Totem a ‘powerful’ tool

Headshot of Adam Poulsen
Adam PoulsenMidwest Times
Plant conservation biologist Stephen Hopper inspects a red and green kangaroo paw at Kalbarri National Park.
Camera IconPlant conservation biologist Stephen Hopper inspects a red and green kangaroo paw at Kalbarri National Park. Credit: Ellen Hickman

A conservation expert believes the key to preserving WA’s threatened plant species lies in bridging the gap between modern, scientific knowledge and that of ancient Aboriginal cultures.

Stephen Hopper, an internationally renowned plant conservation biologist, will discuss this idea as a keynote speaker at the WA Threatened Species Forum in Geraldton this week.

“The big challenge I’m addressing is that, worldwide, biodiversity is one of the major environmental factors that continues to go downwards,” Mr Hopper said.

“We really haven’t cracked how to live as a western technological culture with biodiversity in a sustainable way.

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“I’m working with Noongar elders in Albany to try to understand if we can combine knowledge systems to better improve sustainable living with biodiversity.

“Australia’s first people have been here 60,000 years, and whatever biodiversity we have is due to their good management.”

Mr Hopper, a professor of biodiversity at the University of WA, said this begged the question: “Are there aspects of Aboriginal approaches to caring for country that might help us better do the same?”

He said he was increasingly convinced the answer was yes.

One such approach, he suggested, was the adoption of totems.

“If you think about wildflow-ers, for example, there’s 8500 species in the South West flor-istic region — from Shark Bay down to the other side of Esperance — and no one could reasonably get their head around caring for all of them,” Mr Hopper explained.

“But each of us could certainly get to know and care for one or two species, and essentially that’s the Aboriginal model with totems.

“That idea is very powerful and simple and one that could be adopted widely.”

Mr Hopper said the process could also “open up communication lines between cultures”.

“Try to meet local Aboriginal people, and ask if they will help you select an appropriate plant and animal totem over a cup of tea,” he suggested.

“It’s also a way of showing respect for Aboriginal culture that often isn’t too prevalent.”

Mr Hopper said increasing numbers of Aboriginal rangers being employed in recent years was a promising step in the right direction.

“It reinstates respect for elders and their knowledge and for the culture in general,” he said.

“It’s also great for tourists, because it’s just fantastic to visit a place and be shown by someone whose cultural roots are deep, their perspective on country and how they care for it.”

In a nearly 50-year career, Mr Hopper has worked as director of Perth’s Kings Park and Botanic Garden and the UK’s Kew Royal Botanic Gardens. In 2012 he was awarded a Companion of the Order of Australia.

The WA Threatened Species Forum is hosted by the Northern Agricultural Catchments Council and will be held today and tomorrow.

Tickets are available from the NACC website.

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