How Artificial intelligence is helping to save Kakadu 

How Artificial intelligence is helping to save Kakadu 

Written by: Cameron Ward

Published: 11/29/2019

Reading time: 3 mins

In a unique collaboration between Traditional Owners, the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) and Microsoft, the future of Kakadu’s wetlands may be saved. 

For thousands of years, Indigenous Australians have been the custodians of the lands in Kakadu National Park. They cultivate the land, ensuring it can sustain native species. For years rangers have manually gathered data on invasive grasses destroying wetland environments. 

These invasive grasses are reducing habitat for many of the native species in the area, specifically magpie geese. These black and white wetland birds have long been an indication of healthy country for traditional custodians of the land. As para grass has overtaken wetlands, bird numbers have decreased. Custodians have been manually collecting data, including bird numbers and the presence of the grass. 

However, Kakadu’s unique climate which sees regular flooding, monsoons, and other extreme weather events, have made manual collection of data difficult. With waterways filled with crocodiles, wild buffalo, and pigs running across the landscape. Additionally, limited resources to collect data makes it progressively harder to track changes. This is where CSIRO and Microsoft come in. 

How it works

Under the direction of park rangers, drones are collecting video data to identify plants and animals. Rather than manually going through thousands of hours of video content CustomVisionAI is doing it for them. The software is able to count animals and identify para grass in new areas. Data compiles into a dashboard created in collaboration with Indigenous peoples. Rangers can then access this data when in-field to assist with decision making. 

The drones are flown by an Indigenous ranger to collect the data, ensuring that sacred sites and areas are not captured on camera. Data scientists then construct models analysing the data using algorithms that have been built on Indigenous knowledge on environment and seasons. The data that has been collected can then be used to assist in decision making such as back-burning and weed spraying of the invasive grasses. 

The collaboration is a fantastic example of scientists working alongside and with Indigenous community and learning from their knowledge. 

The program has already been a great success with the numbers of magpie geese returning to the wetlands increasing significantly. In 2018 just 50 birds returned to the wetlands, with that number skyrocketing to 1500 during the 2019 migration. 

Partnerships with traditional owners

The Healthy Country project will continue to help increase the protection of this special species as well as many others that reside in Kakadu’s wetlands. With 80% of the parklands under Indigenous ownership, partnerships like this one are key to the survival of habitats and species. They also provide opportunities for scientific research to collaborate with traditional custodians to benefit from their knowledge of the land and create programs that respect tradition and lore. 

Partnerships such as this are key to protecting Kakadu, and set precedence for future collaborations. The knowledge local Indigenous people have of the land is key to ensuring its survival. 

Related article: Guide to Kakadu National Park

Cameron Ward
Cameron Ward
Managing Director at Sightseeing Tours Australia

Cameron Ward turned his travel passion into a thriving Australian tourism business. Before he co-founded his own business, Sightseeing Tours Australia, he was enjoying being a Melbourne tour guide. Even now, Cameron delights in helping visitors from all around the world get the most out of their incredible Australian trip. You’ll see Cameron leading tours or writing about his favourite Australian places where he shares his local insights.