A project combining Microsoft artificial intelligence technology and local Aboriginal knowledge spanning more than 50,000 years is helping to repair damage to wetlands in the Kakadu National Park.
The number of magpie geese, an important source for hunting and food for local Aboriginal people, has soared from 50 to 1800 in Kakadu since the project began a year ago.
The Healthy Country Partnership project began after the Bininj people, the traditional owners of World Heritage-listed Kakadu, spent time with researchers identifying priorities for the park.
The Bininj said some of their rich hunting areas had disappeared and one of the biggest issues was the loss of habitat for the magpie geese, ducks and turtles.
The culprit was invasive para grass, introduced as feed for cattle and buffalo in the 1960s before Kakadu became a national park.
The tourist droves who visit Ubirr at Kakadu for its indigenous rock art think they are looking at beautiful, green grass on the wetlands but it is para grass, which has displaced native plants and animals, says scientist and Kakadu board member Mike Douglas.
The project to tackle the problem brought together indigenous rangers, scientists and Microsoft and its AI technology.
Microsoft’s CustomVision AI, trained with machine learning, can interpret drone footage instantly, removing the need for humans to dodge crocodiles and monsoons or physically collect and review thousands of hours of footage of plants and animals.
The data is fed into AI models to be interpreted and analysed, allowing rangers on the ground to access it on their phones and focus in on a single water hole and explore it, then scan out over a wider area.
“We can go back to December last year see how it looked, fast forward to March and see how the land has changed over time, if the animals have changed over time,” Microsoft machine learning engineer Steve van Bodegraven said.
The more data collected, the more the AI algorithms are refined and improved.
But the cutting edge AI would be useless without the input of the Bininj people, said Lee Hickin, Microsoft Australia’s national technology officer.
“What was really unique and eye opening here was the insight from traditional land owners about what is the mark and measure of healthy land, the magpie geese numbers,” he told AAP.
“Yes, we are managing para grass and native biodiversity but understanding what to measure, which is geese numbers, shows the importance of traditional land knowledge and data insight together.”
The project has been declared a success so far with herbicide or burning removing para grass from about 90ha of wetlands and the magpie geese, ducks and turtles returning.
But about 3500ha in total in Kakadu has been invaded by the weed.
“If we don’t do something about it, in the next 20 years or so about 15 per cent of floodplains will be lost to para grass, that means huge losses of areas that magpie geese need for feeding and nesting,” Dr Douglas said.
“Magpie geese used to be really widespread across eastern Australia but have contracted much more to just the tropical parts.”
Microsoft’s involvement is part of a $50 million fund it set aside for its AI for Earth program, which provides technology for environmental projects.
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