Australia hands control of its newest national parks to Indigenous peoples

The landmark move includes tourism efforts highlighting 60,000 years of Native culture and is part of a push to reckon with the country’s colonial legacy.

For 60,000 years, Australia’s Indigenous people have cared for their homeland’s most spectacular regions, full of giant reefs, pristine rainforests, and colossal gorges. Now, more than 220 years after they were forcibly removed by British colonizers, Indigenous people are gaining greater control of their ancestral lands.

This summer, two states handed back more than 3,700 square miles of land to native Australians. For the first time in the state of Western Australia (WA), the government created three new marine parks in collaboration with Indigenous people, totaling 2,317 square miles, collectively the size of Delaware. In the country’s northeast, the state of Queensland returned 1,398 square miles, most of which is national parkland.

These initiatives represent a major push to create and preserve more national parks and reconcile with the country’s traumatic colonial history. Indigenous leaders say this increased control of wilderness represents crucial progress.

Located in WA’s remote Buccaneer Archipelago, 1,180 miles north of Perth, the new marine parks—Mayala, Maiyalam, and Bardi Jawi Gaarra—will be co-managed with the state, using both traditional Aboriginal knowledge and modern environmental practices. Spearheading this effort are Indigenous rangers trained to control fires, monitor biodiversity, protect Aboriginal cultural sites, teach Indigenous land management skills, and educate tourists about Aboriginal heritage.

“The creation of these marine parks is a significant milestone for Australia as it shows true co-design between government and traditional owners can be achieved,” says Tyronne Gartsone, chief executive of Kimberley Land Council, the peak Indigenous body, or advocacy association, within WA’s Kimberley region.

A haven for snubfin dolphins, humpback whales, manta rays, and several threatened species of turtles, the coastal region is deeply connected to Australian Aboriginal lore. Many still practice ancient traditions tied to the sea, such as shore fishing, hunting dugongs and turtles, and collecting Pinctada pearl shells, which for 20,000 years have been carved into glimmering artworks used in ceremonies.

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These customs and natural phenomena are among the elements that WA’s Department of Biodiversity, Conservation and Attractions (DBCA) and Indigenous communities hope to highlight in developing culturally and environmentally sustainable tourism.

Maiyalam marine park, for example, is known for the Horizontal Falls, a natural phenomenon that occurs when a fierce tide pushes water through two narrow cliff gaps in the McLarty Range, causing a cascade of water up to 13 feet tall.

Powerful tour boats now roar through those openings, but Aboriginals in the past have navigated this region’s dangerous seas on their gaalwa wooden rafts. This required expertise in predicting tides, knowledge which has been passed down the generations, partly through the Ilma song and dance custom.

Such traditions can be safeguarded by the new marine parks, says Kevin George, chairperson of Bardi Jawi Niimidiman Aboriginal Corporation, representing two of the region’s Indigenous peoples. “It helps us as traditional owners to continue our life in our traditional customary way, to look after the resources and the environment that looked after us,” he says.

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Deep dive into Indigenous history in Cape York

In northern Queensland, other Indigenous communities are celebrating new control of land they have long stewarded. A giant tract of untamed wilderness, Cape York Peninsula is cloaked in rainforest, peaks, valleys, and magnificent beaches.

For millennia it’s been home to Indigenous Australians—both Aboriginals and the people of the Torres Strait Islands, an archipelago north of Cape York. This is the only place in Australia where these groups live side by side.

Almost 166 square miles of Cape York has been returned as freehold land, meaning the area’s Indigenous peoples have 100 percent ownership. Another 1,231 square miles have become Apudthama National Park and Yamarrinh Wachangan Islands National Park, both co-managed by Indigenous people and the state. All Cape York’s national parks are now jointly controlled, with 16,602 square miles of the peninsula having been returned to its traditional owners over the past three decades.

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This greatly benefits Cape York’s five Indigenous communities, says Reginald Williams, an Aboriginal elder from the region’s Yadhaigana tribe. Increased Indigenous control of the peninsula reduces the risk of environmental damage from increased mining, lets Indigenous communities fence off sacred areas, and allows them to practice ancient means of protecting endangered species. It also creates space for Indigenous people to perform cultural traditions, such as initiation ceremonies and teaching youth to hunt, gather, and cook.

Beyond highlighting the parks’ biodiversity and rare wildlife, including the cuscus marsupial, Jardine Painted turtle, and southern cassowary bird, Indigenous groups are now planning new tours of Cape York that will showcase some of these Indigenous customs. “We think tourists should visit Cape York to witness firsthand the uniqueness of two different cultural people [Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander] living together in one area,” Williams says.

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Inspired by these developments, Indigenous travel company Strait Experience will soon launch “The Strait in a Day,” a tour that takes travelers from Cairns to the Torres Strait Islands. “Most tourists to northern Queensland just go to Great Barrier Reef and Daintree Rainforest and miss out on engaging with Indigenous culture up here, so we’re aiming to change that,” says company co-founder Fraser Nai.

“There’s still a long way to go for us traditional owners to feel like we fully have our land back,” Williams adds. “But we’re getting steps closer, and that’s exciting.”

Ronan O’Connell is an Australian journalist and photographer based between Ireland, Thailand, and Western Australia.

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