In the depths of the Australian winter, small fires burn through the Little Sandy Desert. These fires are special, lit and controlled by the Martu, an aboriginal group in the Western part of the country.
The Martu burn the grass and brush over small areas of less than 10 acres to look for holes where sand monitor lizards burrow. These lizards are a much appreciated local delicacy and an important source of protein.
This hunting tradition has been practiced for more than a century, and studies show that these fires have ecological benefits. It turns out, hunting fires can actually help boost kangaroo populations by increasing ecosystem diversity and creating a landscape with plants at varying stages of growth.
Kangaroos feed primarily on young shoots which sprout after a fire, but use shrubs to hide from predators like dingoes. By burning small patches, the Martu create a vegetation mosaic that provides both cover and food for the kangaroos.
“It’s critical to have fire, but also to not have too much fire,” Dr. Sam Fuhlendorf, professor of fire and ecology at Oklahoma State University, told TreeHugger. “The neat thing about Australia is that the indigenous people still remember a lot about how they used fire historically. If they burn something every year, they get this shifting mosaic”
The historical basis of the fire burning practice led Dr. Brian Codding at the University of Utah to study how kangaroos and aboriginal peoples may have co-evolved. His study showed that kangaroo populations tend to be larger in areas where the Martu practice their fire regimes. Thus, the Martu play an important role in conservation by maintaining a varied environment in which they live and hunt that benefits kangaroos and other wildlife.