A remote world of 23 deserts

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White settlers arrived in the Central and Western Deserts of Australia’s interior – the Great and Little Sandy deserts and the Tanami, the Simpson and Victoria deserts – in the 19th Century. Before they did, indigenous Australians lived here in harmony with the land and with wildlife that was far more abundant than you might expect.

This is Warlpiri land, and it extends for hundreds of kilometres across the Tanami and Great Sandy Deserts. The Warlpiri are one of the largest nations and language groups among Aboriginal people. Along with the Pintupi, their neighbours to the west, the Warlpiri were among the last people in Australia to come into contact with white Australia and leave behind the traditional, semi-nomadic way of life that had enabled them to survive in the desert.

Warlpiri woman Alice Ellis belongs to the last generation who can remember what that life was like.

As a child, she played in the sand dunes in the country north and west of here, moving with the seasons from one waterhole to the next. She and her family communicated with other groups through fire. When she was still young, she remembers, she and her siblings would run and hide whenever they saw white men coming in their vehicles.

In a process that the Warlpiri call yidakimani, or “reading the country”, Ellis learned almost as soon as she could walk how to interpret and track the footprints of the macropod marsupials – including black-footed rock-wallabies, bettongs and bilbies – that you find only in Australia. They also hunted feral cats – “pussy cats” as Ellis calls them – as well as birds and reptiles; goanna, one of Australia’s largest carnivorous reptiles, which can grow up to 2.5m long, was and remains her favourite.

Ellis brings that intimate knowledge of the natural world to her work at Newhaven, a 2,600sq-km sanctuary run by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC). As a ranger, she is a keeper of the desert’s secrets. Her role is to care for country and to protect the land from the invasive pests that European settlers brought with them, pests like feral cats, foxes and rabbits that have wrought terrible destruction upon Australia’s deserts.

Australia has the worst rate of mammal extinctions in the world: one-third of global mammal extinctions over the past five centuries have occurred in Australia, and most of these have been in the country’s arid zone. No-one knows for sure, but a dozen, probably more, species that once lived alongside Ellis and her ancestors have disappeared forever. Cats wiped out most of them. Other species have retreated elsewhere, pushed by a plague of cats to the outer margins of their former ranges and to the edge of extinction.

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