How Artificial intelligence is helping to save Kakadu 

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, cultivating the land and ensuring it is able to sustain native species. For years rangers have manually gathered data on invasive grasses destroying wetland environments. 

These invasive grasses, such as the para grass, 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 and custodians have been manually collecting data, including bird numbers and the presence of the grass. 

However, Kakadu’s unique climate and seasons which see 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, and of course limited resources to collect data, it has been progressively harder to track the data, that’s where CSIRO and Microsoft come in. 

Under the direction of park rangers, drones have been collecting video data used to identify plants and animals. Rather than manually going through thousands of hours of video content to count animals and identify para grass, CustomVisionAI is doing it for them. This data is then compiled 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. 

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. 

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Related article: Guide to Kakadu National Park

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