Thursday, January 28, 2010

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service Upset Ma:mu Traditional Owners and Conservationists at Ella Bay

This will be a long story as it covers some pretty important topics like, respect for country, traditional owner’s rights, and long term conservation goals.

On 7 January 2010 I was very disappointed to observe two fresh sets of quad bike tracks exiting the Ella Bay Pty Ltd property and travelling north along Ella Bay.
Ella Bay Pty Ltd management and staff have made assurances that they would no longer drive vehicles along this turtle nesting beach.

I followed the tracks north along the beach.
As I travelled further north away from the more heavily visited southern end of Ella Bay I noticed that the tracks became more erratic.
In some areas I saw tracks where it appeared the riders had been playing and swerving on the beach.
The track cut toward the top of the beach where they stopped near the Shrine Tree.
This is the last resting place of a lady who chose to have her mortal remains left at the base of this tree over 20 years ago. Many years ago there was a brass plaque at the base of this tree that was removed by her living relatives as time (and cyclones) had damaged it until it was unreadable.
It is a common practice of beachgoers who know of this site to pay their respects at this tree, something I do every time I approach it.

It is customary amongst some locals to leave a small token by the base of this tree. It always makes me happy to see a new beach cast item or flower at this site.

I would like to thank local resident Gary Coppard for sharing this piece of local history with me.

The Shrine Tree was not visited by the quad rides and to be honest I do not think her spirit would have appreciated a visit by quad bike riders!

I continued north and came across more areas where the quad riders had been playing and photographed a loop (circle work) in the sand.
The quad riders had continued riding north and pulled up at the top of the beach. They also managed to run over some juvenile She oaks in the process.
Disappointed with what I had observed I returned to the car park. On the way back the tracks looked just as bad.
I knew that Ma:mu traditional owner, James Epong, was very upset that beach driving was still being conducted at Cowley Beach to the south despite clear requests from Ma:mu traditional owners that no beach driving be allowed on beaches within their traditional territory.

I also was aware that the Ma:mu people are conducting regular turtle surveys on this beach by boat as part of their TUMRA activities. I was not keen to share the news with James but I have agreed to report ALL incidents on their TUMRA country not just turtle business so I made some calls when I got home.

First I contacted Ella Bay Pty Ltd via Adrian Hogg who told me that the mystery quad bike riders were representatives of the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service, the very people who are charged with protecting these shores.

My next call was to the Department of Natural Resources in Brisbane who kindly put me through to their man in Cairns Mr Doug Wilson Operations Manager Wet Tropics Region (Southern).

I explained what I had observed and that I would be writing about it and Mr Wilson was interested to see my photographs and said he would investigate. I emailed the relevant photographs to Mr Wilson on Friday 8 January 2010 (the next day) with the following note.

Dear Doug

Thank you for receiving my complaint regarding the actions of your staff at Ella Bay yesterday. I have more photographs but feel these will suffice for the time being.

As I explained to you this beach was used as a highway by people with access to the proponent’s property and I have assurances from Ella Bay Pty Ltd staff that they shall not drive on this beach anymore.

4 main reasons I am displeased with beach driving at Ella Bay

1 Disruption of nesting activities by Beach Thick Knees and threats to their nesting sites.

2 Potential damage to turtle nesting areas

3 Damage to sensitive vegetation

4 It disregards requests by Mandubarra peoples that driving at Ella Bay and other cassowary coast beaches (an area which is covered by their TUMRA)is inappropriate and I know for a fact that this activity distresses Ma:mu TUMRA representative James Epong greatly. This culturally insensitive behaviour is made worse by recent CCRC decisions at Cowley Beach (Disregard for Ma:mu request for no vehicles on beach or dune track).

I intend to post a story regarding this matter on my web site in the near future and feel it is only fair that you have the opportunity to look into the matter so I shall delay posting the story til early next week. As you can see beach traffic at Ella Bay has concerned me for a while, see

I am supportive of DERM's activities generally as you will note in stories such as

I have always maintained good relations with your people and have assisted gentlemen like Glenn Kvassay, Kerry Walsh, Brenton Haigh and Leroy Brown and I'm sure they will vouch for my integrity and co operative spirit.

I walk all of Ella Bay from the south to Coopers Creek every week during my Turtle Surveys and Share information with your people and Ma:mu representatives. Recently I reported illegal netting camps, illegal gill nets and out of season barramundi remains at Ella to your marine parks men Brenton and Leroy. TUMRA representative James Epong surveys the coast regularly for turtles via boat as do Brenton and Leroy with minimal site disturbance. Ella Bay Pty Ltd staff also survey this beach on foot.

Doug I feel it is inappropriate for your people to drive up and down this beach in this manner as it displays a disregard for both culturally and environmentally sensitive values. It sets a bad precedent.

I look forward to your response early in the coming week and am happy to communicate with you at your convenience.

Have a good weekend Doug and thank you for giving this matter your consideration.

Thank you again

Russell Constable

A week later on Friday January 15 2010 I received a response from Mr Wilson.


Two quads bikes were used for beach access across Ella Bay last Thurs by a QPWS Ranger and a Southern Cross Uni researcher under the direction of the natural resource management Project officer based in Ingham.

The purpose of the trip related to turtle nesting assessment, particularly to detect any hatchling events, any new nesting signs and beach characteristics (level of recreational vehicle use, various measurements of dune & berm distances).

The day's itinerary for staff also included visiting 2 other beaches at Cowley Bay military training area, & 2 beaches at Flying Fish Point for the same purpose, hence there was a time limit staff could devote to each site.

2 Quads were also used in mid December at Ella Bay to deploy remote cameras at the site, to investigate any likely predation on turtle nests. This involved 2 day visits where the project manager was present.

Operations of quads was ok'd through Innisfail QPWS & access obtained through Satori. Access by other means (boat, walking) was not judged practical or available to the task.

Quads were only to be used within the wash zone (low to high tide mark) & speed to be lowered to just above walking pace where waders (Beach Thick knee, Pied Oyster catcher) were observed on the shoreline as a measure to minimise site disturbance.

The project manager has apologised if the use of quads is viewed as being culturally insensitive.

Doug Wilson
Operations Manager
Wet Tropics Region (Southern)
Queensland Parks and Wildlife

I appreciated the fact that Mr Wilson had been so honest in his response but his letter had not addressed all of my concerns so I sent the following response on the same day.

Thank you for your response Doug

I will pass it on to the TUMRA people via James Epong. As I said it was very poor timing in relation to the recent Cowley Beach track decision at Cowley.

Are you aware that Ma:mu TUMRA people are conducting turtle surveys in this region and I hope your people are maintaining lines of communication with them as per GBRMPA recommendations?

I have been asked to (and do) share all my Ella Bay observations with Ma:mu TUMRA people and travel there with their blessing...on foot. This frees their people up to focus on areas like Cowley Beach though James Epong regularly travels Ella via boat and last week had a false alert when he sighted a boat landing mark near the location that your blokes drove above the high water mark at the north end near the rocks.

Predation of Turtle nests will not be an issue as so far there has been no nesting activity full stop as I have walked this beach from the Ella Bay car park to Cooper point every week and any incidents are reported to Brenton Haigh and Leroy Brown. The only turtle activity at Ella Bay was a turtle trapped in Coopers Creek that walked out and this was reported to TUMRA people and Brenton Haigh with track photographs. Weekly surveys are completed on foot to minimize wildlife and habitat disturbance.

Are you ok with the "circle work" and vegetation damage that was created by your 2 Quads as you made no mention of this in your response? I can Honestly assure you your 2 quad bikes were traveling very close and at speed near a favoured nesting site for beach thick knees (unsuccessfully as of late unfortunately) Any comments?

You will see that the quads were also used above the high tide mark in the photographs that show damage to the she oaks. Any comments?

I appreciate it is your job to defend your staff and would expect nothing less. Is this going to be a regular occurrence as I am concerned that you are opening the door for Ella Bay Pty Ltd staff to return to the bad old days of driving all over the place as they did in the past.

Doug I have invested a lot of my time to turning this situation around regarding beach driving so I am sure you can understand my concerns. It is not just the turtle issue but the Beach thick knees do not need the harassment they received a year ago which I documented if they are to breed successfully.

By saying this I am in no way diminishing the issue of respect for the wishes of Ma:mu traditional owners.

(Edited section due to reference to Ma:mu cultural sites)

That said, the apology from the project manager was polite and as I have said I will forward it to the Mandubarra people via email/phone.

I look forward to your reply and could you please address the highlighted sections within your response.

Regards Russell Constable

On 25 January 2010 I received this final communication from Mr Wilson.

Hi Russell I have spoken to the team leader of the project and

The ‘circle work’ allegation is refuted strenuously. QPWS staff were turning around at this point & due to the narrow nature of the end of the beach this meant accessing the storm surge zone.

The ‘vegetation damage’ of the she oak was not deliberate and was refuted strenuously (the single she-oak was in an open sand/ storm surge zone with little prospects for survival).

QPWS project staff exercise caution while observing beach thick knees & other wader species. However, there is a big difference between nesting sites & the wider occurrence of beach thick knees across both the wash zones & on adjacent dunes. It is a common response of beach thick knees to take flight whether a person is on foot or quad, then to return to that locality once the person has moved away – this occurs both at nesting sites but also for beach thick knees or other waders foraging along the wash zone or on dunes. Again it is a common adaptation of wader species to take flight as a natural defence measure. For staff to avoid waders taking flight is not something that can be guaranteed by adopting a standard practice, the only measure to be taken is to slow movement so that any young are not left vulnerable and allow adult birds to choose whether to take flight, to stand & freeze or to walk away with sufficient time.

Whilst there were short sections above the high tide zone driven on by quads, debris in the wash zone needed to be navigated around (beached timber, seaweed). The footprint of quads was at all times kept within the storm surge zone where practical to prevent any permanent footprint or significant damage to the fore dune or likely wader/ turtle nesting habitat.

Access to the beach via quads was is due to time efficiency & within an agreed mgt purpose with Innisfail QPWS. Quad access is not the only means of beach access used by QPWS , but within appropriate guidelines it is seen as a viable and acceptable means of performing QPWS project work. This is particularly relevant in this first yr of QPWS investigating the marine turtle nesting congregation at Ella Bay & elsewhere within the Wet Tropics.

Until the characteristics & threats of nesting activity can be first determined QPWS would not like to restrict their capability to manage any turtle colony, eg quads could be valuable if pig/ dog baiting became a required activity at the nesting season outset. This involves a range of sites that need to be understood not only from an access point of view, but what if any mgt action could be required to protect or intervene for a colony or nesting event.

QPWS is investigating whether remote access (flights by micro light) could be an alternative to ground access at key times (eg flights around when likely turtles coming ashore to nest) to both be time & cost efficient means of turtle surveys in future years. This would naturally cut down reliance on quads, though not necessarily remove a required, restricted & narrow need for using quads for a specific mgt purpose. Access by vessel is also possible, however again is highly restricted by tides & only of value when sites & search area are narrowed. Again, foot surveys are a luxury given the prospective range of sites but may be an option for a narrow search area.

QPWS staff object strenuously to the allegation/comment of the beach being treated by DERM staff ‘as a playground’ as suggested in your email, but again re-iterate an apology if this activity is viewed as being culturally insensitive. QPWS is naturally very keen to foster indigenous aspirations under the TUMRA & look towards this project as having very common ground.

Satori were made aware of QPWS purpose using quads with both their project manager (Steve Gherrad) & Env Manager (Darryl Porche) on site, both of whom understood QPWS’ purpose but also both extremely well aware of past history & that this was not setting a bad precedent nor a double standard on the part of QPWS. Satori when possible make weekly inspections on foot of the beach & have no stated intentions of vehicle access nor use on the beach for their own staff.

Call me if you wish to discuss this matter further

Doug Wilson
Operations Manager
Wet Tropics Region (Southern)
Queensland Parks and Wildlife
Department of Environment and Resource Management
On the same day 25 January 2010 I sent the following response.

Thank you Doug for your response and I will read it fully tonight.

The first point where your team leader states:

“The ‘circle work’ allegation is refuted strenuously. QPWS staff were turning around at this point & due to the narrow nature of the end of the beach this meant accessing the storm surge zone.”

is obviously incorrect. The entry and exit tracks from the circle are clearly visible so it is plain to see this was not a vehicle turning around. Would the team leader like to re assess what was stated? I can appreciate you cannot stop your guys wanting to have a play however the defence of their actions which they are using would appear very feeble to a reader. To be quite honest Doug if I put that defence next to the north south circle work photos your credibility will go out the door in about 2 seconds.

(Edited due to reference to Ma:mu cultural sites)

I hope the rest of the story stands up to scrutiny better than this beginning and at first glance some of the points appear quite valid.

Last night I received a communication from the Mandubarra traditional owners. James Epong and his two sons saw the tracks on the beach whilst conducting their TUMRA turtle surveys and both he and his two sons were upset at seeing the quad tracks on this beach. Please find an extract below from the email I mentioned. I can not forward the whole document to you as it contains confidential information and does not speak very kindly of your staff for obvious reasons. I forwarded your original apology to the Mandubarra people when I received it.

I did c the tracks in question with my two sons (hut access) and they were very up set about seeing it, I did check turtle site at Heath point n rang Leroy on 19.12.09 I have not heard from them, reported vehicles on browns beach looked like QPWS 4x4 n vehicles on Kurrimine beach reported 2 CCRC Mr O Brien 40302229 . I went on 4bc radio and talked about stopping hunting of turtle (20.01.10) and protecting them and section 211 we don't want this section used for turtle, you can see we are committed to see the rise in numbers of turtles on our beaches

James basically tells me their TUMRA group is receiving zero communication from your department yet there is an expectation that they provide your people with sighting information. Hardly an equitable scenario when you consider these people are sacrificing their traditional hunting rights for the sustainability of turtles and dugong in the area. It is a matter which concerns me greatly as the loss of the protection afforded by the TUMRA would be a blow to the long term protection of turtles and dugong in this region as I am sure you are aware.

The story will possibly be less than complimentary to your people in some parts as I believe this manner of monitoring Ella Bay is far from best practice. If I feel it presents your department too negatively I will try to mention positive actions from your department that I have witnessed in the past.

Doug I think you really need to ask your team leader about his first comment as the photographs expose it as an obvious untruth


Russell Constable

Ok that’s enough of the letters for the moment.

You will see I refer to a TUMRA in these emails. I best explain TUMRA’s and why they are important to managing wildlife at places like Ella Bay.

This will be pretty basic so here goes.

The Section 211 that Ma:mu traditional owner James Epong mentions above is Section 211 of the Native Title Act 1993 which basically says according to His Honour Justice Bleby:

“If the exercise or enjoyment of native title rights and interests in relation to land or waters consists of or includes carrying on hunting, fishing and gathering, and some other law prohibits or restricts persons from carrying on that class of activity other than in accordance with a licence, permit or other instrument granted or issued under the law… in those circumstances the law does not prohibit or restrict native title holders from carrying on the class of activity where they do so … for the purpose of satisfying their personal, domestic or non-commercial communal needs; and in exercise or enjoyment of their native title rights and interests.)

Ma:mu traditional owners have a right to hunt for protected species such as dugong and marine turtles that is recognised by Australian Law.

Now here’s the interesting thing.

Our Ma:mu traditional owners (who are also called the Mandubarra mob in my correspondence as TUMRA turtle business is co ordinated through the Mandubarra Land & Sea Corporation) have put aside some of these rights and signed a Traditional Use Marine Resource Agreement (TUMRA) so they can protect rather that exploit dugong and marine turtles.

This TUMRA was finalized on 25 June 2008 and you can find information on the Ma:mu TUMRA here.

I am very proud to see that Ma:mu traditional owners are prepared to sacrifice rights and traditions for the sake of helping threatened turtle and dugong stocks recover.

Keep in mind the Ma:mu people are setting aside hunting and cultural practices that go back tens of thousands of years for the future benefit of all Australians.

What do the Ma:mu people receive in return for the cultural sacrifice they have decided to make?

Pardon me for being so blunt but not a bloody lot as far as I can see.

I received the following message from Mr James Epong recently that really illustrated the Ma:mu people’s frustration.

Hello Russell I am very upset to hear that the QPWS carried out Turtle monitoring in our TUMRA area's, the last time I spoke to Leroy on Brenton's phone informing him about turtle nest site at Heath point he said he would contact me on my phone if any Turtle nest reported both Leroy and Brenton have my number, I can't explain what has happen and very confused, how do I now tell my Elders what has happened?? Our Mandubarra Elders have honoured our TUMRA agreement with paying all expenses up to $15.000 to keep office open and manned, and $2.000 for vehicles I personally supplied 4X4 and boat, gps, camera, and put in a hundred hours labour, also represented Mandubarra Aboriginal Land and Sea for LMAC and Cowley Beach advisory Committee, and have met with Army for ILUA to close the north end of Cowley beach to Robison's beach to all users, and to contact our office if any activities arise and told them every thing about the TUMRA, I’m confident the Army would of told QPWS we where conducting a Turtle monitoring program and are in the process to close beach for Turtle nesting season, meeting took place at the TUMRA Office with Major Darryl Lyions and their environment officer for the army base,

l need help can you help me us mob, all I want to do now is go and protest in front of QPWS to morrow, and go on radio t.v news papers, how can this happen, I feel very sick, that we been working hard with letting all know about not hunting and the use of section 211 stopped, this is going to hurt my Elders bad, today we spent all day at the TUMRA Office finalizing our submission to GBRMPA for our Turtle monitoring program funding, Tony Kyle is our project officer at GBRMPA he never contacted us about QPWS carrying out Turtle protect, Tony would of told us as he is my uncle, I have Contacted the environment department CCRC Vince O'Brien about TUMRA and Turtle project.

We I have been open and honest to everyone with everything I have said and done, how can this happen? Why are we left out of such important field work, what how do I tell my Elders we where kept out of the loop! With past projects with QPWS we always get ripped off by (edited)!!! How unfair.

I have personally expressed my sorrow to James and his people as I think they have every right to feel neglected.

Over the past year I have observed that “Turtle Business” is not being shared by local government departments (including DERM/QPWS) with Ma:mu TUMRA people. Perhaps these people have forgotten that at the end of the day Ma:mu Traditional owners are probably doing more for turtle and dugong conservation, via abstaining from traditional hunting, than any other group in the region.

Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service have an obligation to consult more thoroughly with Ma:mu traditional owners than they appear to be doing at present.

Indeed this obligation is noted in Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service policy documents like the Good Neighbour Policy which states:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have a special relationship with the lands that make up the QPWS estate, both as traditional owners and custodians of their cultural heritage and as neighbours and members of local communities. QPWS recognises the important relationship between traditional owners and the land and will recognise the rights and interests of traditional owners in developing park management arrangements.

QPWS will also continue to consult with neighbours about the protection of cultural sites on the QPWS estate and other issues involving the interests of indigenous people.

Within the context of this policy the Ma:mu TUMRA group are indeed “neighbours” and deserve to be consulted with relation to all QPWS turtle business within their TUMRA region.

This simple courtesy would strengthen conservation in this region and help ensure the continued protection afforded by the Ma:mu TUMRA.

I am not happy to hear that beach driving at Ella Bay has upset Ma:mu traditional owners. I am also unhappy that lack of consultation regarding “Turtle Business” by QPWS has upset Ma:mu traditional owners at Ella Bay.

In the past the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service have achieved positive outcomes in this region. Rangers Brenton Haigh and Leroy Brown have acted swiftly to address poaching issues at Ella Bay. Ranger Kerry Walsh acted swiftly to halt the destruction of a colony of the listed Endangered Bramston Beach Pitcher plant by electricity supplier Ergon at Bramston Beach. Ranger Glenn Kvassay acted swiftly to halt illegal sand dredging at Cowley Beach.

I suggest now is a good time for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service people to pick up the phone and communicate directly with The Ma:mu TUMRA people, a people who have given up so much and are getting so little back at this moment in time.

I certainly do not “have it in” for the Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service however I am saying best practice has not been observed at Ella Bay and a re think regarding Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service policies and procedures is called for.

I will leave you with a parting photo of Ma:mu traditional owner James Epong and his daughter that I took during a December Ma:mu turtle survey at Ella Bay.

Cheers Russ


  1. Stunning arrogance expressed by QPWS in their "deny everything" letters.
    Very impressed by your dedication Russell.
    It is obvious that QPWS regard themselves as the only people capable of doing any valid Turtle Research.
    Obviously (in their mind) you may as well stop walking the Beach yourself, as they clearly will disregard your reports.
    Fancy that - it is a "luxury" your doing it on foot.
    I support you totally re the impact on the Beach Thick Knees. They are really shy birds, and not at all like "other waders". For one thing, most "other waders" breed in Asia - not on the beaches of Queensland.
    Some dotterels, and small terns do, and maybe some Oystercatchers, but that's about all.
    Reading the letters sent to you, I would be deeply offended by the "tone" as much as anything. I say that as a former professional writer of responses to Ministerial letters in the Federal Government.
    I think the letter writer ought be invited to accompany you along the beach one day. He needs to get out from behind the desk, for one thing.
    I strongly support your letters and your respectful dealing with the local Aboriginal community.
    QPWS ought give you more respect than is evidenced in their letters.
    Denis Wilson

  2. Wow Denis that is one beauty of a comment!
    I had never even considered the fact that most waders are not breeding in Australia which does make the poor old Beach thick knee that little bit special.
    When the beach is narrow I often go bush inland to avoid disturbing these birds as I approach them. They do not enjoy people coming between them and the water as that is their escape route.When they fly away it will always be in an easterly direction over the water. I wear the same clothes when I visit the bay and avoiding eye contact reduces noticeable stress on these birds. They also have a cultural significance to traditional owners which has to be considered and respected.
    I am particularly sad that the Ma:mu people maintain a full time office in Innisfail at the direct expense of the Elders, (a google search under Mandubarra will give anyone a contact number) and yet this office which coordinates ma:mu turtle work is not being contacted by government authorities when "turtle Business" is being carried out.
    I am lucky as I personally am not easily offended and can appreciate that QPWS have a heavy load and might not be seeing the forest for the trees.
    However respect is respect no matter what your cultural background. Phone calls are cheap when you consider what is at stake.

    When a people put aside cultural entitlements for the good of the state the state should show those people respect to say the very least.

    By the way my own turtle survey stuff is online at and
    Thank you Ramon at Ocean Sentry!
    I was also interviewed by the ABC at
    Denis I appreciate the thought and effort that has gone into your comments and will forward them to Ma:mu TUMRA representative, James Epong today.Thank you.

  3. you should give those blokes a break.. i have been riding quads for a long period of time and can definately say that the photo's taken do not show in any way of "hooning." i know what a large turning circle they have and it clearly shows a "slow turn."

  4. Hmmm someone from Brisbane who is searching for information on quad bike riding tracks visits and leaves anonymous comment in support of quad riding!Funny that!Strewth "anonymous" just isn't what it used to be!

    I still object strongly to DERM's suggestion that it was a vehicle turning around when this clearly was not the truth as the entry/exit tracks prove.
    Mr Wilson said:
    “The ‘circle work’ allegation is refuted strenuously. QPWS staff were turning around at this point & due to the narrow nature of the end of the beach this meant accessing the storm surge zone.” (Please keep in mind Mr Wilson is simply repeating what his staff said to him).
    In fact on reaching the end of the beach they deliberately drove up to the top of the intertidal zone driving over vegetation as they did so!
    Unlawful and hardly best practice.
    The Beach thick knee is on the vulnerable list in Queensland and endangered in NSW!
    I have seen their nests and speckled eggs (egg) laid in the upper intertidal areas of this beach.This is an area any ranger knows (and hopefully you now know) is a zone their quads should not go anywhere near... You have the excuse of perhaps being ignorant of this fact...they did not.
    When I see a pair of thick knees successfully raise a chick at Ella Bay perhaps I will turn a blind eye to such inappropriate behaviour from DERM.
    Until then thank you anonymous and I will agree to disagree!


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