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Fusing AI, science and Indigenous knowledge to tackle Kakadu’s weed woes

Kakadu National Park i

A little wariness of a tool as powerful as artificial intelligence is healthy but pointed in the right direction it can help solve some of our biggest problems, such as eradicating the noxious weeds and pests suffocating our natural habitats. In the Northern Territory’s World Heritage listed Kakadu National Park, AI technology has come together with modern science and Indigenous knowledge systems to help stamp out its dreaded para grass problem.

The Kakadu National Park is not only stunning but also serves as a supermarket for the Bininj Traditional Owners.

Unfortunately, the park has a problem with para grass, an aggressive and fast growing weed that was brought in from Africa as feed for cattle. The para grass displaces native plants and turns the wetland plains into a monoculture of the weed, which leaves less habitat for native animals such as magpie geese.

The weed is controlled by spraying it by hand or using a vehicle but the problem has spiralled out of control, and the resources to manage the problem haven’t kept pace.

So the Kakadu National Park rangers needed a solution that meant working smarter with the resources already available. The park teamed up with Australia’s national science agency, CSIRO, and Microsoft to build an AI-enabled system that takes the manual data collection and guess work out of managing the weed problem.

Instead of rangers manually counting wildlife and mapping where they have sprayed, drones collect images of the park that are fed into a Microsoft AI enabled platform that can identify para grass in its different states and distinguish geese from ducks automatically. The software will learn and become more accurate over time, providing insights in near real time to the rangers who manage the park.

Armed with accurate up-to-date visual information, management of the problem can become more targeted and no patch of weed is sprayed twice. Rangers are also motivated by a visual representation of the weeds disappearing and the ducks coming back.

Handing the reins to traditional owners was key

Critically, the platform was built in partnership with the Bininj traditional owners and using settings that align with Indigenous knowledge of the area, such as the highly-localised definitions of the different seasons.

“This dashboard is strengthening Indigenous stewardship. With this information in the hands of the park rangers, they can be front and centre in decisions made about country,” Microsoft Australia managing director Steven Worrall said at a media briefing in Sydney last week.

The project’s intention was to keep control and ownership of Indigenous knowledge squarely in the hands of the traditional owners. That’s why some information will be restricted to traditional owners and Indigenous elders and some made available to researchers.

In the interest of making the tool available to other environmental management groups around the world, a third ring of data will be made publicly available.

The information framework will be open-sourced will be made available on GitHub to support what’s known as “adaptive comanagement” on other Indigenous lands around the world.

The researchers also made sure the system can use images captured by inexpensive off-the-shelf drones in the interests of making the solution feasible for resource-poor national parks.

CSIRO principal research scientist Dr Cathy Robinson says that allowing traditional owners to take the lead has ensured that the Indigenous knowledge was handled in an appropriate way.

“Across the globe, Indigenous people are handling some pretty challenging questions. Their planet is under pressure, and much of that planet is owned by Indigenous people, particularly areas that have got high biodiversity assets,” she said. Around 80 per cent of the planet’s vital ecosystems and threatened species are managed on lands owned by Indigenous people.

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