How a rescue program led by researchers and rangers saves critically endangered sawfish in the Top End

As you bump along a dried up floodplain, there is a strange splashing sound coming from the rear of the four-wheel drive.

Inside an aquarium are five large-toothed sawfish on a rescue trip – the billabong they just rescued will heat up and evaporate in a matter of weeks.

Since 2012, a group of indigenous rangers and a researcher have rescued more than 70 sawfish through rescue missions in the Daly River area, south of Darwin.

“It’s an absolutely unique animal, you know, half ray, half shark, half chainsaw,” said Dr Peter Kyne.

Dr. Kyne of Charles Darwin University is leading the rescue program with Ranger Malak Malak.(

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Catching an animal with rows of teeth sticking out of its head can seem like a difficult task.

But Dr Kyne and Ranger Amos Shields easily find them in the shallow waters near the mangroves, catching some by hand and others with a net.

Then it’s a race to the car to mark them before placing them in a tank.

Less than an hour’s drive later, it’s time to release them back into the Daly River.

Sawfish will live here among crocodiles and bulldog sharks until they are five years old, when they migrate to the ocean.

A man in a blue shirt and pants stands by a river, with mangroves in the background.
Mr. Shields works with four other rangers to patrol the area’s billabongs, looking for stranded sawfish.(

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The rescue program turns 10

The Sawfish Rescue Program is considered the only one of its kind in the world and is run by the Malak Malak Ranger Group of the Northern Land Council and Charles Darwin University, with support from the Australian Marine Conservation Society.

It all started when ranger Amos Shields noticed the animals were stuck in a particular billabong, which connects to the Daly River for part of the year.

“We went fishing and we found them in the waterhole and then we took some pictures,” Mr. Shields said.

“We came back, went back to the ranger office and called Pete [Kyne]. “

Two men stand in a river, between mangroves, on a sunny day.
Dalagarr’s billabong is one of two known sawfish after a heavy rainy season in the area.(

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Dr Kyne said the stranding was a natural process, but with the animal largely disappearing in the wild, it was desperately needed to be saved.

“Given the species’ critically endangered status, this is the helping hand it needs now … with all the threats it faces from fishing, mining and water, habitat loss, ”he said.

“This species was present in tropical regions of the world, [there were] about 90 countries in which it has spread.

A man passing sawfish to another on the banks of a river.
Team members catch sawfish in shallow water near mangroves, using their hands or nets.(

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The big-toothed sawfish is listed as vulnerable by the Australian government, but the International Union for Conservation of Nature has marked them as Critically Endangered.

Signs near the Daly River remind anglers that the animal is protected and, if caught, it must be returned to the water in good condition.

But photographs and location notes are welcome, to help authorities better understand the population – as it is not known how many are left in the Daly River.

A sawfish lying on its back on the ground while the rangers pour water over it.
Animals are measured and tagged before being released into the Daly River.(

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Peter Van Wyk of the Northern Land Council said the rescues will continue well into the future and are a positive aspect of the ranger’s job, which is also to eliminate wildlife.

“Here we are with an endangered species, we can help preserve its longevity into the future and that’s great,” he said.

“I remember the first time I saw one in the wild, I was really blown away, just like ‘oh wow what a crazy looking creature’.

“I saw a three-meter one and it was impressive, but you see in old photographs these huge examples, so let’s hope there are still some there.”

A ranger in a blue shirt lowers a sawfish into a tank.
Sawfish will live in the Daly River until they are ready to migrate to the ocean. (

ABC News: Che Chorley

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