Burrowed in the spinifex of central Australia, in tunnels running ten metres in diameter, the tjalapa has long been a sacred part of the tjukurrpa for those on Country.

Also know as tjakura, warrana, mulyamiji or the great desert skink, the tjalapa is a burrowing skink measuring about 440 millimetres when fully grown.

Once found in abundance on Aboriginal land, the tjalapa is now considered a vulnerable species.

Protected by more than ten different ranger groups in central Australia, a national recovery plan from the Indigenous Desert Alliance has been developed to help preserve tjalapa.

On Kiwirrkurra Country, the rangers are working to preserve tjalapa knowing they have been disappearing from other parts of central Australia.

Threatened species ecologist for the Indigenous Desert Alliance Rachel Paltridge said meeting with other ranger groups made it clear the tjalapa needed protecting.

“When the ranger program started and rangers started sharing information more we heard from other ranger groups they used to have a lot of great desert skinks, but now they can’t find them in some areas,” she said.

“So even thought they’re still quite common at Kiwirrkurra, in some places they have disappeared and people haven’t seen them for a long time.

“That’s when we realised that’s something that needs looking after.”

Kiwirrkurra rangers out on Country tracking tjalapa. Photo credit: Kiwirrkurra IPA.

As wildfires burn away the spinifex away, the open space leaves the tjalapa vulnerable to feral cats.

Once eaten as a delicacy, tjalapa are now protected as a native animal with an important connection to Country.

“We wouldn’t eat it anymore,” ranger Zechariah Spencer said.

“Tjalapa got tjukurpa, it’s got dreaming and dreamtime story.”

Despite the threat of wildfires and feral cats, Ms Paltridge said there has been an increase in the tjalapa population.

“Every year we do our monitoring and we walk along these same sites, cover the same area and count how many burrows there are,” she said.

“And where we’ve been doing cat hunting and the good fire management the numbers of burrows have been going up and so the population is increasing.

“We also put cameras on the burrows…and with the cameras we can also see how many cats are coming around the burrows so if we see a cat on camera we have to go and hunt that down.”

In the long term, ensuring the longevity of tjalapa is the focus of all ranger groups in Central Australia.

“Other ranger groups are also doing similar things, doing good fire management, doing monitoring but we’re hoping to increase the number of sites where these actions happen,” Paltridge said.

“And all work together, collaborate and share our knowledge and have a big collaborative project across the range of groups through the Indigenous Desert Alliance to hopefully stop any further contraction of the great desert skink distribution.”

The Tjakura national recovery plan will be submitted to the government later this year.