Western and Indigenous knowledge converge to explain Melaleuca forest dieback on Aboriginal land in Northern Australia.
Involvement of Indigenous people and knowledge in conservation science has become a clear directive in international covenants. Currently, approximately one-third of Australia is owned and managed by Indigenous people, including 84% of the Northern Territory coastline, making Indigenous-led and cross-cultural research highly relevant. Recently, the Yolnu Senior Knowledge Custodians of the Laynhapuy Indigenous Protected Area in northern Australia expressed concern about the dieback of culturally significant coastal Melaleuca (paperbark) stands. A partnership between Senior Knowledge Custodians and Western scientists was used to develop an ecocultural research framework to investigate the dieback. Semistructured interviews about the likely causes were conducted with Senior Knowledge Custodians of five coastal flood plain sites where dieback occurred. At these sites, comparative ecological assessments of paired dieback and healthy Melaleuca stands were conducted to explore relationships between Melaleuca stand health, salt water intrusion, acid sulfate soils and feral ungulate damage. Melaleuca dieback was observed in three species: nämbarra (M. viridiflora), ranan (M. cajuputi) and gulun'kulun (M. acacioides). The sociocultural and ecological research approaches similarly suggested that ∼70% of Melaleuca spp. dieback was attributed to combinations of salinity and feral ungulate damage. An ecocultural approach heightened understanding of Melaleuca dieback because we detected similarities and differences in likely causal factors.