Indigenous rangers to use SpaceCows program to protect sacred sites and rock art from feral herds

By Tory Shepherd
Indigenous ranger watches feral buffalo
An Indigenous ranger watches feral buffalo. The new SpaceCows program will use AI and satellites to create a virtual replica of how feral herds move through the Top End. Photograph: Seth Seden

Feral herds rubbing off rock art, trampling sacred ceremonial sites and destroying culturally significant waterways will be tackled with new space technology.

Balnggarrawarra ranger and Cape York’s Normanby Station traditional owner Vince Harrigan said existing technology allowed rangers to track feral cattle and buffalo through the Top End, but the new SpaceCows program would let them predict in advance where they’re going and cull them or fence off important sites.

CSIRO estimates there are more than 120,000 introduced buffalo and hundreds of thousands of cattle that have spread out from cattle stations.

Artificial intelligence and data from satellite tracking of tagged animals will be used to create a replica virtual landscape. That will predict, for example, how hot weather might push herds to head a certain way towards water and allow rangers to intervene.

Harrigan said SpaceCows – a joint project between Aboriginal land management groups, universities, CSIRO, satellite company Kineis, and Microsoft – would indicate where the herds were, and where they were going, to help protect traditional lands. Rangers would be trained to use the AI, drones and tablets to manage the animals across more than 22,000sq km.

Rangers could then decide whether certain areas needed to be fenced off, or other actions (such as culling) undertaken.

Harrigan said sacred sites where laws were discussed and ceremonies held could be trampled by herds, who could also gather in sheltered spots with ancient rock art.

“We’ve got areas we call bora grounds where we do initiations. (They’re) like meeting places, you know, where our mob gather and our dancers and songwriters can perform,” he said.

“Some of our rock art they’re down really low, in sheltered areas. There have been cases where there have been cattle right next to these low paintings, rubbing up against them. Over time they’re brushing it off, rubbing it off.”

The comparison between damaged and non-damaged land can be clearly seen
The comparison between damaged and non-damaged land can be clearly seen Photograph: Supplied

CSIRO started tracking feral hoofed herds in real time last year, from Arnhem Land to Cape York. With SpaceCows, Microsoft’s Azure AI technology will be used to create a digital twin landscape using the data from the satellites as well as information about the weather and the terrain.

The CSIRO research scientist Dr Andrew Hoskins said the biggest challenge for feral animal management was finding the animals in a vast and sometimes inaccessible terrain.

“Microsoft’s technologies harness data from tagged animals and Low Earth Orbit satellites, enabling us to see the landscape and forecast the movement of feral herds,” he said.

CSIRO researchers Dr Andrew Hoskins and Rodolfo Ocampo survey data
CSIRO researchers Dr Andrew Hoskins and Rodolfo Ocampo survey data. Photograph: Seth Seden

“These insights are critical for Indigenous rangers to determine the best time and place to ethically muster or to decide if an alternative population control measure is needed.”

Ricky Archer, the chief executive officer of North Australian Indigenous Land and Sea Management Alliance, said it was common to see culturally significant wetlands and springs damaged, as well as gully erosion.

“Over several years, Normanby Land Management has witnessed the growth of large gully erosion sites, at an alarming rate, due to unmanaged feral cattle,” he said.

Balnggarrawarra ranger Cliff Harrigan says sacred sites and ancient rock art can be trampled by herds
Balnggarrawarra ranger Cliff Harrigan says sacred sites and ancient rock art can be damaged by feral herds. Photograph: Seth Seden

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