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Sacred waterholes of the Western Desert

Helping Martu people protect their precious resources.

Surviving in the desert is tough and learning where reliable water can be found is critical for survival. That’s as true for people as it is for wildlife.

Waterholes have always had special significance for Martu people of the Western Desert – not only as a life source but also as a significant place to meet and conduct ceremonies. Every Martu waterhole has a name and forms an important part of jukurrpa – the dreaming stories passed down from elders to younger generations.

Traditional mapping methods

In 1987, Martu joined together to map all of the waterholes on their land. They remembered journeys they and their families made while still living in the desert, and they sang traditional songs to help remember the names and locations of the waterholes. The map they created helped them gain Native Title of their country in 2002.

Today more than 1,200 waterholes have been recorded, most with exact GPS locations through using helicopters and 4WDs to seek them out. Ranger teams visit waterholes on a regular basis to conduct water monitoring and clean them out when needed.

Modern monitoring methods

Unfortunately, these waterholes are at risk – mainly from feral camels. They foul the water when they come to drink resulting in a drop in the water’s oxygen level. A herd of thirsty camels can even drink a small waterhole dry. This means the waterhole isn’t able to support other life in the desert.

As a part of the Martu Living Deserts Project we are helping the Martu rangers look after their precious waterholes by installing water monitoring equipment in a number of different waterholes near Parnngurr, in the Little Sandy Desert. With approval and assistance from the Parnngurr ranger team, TNC Lead Scientist, Dr Eddie Game, has installed the new monitors that measure dissolved oxygen every half hour. The loggers are designed to use only tiny amounts of power so can last many years on a single battery.

Eddie and the Martu rangers have also installed camera traps at the waterholes to see if dramatic drops in water quality can be definitively linked to visiting camels.

We’ll keep you posted on results as they come to hand.

Measuring the Impact of Feral Camels on Australia's Martu Desert
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