Sr., Neil Burrows, Sue Davenport, Peter Kendrick, Kristen Hawkes, and Debbie Bird Rose for discussion and comments related to Aboriginal burning. We owe special thanks to Bob Tonkinson and Peter Veth for their help in establishing our Western Desert research. Most of all, we are indebted to all of the Mardu from Parnngurr, Punmu, and Kunawarritji for their friendship, tolerance, good humor and tutelage.


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Author information

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Douglas Bird (corresponding author, email:, is a Research Assistant Professor at the Climate Change Institute and Department of Anthropology, University of Maine; Rebecca Bliege Bird is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology, University of Maine. Both can be reached at:
Department of Anthropology
University of Maine
5773 South Stevens Hall
Orono ME 04469-5773

Christopher H. Parker is a Ph.D. candidate at the Departmant of Anthropology, University of Utah. He can be reached at:
Department of Anthropology
207 S. 1400 E.
University of Utah
Salt Lake City, UT 84112


Additional web resources

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Australian Fire Regimes: Contemporary Patterns (April 1998 - March 2000) and Changes Since European Settlement
From the Australian government's Department of the Environment and Heritage, this series of technical papers (not focused on the Mardu) address three related issues concerning the description and ecological impact of fires and, more pointedly, fire regimes, in Australia: the assessment of contemporary fire patterns at a continental-scale using satellite imagery; the reliability of the continental-scale fire map data; and ecological assessment of the impacts of current fire regimes in three broad Australian landscapes.

Fire as an Aboriginal Management Tool in South-Eastern Australia
This paper about traditional Aboriginal fire use in the dry forests of southeastern Australia was delivered at the Australian Bushfire Conference, 1999. While it focuses on historical observations rather than current data, it also supports the notion that traditional Aboriginal fire practices are a potentially important tool for conservation of biodiversity.

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