Category Archives: Threatened Species

Crypto-Creatures

This is a wonderful moment: there actually is some good news to report! An animal that was feared to have gone extinct has been located. Not just an individual, but a whole group, alive and well in the bush.

Let me back track, briefly. A few years ago I had a chat with the film maker Robert Nugent, and he told me that he was starting on a new project focussing on the Australian night parrot. He explained that this elusive nocturnal parrot might be extinct, but that there were unconfirmed reports of a living group. I wondered how he would film a bird that is active only at night, and that in any case hasn’t been seen for sure in a very long time; I marvelled at the ingenuity of the creative drive. Those cryptic birds  haunted my imagination and I began to envision them as mysterious and rather glorious mythical beings.

Imaginary parrot
Imaginary parrot

Yesterday I consulted my bird books and found a more prosaic story. The night parrot, Pezoporus occidentalis, is related to the ground parrots (Pezoporus wallicus). There are two main types of ground parrots, eastern and western. My area is home to the eastern variant. I have seen them every once in a while, and although one book describes them as ‘dumpy’, I find them lovely even though they are neither slim nor showy. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction. The night parrot looks pretty much the same and is far more endangered.

The ominous account in the bird books reads: ‘Recent specimen (1990) found dead beside highway near Boulia, Queensland’.

Night parrot (CC)
Ground parrot (CC)

Now Bush Heritage has announced that a group of night parrots has been located. What is more, they are being protected in situ. The Bush Heritage conservation organisation was started by Bob Brown, our great moral leader. He and a few others conceived the idea of generating a fund with which to buy properties with high conservation value and dedicating them to regeneration (if needed) and protection. The reason was simple: if we waited for governments to take the lead in conservation we would lose too much. Community action was necessary. Bush Heritage is supported by donors and has been going for 25 years. It now owns millions of hectares of land.

The night parrot site involved agreements with the local land owner and the Queensland government to acquire a sizeable block of land. The on-going work of conservation involves liaising with local landowners and with the local Maiawali people. The new property is called Pullen Pullen to honour the local Indigenous name for the bird. It’s location is being kept secret. The birds were important figures in Maiawali culture. Mr Darryl Lyons explained that his people  ‘were known in their main corroboree as the rainmakers and were often summonsed by neighbouring tribes to go to their areas to do the rain dance and the ceremonial dress of that corroboree had the Pullen Pullen feathers in it.’

Night parrots were once widespread across arid Australia. They are ground dwellers in spinifex and samphire country. It is possible that they are able to gain all the water they need from Sclerolaena plants (which also produce edible seeds) and therefore do not require direct water sources. It now seems probable that one big factor in the decline of night parrots was the cessation of Aboriginal burning. Spinifex burning is well documented; it was organised to create patches. The effects ensure that there is spinifex at various stages of growth, that there are lots of patchy edges, and that the incidence of catastrophic fires is reduced.

Spinifex country
Spinifex country

The ornithologist Steve Murphy is in charge of researching and organising protection for the night parrots. He says there is one main threat aside from humans: feral cats. At any time they could knock off the whole population. According to one news report, there are dingoes in the area, and that is probably why the feral cat population is low. No one wants to take risks, however.

I am captivated by the story of Maggie, a one-year-old collie who has been trained to smell and track feral cats. Her human companions, Mark and Glenys Woods take her out early in the morning, and she patrols the area sniffing for cats. Mark Woods explained: ‘Maggie’s sense of smell is so highly developed she can distinguish a feral cat from a domestic cat. This incredible ability makes them one of the most effective tools in managing and eliminating feral cat populations.’ When she scents a cat or a den she sits and waits. That is the extent of her job.

According to the reports, along with relying on dingoes and on Maggie, an alternative mode of control is being used. It is a mechanical device called a ‘grooming trap’, designed to be triggered only by cats. When triggered, it shoots out 1080 poison. The idea is that cats will lick off the poison and die. This device inflicts a terrible death; creatures who ingest 1080 suffer horribly.

Feral cats are the subject of a huge campaign designed to try to limit their numbers. A key element in the campaign is the demonisation of cats. This tends to obscure the fact that many of the causes of death of native animals, particularly birds, are generated by humans. A Bush Heritage publication on ‘Land Clearing and its Impacts’, tells us that Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and that clearing affects not only the trees themselves but also other creatures who live in and among trees, including those who inhabit the understory. This report does not pull its punches:

‘Over 5 million parrots, honeyeaters, robins and other land birds are killed each year by land clearing….

‘For every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress. Half of Australia’s terrestrial bird species may become extinct this century unless habitat destruction is rapidly controlled.’ And yet, regulations against land clearing are being abandoned, while feral cats are targetted ever more severely.

The pest industry recently expanded its empire when a gathering of Environment Ministers (in July 2015) endorsed the National declaration of feral cats as pests . This meant that they would ‘review arrangements within their respective jurisdictions and, where necessary, to remove unnecessary barriers to effective and humane control of feral cats’. The site explaining feral cat issues includes details of new methods of using 1080 for cat killing. The short translation of this obscure pronouncement is that the 1080 deathscape expands again.

Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing
Information mural, Alice Springs Desert Park, Kaye Kessing (artist)

It is true that feral cats kill a lot of birds and other animals. It is also true that their populations become wildly out of sync when dingoes are killed. The relationship between cats and dingoes is one of those extinction cascades: the effort to kill dingoes opens the way for an over-abundance of cats, foxes, and rabbits. All three species multiply without check when their top predators are gone, and the impacts on native animal and plant species are disastrous.

Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)
Feral cat, NSW, by sunphlo (CC)

I write regularly against the use of 1080. Poison is not an appropriate way to address conservation issues. A basic principle of compassionate conservation is that the conservation of one species ought not to be achieved by inflicting dreadful deaths on members of other species. I do not want to see conservation measures contribute to an industry dedicated to death. The pest industry promotes itself by vilifying other creatures; it spreads suffering around the country in the name of land management, and tries to make mass death look like responsible action. I will be writing to Bush Heritage to share my views on 1080. I donate to this organisation because I believe passionately in its aims; at the same time I do not want my money contributing to 1080 or similar poisons.

There are ways to get rid of cats at Pullen Pullen without all the suffering. The dingoes should thrive if the area is kept clear of 1080, and they will take care of the cats. And Maggie and her humans, Mark and Glenys Woods, are on the job. Their cross-species alliance is an ideal to be aimed for in all conservation.

I want to congratulate Bush Heritage for the large-scale in situ approach to conservation. The great merit of this approach is that it enables endangered species to continue their lives in the manner that has evolved for them to live well and happily. A further merit is that it enables humans to facilitate the work of the natural world, rather than disrupt it. It builds on the understanding that every life is an inter-species project, that we live within systems of connectivity. It sets out an ethical project for humans:

to work in alliance with existing systems.

This approach differs greatly from the anthropocentric engineering approach in which humans imagine themselves as the creators of a new and improved nature.

South-west Queensland
South-west Queensland

Alliances are the way life works sustainably. The night parrots are embedded in multiple alliances – with spinifex that gives them shelter and food, and with Sclerolaena that give them water and food. The Sclerolaena are terribly annoying to humans, especially barefoot humans; they are best known as prickles, burrs and bindyi. And yet for night parrots they are literal life-savers. These little birds have survived colonisation with its invasive humans, cattle, horses, and catastrophic fires (with the cessation of Aboriginal burning); they have survived many more disasters than I am aware of. Their resilience is their great asset. Our conservation efforts can enhance that resilience by removing feline predators and, as Bush Heritage is doing admirably, protecting them from human predators.

We will know more about these interspecies, biocultural alliances when we get to see Robert’s film. I’m told that ‘Night Parrot Stories’ will be shown in the Sydney Film Festival on 19 June. In the meantime:

Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

Robert Nugent’s previous film on locusts is ‘Memoirs of a plague’.

Quote from bird book is from Simpson and Day, Field Guide to the Birds of Australia (sixth edition).

The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.

To learn more about Aboriginal burning in Central Australia, a good resource is Peter Latz’s book Bushfires and Bushtucker.

The Mark Woods quote is in ‘Bush Tracks’, the Bush Heritage quarterly magazine (Autumn 2016).

Bush Heritage Report on Land Clearing and its Impacts (view here).

To learn more about the ‘grooming trap’, visit here. On the meeting of ministers, visit here.

On Sclerolaena, see the info sheet on wildlife and native plants.

There are numerous essays on this site concerning 1080, the pest industry, and the role of dingoes as ecological regulators. On pests, see ‘How to Love a Pest‘.

The best article on killing and conservation is by Thom van Dooren and can be read online (here).

‘Dog Bless’

I’m packing my bags again, this time for the Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan where I will participate in the International Society of Ethnobiology Conference. Ever since I’ve known that Bhutan existed, I’ve longed to go there, and at last there is this wonderful conference, plus field trips. In using the word ‘wonderful’, I want to note that this is the first conference I have ever attended that has had a special section titled ‘sung sessions’, dedicated to ‘myth and ritual’. I can’t wait to be part of it, and of course I’ll provide a report.

Before I leave the country, though, I need to say a proper and loving farewell to Dinky the Singing Dingo. Dinky died a couple of weeks ago at age fourteen. He was described by many who loved him as a great ambassador for dingoes, as well as for tourism.

Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)
Dinky and Jim, Adrian Tritschler (CC)

For much of his life, Dinky held forth at Stuarts Well Roadhouse south of Alice Springs.  The owner of the roadhouse, Jim Cotterill, told me that Dinky’s family was living in an area where 1080 was laid, and the nursing mother died. Some stockmen found the litter of six pups in a hollow under a sandhill. They put a trap outside, and it took about three days for the little pups to give up waiting for their mother and to come out. I do not understand why the stockmen took the pups back to the head station, since the purpose of 1080 was to kill them, but in any case, the owner knew that the Cotterills had a few animals at the pub. He rang and asked if they’d like a dingo. Jim said the pup was about six or eight weeks old when he got him. His pup-mates were all killed.

Jim’s daughters played the piano, and when they practiced, Dinky started singing along with them. Later in the pub Dinky hopped up on the piano and walked back and forth singing. According to Cotterill:

“Every time someone starts playing the piano, Dinky creates a din. He starts howling, or singing as we call it. With a chair alongside the piano, he will walk up onto the keys – we call that his playing. He stands there and sings.”

Dinky’s singing was absolutely awesome, especially as he was willing to allow people to get very close. I taped him so that I could hear him whenever I wanted to. Later, though, I couldn’t bear to listen. Not after I came to realise that I knew the song; I had listened to it and sung it many times. From the Babylonian victory right up until today, the song cries out the anguish of exile and diaspora, of those who can never go home again. Part of the beauty of such songs is their improbability: that beauty should burst forth in the midst of disaster and despair seems miraculous. And the beauty also expresses the challenge and heartbreak that emerge in consequence of the cruelty of those who seek the annihilation of others.

Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)
Dinky, Xavier Warluzel (CC)

What does one do? I taped Dinky, looking into his deep mouth and listening to his sonorous voice as he called out for harmony. Later, I felt ashamed, and later still I felt desolate. I was awed to be in his presence, and I wanted to take a fragment home with me. I thought of him and wrote about him, and I thought and wrote about all the silencing that goes on as more and more animals are killed. I searched for a story that would do justice to Dinky and to all of his kin and kind.

Dinky had many comrades, both permanent and transient. Others who visited actually engaged in making song with him. That was what he was calling for, and the encounters that met him on his own musical ground are precious. My friend Hollis Taylor visited Dinky, and she sat at the piano and played with him. She understands music far better than I do, and she found that Dinky sang in perfect pitch. She understood, I think, that what he longed for was the family that makes song together. Hollis recorded the music she and Dinky made, reproducing this stunningly beautiful moment of encounter and recognition across species (listen here).

These moments of beauty, when members of two species join their songs together, are terribly rare. At this time many more dingoes and other animals are victims of 1080 poison. They are dying terrible deaths in outback Queensland, and all across Australia. The poison itself is the product of an industrial killing complex that brings great shame upon our society and our species, while bringing disaster upon our fellow singers.

As I wrote in an earlier essay, my email buddy Ray Pierotti is investigating the love-hate relationships humans have with the genus Canis. He writes that while humans and canids are capable together of becoming allies, some human groups turn against them. He concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’

Probably Dinky was in shock in his early months. Music gave him a place in the world.

After the death, Jim and his family took Dinky back to Stuarts Well and buried him in the country he came from, where he had grown up and lived most of his life. Something of Dinky lingers in that desert country, and my fervent hope is that there are still functioning dingo families out there. May their harmonies sing him home so that he may rejoin the family he lost so long ago.

Dog bless this troubled land.

Dog bless the dingoes who are grieving, and all those who are lost and disoriented. Dog bless the young ones who hardly know how to find their way in a world made perilous through human persecution. Dog bless the possibility of a future in which humans set aside their fear and anger, and find companionship with the creatures of earth.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Dingo in Queensland,by John Murray
Dingo in Queensland, by John Murray

Resources:

Hollis Taylor’s session with Dinky is the last track on her CD ‘Infidel’.

My concerns about cruelty to dingoes are explored in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction. as well as in other essays on this site.

For more about Dinky, see http://www.ntnews.com.au/news/only-in-the-territory/rip-dinky-singing-dingo-and-great-ambassador-for-tourism-dies/story-fnk2tg5d-1226915630149

For more about 1080,  the radio program made by Emma Townshend is wonderful (listen here).

 

 

Albatross Chick ~ The Gift of Proximity

Travel to Kaua’i and you never know just what will happen next! I have been staying at the home of friends who have developed a sweet and dedicated relationship with albatrosses.

Albatross chick, May 5, 2014
Albatross chick, May 5, 2014

The situation here in the east and north-east sector of Kaua’i is astonishing by any standard, and can be credited to a great number of human beings who are willing, even delighted, to live convivially with these magnificent birds. My own standards when I got here were pretty low as I was traumatised by the violence against fellow creatures that I had been witnessing and writing about in Australia. Being here conjures that lovely old term ‘balm’. A sense of healing arises in the presence of people who generously share their land and their lives with other creatures, and who, in fact, feel blessed by the opportunity to live in close proximity with others.

Laysan albatrosses (Phoebastria immutabilis) are wonderful birds to share a place with because their evolved way of life has not required them to be fearful of predators. Humans can walk amongst them without disturbing them, and this fact has brought out the best and the worst in humans. Albatrosses were nearly driven to extinction through mass murder in pursuit of feathers for ladies hats, and other commercial products. That no longer happens, and in fact something else is also taking place: gratitude for the fact that we can be amongst wild animals in the most intimate proximity.

The gift of proximity is a blessing received, a path toward humility.

Albatrosses spend about seven years dancing and courting before settling on their mate. They have a very low ‘divorce’ rate, and they share the labour first of sitting on the nest, and then of feeding the growing chick. It takes two parents to raise one chick, and every chick is testimony to the parents’ deep devotion. These fantastic birds fly eighty thousand or more kilometres annually to gather food from the North Pacific and raise their chicks on Hawaiian islands such as this.

Parent and egg, December, 2011
Parent and egg, December, 2011

The chick I am hanging out with now is the child of Makana and Kūpa’a. I wrote about these particular albatrosses in a book chapter published last year (I include the section on Albatrosses and Crazy Love). Two years ago something went wrong, and the chick did not hatch. Rick and Louise, the generous people who introduced me to Makana and Kūpa’a, told me that the following year the same couple returned to make a nest nearby, and raised a chick successfully. This year they made their nest under the deck. It is a great location – protected from full sun and full rain, and rather inconspicuous.

I have spent a lot of time on the deck hoping that a parent will come to feed the chick, but so far it hasn’t happened in my presence. The parents are ranging far and wide to get the food they need for themselves and little one – right now they could be in Alaska! How they come back to exactly this headland, to exactly this deck and this chick is actually unknown (to humans). And yet they do, and all the while the defenceless chick waits, developing the arts of patience along with growing feathers to replace its fluffy down.

Over the coming decades, if the couple survives the hazards of long-line fishing and ingestion of plastics, along with the land-based perils of dogs, cats and humans, they will almost certainly keep coming back and raising chicks. In due course, some of those chicks will also come here to nest and raise chicks.

Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014
Albatross chick goes for a walk, May 3, 2014

Returning to the here and now, the chick sits in his nest. Sometimes he stretches, or grooms himself, sometimes he appears to sleep. Often he looks up expectantly, and from time to time he clacks his bill, making the distinctive albatross sound that, in the chick-parent context, is asking for food. Occasionally he gets up and walks out onto the lawn, and after a gentle stroll returns to his nest and settles down to wait. My little home video (view here) shows him out on the lawn, and walking back to the nest, settling in, and doing a bit of grooming and clacking.

The arts of albatross life are indeed beautiful – to dance, to make commitments that can last ‘forever’, to navigate, to fly while sleeping, to return to the right place at the right time, and through it all, to live the varied cadences with appropriate attention. The perfectly matched dances, the dive for food, the feeding of the chick, the chatter, the grooming, and the lift upward on the winds; the travel, the brooding, the patience, the serenity.

Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)
Laysan Albatross, Caleb Slemmor (CC)

I try to imagine such flight, and find myself thinking of wind harps. The breath of life flows through us all, and each creature sounds forth the harmony that is their way of life. The big question for humans never goes away: will my life be tuned to blessings or to destruction?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The best entry into the wonders of albatross life is through the website developed by Hob Osterlund – Kaua’i Albatross Network. There you will also find a critter cam and can watch an albatross chick developing in real time.

Much of the information in this essay comes from Carl Safina’s award-winning book Eye of the Albatross.

My article that includes ‘albatrosses and crazy love’ started life as a keynote speech, and can be viewed here.

Empathy & Monk Seals

I’m packing my bags again, this time for an overnight flight Honolulu and then on to Kaua’i. Hawaiian monk seals and albatrosses occupy my mind, and I can’t wait to be back on headlands with albatross chicks, and on beaches near monk seal pups and mums (if lucky!).

RK13 and pup
RK13 and pup

There has been some good talk on the radio recently about how we humans really need to develop our capacity for empathy towards each other (listen here). I agree. And at the same time, I have to say that we need greater empathy toward all creatures, not just the human ones. Along these lines, some of the most interesting science findings in recent years are those showing that many nonhuman animals experience and act on empathy.

Frans de Waal is the leading figure here. In his great condensation of a lifetime of research, ‘Putting the altruism back into altruism’, he writes that ‘empathy allows one to quickly and automatically relate to the emotional states of others’. His research shows that empathy is widespread across mammals and birds (and there is other new research to show that something like empathy exists among plants as well). As a scientist, he is clear that there must be an evolutionary advantage to empathy, and he deduces that for social animals the capacity for empathy is integral to rearing new generations, and to sustaining social relations amongst adults (read here).

Across species, empathy works in beautifully complicated and captivating ways. We are empathetic creatures ‘by nature’, but we can also reject our own experience. The great author Coetzee brings out this point in his difficult and challenging book Disgrace. His central character is a rather desiccated, self-centred man named David Lurie. The book concerns his fall into disgrace, and it follows this descent in  numerous contexts one of which concerns animals. David ends up working at an animal refuge (for dogs especially) which functions primarily as a euthanasia centre.

He found that the more time he spent with the dogs, the greater became his capacity to experience anguish on their behalf. The more he brought them into the death room, the more committed he became to a world in which this kind of disposal would not be necessary. Dogs were humanising him, and to his disgrace he refused all fundamental changes. Empathy, this wonderful book tells us, has the capacity to be life transforming, but it is a two-way process:

We can be called into empathy, but we have to respond.

Thoughts of empathy were at the front of my thinking because on a previous trip to Hawaii I had the opportunity to be close to a mother monk seal and her pup. Hawaiian monk seals are critically endangered, probably the most vulnerable of all marine mammals. From a species point of view, mothers and pups are incredibly precious.

RK13 had given birth to numerous pups – she was an experienced mother. Usually she hauled out on beaches on the island of Kaua’i until almost time to give birth, and then she would go elsewhere. The year I was there was different. Not long before giving birth she had been bitten by a shark (she may be losing sight in one eye). She had gone into the canal for protection, and she did not eat much while she recovered from her wounds. The result was that she didn’t travel to a far away beach to give birth, and she wasn’t in top condition. Her pup was a healthy little fellow and he grew like mad while drinking her rich, nourishing milk.  Monk seal mums do not feed themselves while nursing their young, so it is a question of timing: will the mother’s reserves last long enough to enable the pup to achieve independence? In the case of RK13 this was a real worry because of her recent history. It all seems to have turned out fine, but when I saw the two of them it was clearly evident that this was a mum who had gone through a lot. Her backbone and vertebrae were startlingly visible, as was one shark scar.

Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup
Hawaiian Monk Seal RK13 and pup

What really struck me, though, was the sudden empathy I felt with her desire to wean the little pup. We tend to think of empathy in relation to suffering, or to the admirable qualities of fairness, helpfulness, generosity, and so on. But being with other mothers reminds one that there is also the empathy one feels with irritability and grumpiness. Seeing RK13 trying to gain some respite from the demanding little pup was a great lesson in the shared experiences of mammalian life. Mother love and the fierce commitment to nurturing   eventually bump up against the fact that young have to be weaned. Rarely do youngsters welcome this change of life!

I made a little home video of RK13 and her pup (view here). You can see her starved condition along with the plump vibrancy of her healthy little pup. And you can see her intensely mammalian-mother desire just to have some peace and quiet!

More to follow ….

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

Recent work on the need for empathy is the driving passion of Dr Roman Krznaric and can be followed up on his website:  http://www.romankrznaric.com/empathy-a-handbook-for-revolution

Lethal Heat: Lament for the Dead

They were young and beautiful, and they were dying. Some fell out of the trees, some crawled down and died on the ground. Some left this life still gripping the branch. Babies clung to dead mothers, and struggling mothers held dead babies.

The heat was relentless and the suffering went on and on as death worked its way through 100,000 or more flying-foxes in SE Queensland and Northern New South Wales. It may be the greatest mammalian mass death event to be caused by the new regime of extreme heat. It is probably also the first of many. Who will live and who will die becomes a question of temperature, refuge, and assistance. Much cannot be prevented.

Carers are working their hearts out. Support is needed in every area. Anguish is everywhere, and so too is commitment.

Behind this mass death is a history of persecution and on-going conquest. It is a history of loss of forests, refuge areas, blossoms and nectar, and of ever more urbanisation and conflict. Flying-foxes are these great pollinators, the night-workers of the Australian bush. Ranged against them is a desire amongst many humans to take over the world by relentlessly grasping or destroying the lives of others.

Courtesy of Nick Edards
Courtesy of Nick Edards

There was a time when flying-foxes regularly flew their great long trips across forests and escarpments, and returned home again because the way was known, and home was there. In some places life is like this still.

I remember stories the Aboriginal people told me about how flying-foxes are mates with the Rainbow Serpent. How they come and go in a pulse that is equally the pulse of the rainy time. They come bringing blessings because they call up rain, and when they depart they take their blessings elsewhere. They are kin – ‘one red blood’ in the words of David Gulpilil.

Now there is the haunting of mass death – it is possible that their blessings may indeed leave this earth forever. It is not only lives that are extinguished, but also the blessings of those lives. It may be that the earth is bleeding out now, and we are witnessing yet another aorta falling open.

We don’t have respectful methods for dealing with all these dead bodies. The image of wheelie-bins filled with dead flying-foxes shows a necessary pragmatism in the face of a huge problem, but is also deeply disturbing. Where will the bodies be taken? Will they be buried? Who will mark the grave-sites? Who will sing them home?

We lack appropriate mourning rituals for all this death. In truth, I wonder if we are capable of taking in the magnitude of the suffering. And yet in the weeks to come we will need to develop ways to honour the dead, to mourn their passing, to cherish the survivors, and to praise the carers.

For tonight, a candle is burning here in Sydney and I am dreaming of a flying-fox paradise. There the forests are unfelled, blossoming is sequential, flying-foxes travel and stop, eat and move on to their hearts’ content. They depart, and when they return, home is still there. Every branch and blossom welcomes them, and paradise is not a dream, but the real world of co-evolved life.

DSC02290

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Postscript:

A report from a mass death event in NSW last year enables us to gain a visual sense of encounter:

Resources:

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/weather/highly-significant-heatwave-smashes-australian-records-20140106-30dx5.html

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-01-08/hundred-thousand-dead-bats-after-qld-heatwave-rspca-says/5190644

http://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLDXF5lSd5Dz6ZBxDOWNASc8bjI_8DLgLt

http://www.bats.org.au/

https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time  (an article on flying-foxes and rain)

 

 

Thinking Extinction in Sudbury Ontario

Thinking Extinction Logo
Thinking Extinction Logo

Laurentian University in Sudbury Ontario recently started a new research initiative: the Centre for Evolutionary Ecology and Ethical Conservation. The first major event to be hosted by the Centre was a three day international symposium on species extinction. Brett Buchanan, author of an impressive book on philosophy and ethology, called Onto-Ethologies, was the leading figure behind the symposium. I was one of the lucky invited participants. From Sydney to Sudbury is a bit of a hike. It was well worth it.

Interestingly, the symposium was timed to coincide with author Margaret Attwood’s annual visit to Sudbury where she celebrates her birthday. Her recent world’s end trilogy, Oryx and CrakeThe Year of the Flood, and MaddAddam, uses the speculative form to work explicitly with themes of extinction. She and her husband Graeme Gibson, author of the beautifully presented Bedside Book of Birds, dedicate much energy and effort to thinking about environmental issues and working on behalf of endangered birds; their contributions to the symposium added an extra measure of wisdom.

The symposium speakers came from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the U.S., and included philosophers, biologists, and humanities scholars from a range of disciplines and interdisciplinary fields. The conversation ranged across a huge terrain of practice, theory, ethics, dilemmas, technology, biology, and social analysis. One way or another, almost every presentation was disturbing, and questions multiplied rather than diminished. One point that came up again and again is not new but is gaining urgency: mass extinctions are inseparable from the great, accelerating environmental crisis often signalled by the term ‘climate change’.

Overall, the focus was not exactly on extinction, per se, but more on prevention – what would it take to stop the scale of the mass extinction event now in process? What it would take socially, culturally, biologically, ecologically, technologically, ethically, and financially to turn back all this death? Each domain is huge, each poses many questions that are unanswerable at this time. Problems are quite well understood. Answers are not. The symposium organisers will be putting the videos up on the web, so people all over the world will have a chance to carry the conversations into in their own places, problems, programs and debates.

It now seems clear that by any rigorous definition of extinction, many animals will not go extinct in the foreseeable future because some individuals will be kept alive. One of the issues that claimed a fair bit of attention, therefore, was the different life experiences of animals subjected to in-situ vs. ex-situ conservation. In-situ can be glossed as ‘in the wild’. It involves sustaining habitats, corridors, waterways and other ecological contexts that are essential to the members of any given species as they live their lives on their own terms (to greater or lesser extents).  Ex-situ can be glossed as ‘in human care’. (Thanks to Gabriela Mastromonaco of the Toronto Zoo for pointing out the linguistic oddity of this term: with appalling ease it transmutes into ‘inhuman care’.)

At this time, the ultimate ex-situ conservation measure involves fragments. The warehousing of tissue samples and other genetic material, as undertaken in ‘Frozen Ark’ programs, involves numerous zoos that keep samples on ice. The mission: ‘to save samples of frozen cells containing DNA from endangered animals before they go extinct’. There are now 48,000 samples on ice, representing genetic material from 5,500 endangered and non-endangered animal species. One of the many disturbing and fascinating questions that arises is: with this mode of storage, is it even necessary to keep individuals alive? Proponents of the Frozen Ark call it ‘insurance’. These and other records of the biology of endangered species can be worked with by scientists now and in the future, perhaps, as some would-be techno-wizards would have it, to re-populate a species that had been left to die out in the non-frozen world.

The more common ex-situ conservation takes place with live animals in zoos and other care facilities. This is more than just warehousing, though. Care may also involve breeding programs, some more invasive than others. Thanks to Gabriela, we saw unforgettable images of artificial insemination procedures being carried out on elephants. Captive breeding can produce individuals who can help sustain in-situ populations as individuals are released from zoos and sent into the ‘wild’, thus enabling on-going generations of wild populations who would not be able to sustain themselves without zoo in-put.

And what of the individuals who are released? Matt Chrulew’s insightful presentation on the golden lion tamarin monkeys documented a tough story of the release of creatures who simply did not know how to live in the forest. Many of them lost their lives in dreadful ways, starving to death, for existence. This experience has led to much better efforts to prepare animals in human care for life in the ‘real world’.

Golden lion tamarin Wikimedia commons Adrian Pingstone
Golden lion tamarin
Wikimedia commons
Adrian Pingstone

Once again we were facing stories involving human manipulation of the lives of other creatures, and once again our thoughts took a u-turn.  Many of us wondered about this strange creature known as the human. We destroy so wantonly, and we take such extraordinary, indeed at times ruthless, measures to conserve.

Both in-situ and ex-situ contexts raise on-going questions about animal life when creatures are removed from their unique way of inhabiting their own worlds of meaning, or when the world within which they have evolved no longer exists. This question is vividly present in zoos, and is increasingly present in ‘the wild’ as well. Think for example of the great migratory animals who can no longer travel as they used to do because most of their range has been taken over by humans.

Joshua Schuster gave an excellent and disturbing presentation on the imagery surrounding the near-eradication of the American bison. Working with utterly harrowing paintings, etchings and photos, he documented the carnage that resulted from efforts to eradicate the buffalo and thereby also to destroy the way of life of Native Americans whose lives were entangled with the buffalo. The assault on the buffalo was an assault on the spiritual, cultural and survival relationships between the peoples and the bison. Within the period 1860-1900, roughly, the massive bison population was reduced to a few hundred individuals. I had to lower my eyes from many of the images, and I thought of the opening pages of Jonathan Lear’s book Radical Hope: Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation. Lear begins with the chilling words of Plenty Coup: ‘when the buffalo went away the hearts of my people fell to the ground, and they could not lift them up again. After this nothing happened.’ Buffy Sainte-Marie’s haunting song ‘Now that the buffalo’s gone’ enveloped my mind, and seemed to seep into the room, pulling our gaze outward to the landscape around us, once a toxic ‘moonscape’ thanks to mining,  and  now slowly recuperating from the depredations of commodity plunder.

I thought too of the buffalo now confined to Yellowstone National Park. Some of them leave the borders of the park to forage at lower altitudes during the winter months when snow covers the ground. Once outside the boundaries of the park, local ranchers shoot them. It has come to this, then, that the great migrations of millions of creatures, across hundreds or thousands of miles, are reduced to small populations living in reserved areas where they can be visited by tourists and on ranches where they can be turned into meat. Their lives are suspended in something of a holding pattern between in-situ and ex-situ: a limbo of existence that strikes a compromise between the humans who want to extirpate them, the humans who try to help them remain alive and free in the world, and the humans who want to ‘farm’ them.

Bison Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski
Bison
Wikimedia commons Marcin Klapczynski

One question that kept coming around involved the fact that because this mass extinction event is being caused by humans, we have responsibilities to seek to avert all this death. At any rate, this was certainly a consensus view at this symposium. But what does it mean to avert all this death? Is it good enough just to store tissue samples? Is there a responsibility to sustain habitats so that animals and plants can go on living their lives apart from humans? Is it enough that they are alive in the wild, or should conservation accomplish more?  What about climate change? Should humans be helping animals and plants to adapt to climate change, and what would that mean?

The fact that ‘humans’ (which actually means ‘some humans and their institutions of wealth and power’) are responsible means that many of the issues are actually mostly about humans. What about humans who hate certain animals and want to eradicate them? My own presentation dealt with the recent legislation in the Australian state of Queensland that allows farmers legally to shoot flying-foxes, two species of which are threatened with extinction. The Queensland government had to exempt flying-foxes from the anti-cruelty legislation in order to do this (see my earlier post ‘Zombie Politics’). Along with the violence against flying-foxes, itself part of a much wider field of violence against nature, there is also political struggle. Some people actually do not want to participate in an ethics of care and protection, or at least not if it might cause them any inconvenience.

Eileen Crist’s presentation pulled together a lot of these ideas. She began by discussing everyday concepts of freedom – the right to expand human horizons, to increase mobility and opportunity, and to have choices. Her point was that in the world today the activities that are taken to be indicative of human freedom are achieved at the expense of the lives and well-being of other species. One of her most confronting  examples was roads – something we all take for granted, and use all the time. We have perhaps become somewhat inured to the shocking deaths we see all the time on roads, but of course we only ever see a minute fraction of the death. According to Crist, there are one million animal road deaths in the USA every day, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. Roads fragment habitats, they cut across animal travel routes, and they open ever more areas for development. Given our current social and economic way of life they are necessary and inevitable, but for animals they are ‘catastrophic’. It is not that everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled) sets out to ruin the lives of others; it is actually much worse. Everyone who travels (or consumes goods that have travelled), is inevitably bound up with and complicit in the ruination of the lives of others.

Habitat fragmentation is part of vast processes of break-up across many, many domains. At the symposium we heard about it in terms of landscapes and populations, and also in terms of legislation that is piecemeal, and in terms of political objectives that are short term and that marginalise the interests of the animals whose lives are being manipulated. I recently published an article on slow writing discussing fragmentation with  the term ‘unmaking’.  I said that unmaking is going on all around us these days; it is not only over there in other places, other lives, other creatures and communities; it is here amongst us, fragmenting our jobs, our lives, our communities. We are participants both in unmaking and in being unmade.

Mick Smith’s presentation explicitly and elegantly analysed the unmaking of communities through neo-liberal ideology and action, most famously signalled by Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in her 1987 statement that ‘there is no such thing as society’. To counter this reductionist politics, Smith drew on the philosophy of Jean-Luc Nancy in relation to community. Sustaining his analysis across Darwin, Haeckel, and more recent continental philosophy, Mick extended Nancy’s work on community to offer an account of ecological community that can include humans and nonhumans. He worked with Derrida’s analysis of touch to ground our being together-in-proximity and to show that community entails our capacity to be touched both by our being with others, and by our awareness of their passing.

The day I got back to Australia I read: ‘Climate policy is the central battleground of 21st century politics’. In this time of trouble, as Margaret Attwood reminded us, we who are so concerned about these issues need to be able to tell convincing stories to more and more people. A story does not have to be long to have impact, she pointed out, and she told one of the shortest, scariest stories I have ever heard: kill the ocean, and there will be no oxygen.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

Where Will All the Devils Go?

Taasmanian Devil (Chen Wu, Wikimedia Commons)
Taasmanian Devil (Chen Wu, Wikimedia Commons)

This past week-end I learned a lot about how to breed devils – Tasmanian devils, that is!

I visited the Healesville Sanctuary – a not-for-profit conservation organisation dedicated to fighting wildlife extinction – where there is a large and extremely interesting area dedicated to Devils. It was there that I learned that their ears go brilliantly red when they are excited or angry because of increased blood flow. Indeed, even when the sunlight shines through them the redness is startling. If the evolutionary advantage is to increase the impression of ferocity, I can state that I am one mammal who gets the message, and respects it!

Sarcophilus harrisii has a global reputation as the fierce cartoon creature ‘Taz’. According to Wikipedia, he was developed by Warner Brothers as a Looney Tune character, but later got his own sitcom ‘Taz-Mania’. He has appeared in video games, and has his own facebook page. The ‘Taz’ legend is a great story of how a feisty little animal from a small island in the Southern Ocean became an international star.

That’s the good news.

The bad news is very bad indeed. Over the past twenty years or so, Tasmanian devils – the real ones who live in the Tasmanian wilderness – have become afflicted with a highly contagious cancer known as Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). It is 100% fatal. Infected Devils die within a year or two. Death is painful, as their face becomes swollen up and eaten away. Many of them die of starvation because they cannot eat; many others die of organ failure and other effects of cancer. The cancer is transmitted from individual to individual by direct contact. As everyone who has followed Taz the cartoon character would know, Devils are combative creatures. They do a lot of scavenging, and as they gather around a dead body (often road kill, these days), they fight and bite. Their aggression is face-to-face. Every time a diseased Devil is bitten on the face, cancer cells are transmitted to the biter. Without biting, there would be no Devil social life. But bites lead to cancer, and the disease continues to spread.

Devils were given that name by early settlers in Tasmania who encountered a creature that to them was way out of the norm: a carnivorous marsupial with fierce teeth and fierce behaviour, with little red ears and very large mouths and teeth … you get the picture. According to a government website, which also includes a clip of their eerie calls, Tasmanian Devils were disliked by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and a bounty was placed on them. Over a period of more than a century, Devils were trapped and poisoned. On account of human action, they were headed for extinction. Then in 1941 they became protected by law, again by human action, and populations started to recover – until the 1990s outbreak of cancer.

Now the Tasmanian Devil is listed as endangered. With an 80% population crash over the past twenty years, Devils will become extinct in the wild within a decade or two unless the disease can be stopped. Interestingly, the disease is spreading across Tasmania from east to west. This means that populations still free of DFTD are mostly on the rugged west coast, an area that includes one of the most beautiful wilderness areas on earth – the Tarkine (pronounced tar-kine [as in mine]).

While life in the wild is dire, rescue operations are thriving. Numerous disease-free Devil populations have been airlifted to safe zones. One such population lives at the Healesville Sanctuary in the Yarra Valley of the state of Victoria. My visit to the Sanctuary brought me face-to-face with Devils (thanks to a strong glass barrier between us), and face-to-face with an institution that is committed, in the most intelligent and compassionate ways, to ensuring that Devil populations remain viable. When the day comes that the cancer is eradicated and Devils can return home, there will be healthy populations ready to go.

Signage at the Sanctuary announced that as of this year’s breeding season, 101 pups have been born. The breeding is carefully managed, as it must be when working with a small gene pool. Some of the young ones have become habituated to humans and are brought out as ambassadors. The event I attended on Sunday was a symposium on the theme ‘Animate/Inanimate’. It was jointly organised by the TarraWarra Art Museum, which was hosting a show with the same name, and by the Healesville Sanctuary itself. For our education and delight, the Sanctuary folks organised a petting session with a baby Devil named Mulana.

It is a long and ethically twisty path from the Tasmanian wilderness to a Sanctuary with a baby that people can actually touch. Devils belong in the bush. They are not pets. They need to grow up learning to be Devils, not huggable cuties. But given the mortality factors, and the damaged life expectancies, refuge areas where individuals can live without contracting cancer, and where new, viable populations can be established, are central to the longer-term survival of the species.

Another side of captive breeding is the question of release. As long as the captive populations breed well, their numbers will outgrow the capacity of zoos and other refuges to house them. Where will all the Devils go? The Healesville Sanctuary is establishing a number of sites on mainland Australia that will be fenced against invasive predators such as foxes, and will be large enough for the Devils to live well on their own. Young Devils learn how to live the Devil life as they interact with others; they need the right conditions to be able to do this. The plan is that in due course the Devils will go home to Tasmania.

The possibility of return raises another question: will there be any wilderness left to return to? A series of national and state governments and ministers have made it clear that although protection of wildlife would be a nice thing to do (perhaps), humans come first. Of course this rhetoric is deceptive: not all humans come first. Mining companies come first; the timber industry comes first; jobs in primary industry come first, ahead of other human interests, activities and modes of employment. It is not just forests, heaths and animals who come last; it is also the people who love the bush, love bushwalking, love animals and wildlife, who spend money to travel to places that are wild and free in order to be able, if only briefly, to interact with ecosystems that have not been massively altered, and who donate generously to rescue programs. Among those who come last in the zombie politics of cruelty, consumption and fear, are all the people, and there are many, who believe that the earth is a better place when the multitude of lives and ecosystems are not all perverted by being classed as resources to be consumed or impediments that are best destroyed.

The Tarkine is a region of western Tasmania that is wonderfully wild, in the sense of being relatively free from resource extraction. It contains the largest area of Gondwanan cool-temperate rainforest in Australia, as well as vast and staggeringly beautiful heaths and headlands. It isn’t wilderness in the sense of being a place without humans. The Tarkine also holds a large concentration of Aboriginal Australian archaeological sites; it has been inhabited for millennia. It also contains some mines that are operational, but are geographically contained.

It was a shock to many of us earlier this year when the federal Minister for the Environment Tony Burke rejected the advice from the Australian Heritage Council that 433,000 hectares be heritage listed. Instead, he applied National Heritage Listing only to a small area along the coastline. The decision also rejected a UNESCO World Heritage Committee recommendation that the entire region be protected. He thus opened the Tarkine for mining and logging, and he was very clear in saying that he put the needs of people ahead of environmental needs.

And so the question leaps out: if the people whose statutory duty it is to protect the environment fail to do so, who shall?

Bob Brown was for many years the Green Senator from Tasmania. He was, and continues to be, one of the few great moral figures in Australian politics. He wrote about the Tarkine decision in the Sydney Morning Herald:

“To extract iron ore, Shree Minerals will cut a hole one kilometre long and deeper than sea level through the terrain. Never mind the fact that there are 16 threatened species at the site or that it is a state protected area. The next, bigger, project likely to get Burke’s nod is Venture Minerals’s proposed series of open pits for tin and iron ore through the lovely Mount Lindsay rainforest.
There are 57 more exploration licences on the go. So the area recommended for National Heritage status will instead end up looking like a lump of roaded Swiss cheese. As Christine Milne (Greens Senator from Tasmania) put it: ”Minister Burke’s decision to abandon the Tarkine to the mining industry is not only a disgrace, it’s a crime against the environment.”

The decision is terrible for Devils, too. They will be okay in captivity, but will they ever be able to go home?

The cancer in the Devils is mirrored by a cancer in the politics of the nation. It is a social disease that erupts into voracious consumption of ecosystem health and stability, and violently destroys life, ecological integrity and beauty.

September 7 is Threatened Species Day in Australia. It commemorates the day in 1936 when the last Tasmanian tiger known in the world died in the Hobart Zoo. Tasmanian tigers had been vilified by Anglo-Celtic settlers, and hunted to extinction. The day is an annual reminder that Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinctions in the world, and might be thought of as a ‘lest we forget’ kind of day. It is an annual wake-up call to the fact that many Australian species are already extinct, and many more are vulnerable to extinction.

This year Threatened Species Day is also the day Australians go to the polls in a national election. What if members of threatened species actually had a say in human elections? Wouldn’t Devils vote to go home again?

  ©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

For more on Devils (including sound and video clips): http://www.dpiw.tas.gov.au/inter.nsf/webpages/bhan-5358kh

For information on Devil Facial Tumour Disease: http://devilislandproject.org.au

For information about the Healesville Sanctuary: http://www.zoo.org.au/healesville

Bob Brown’s newspaper article: www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/political-opinion/ore-values-over-core-values-as-labor-gives-tarkine-to-miners-20130219-2epdp.html#ixzz2dv7KkvH7

 

Zombie Politics and the Lives of Animals

Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital
Spectacled flying fox, Tolga Bat Hospital

Virtues are easily lost, the cynics tell us, but vices linger remorselessly. Indeed, vice-like habits can take on a life of their own and play significant social roles. Recent events have turned my thoughts toward habits of hatred, fear-mongering and persecution that are entrenched within the harsh histories of western nations. Persecution, vilification and harm are part of today’s public discourse and public policy. They have a long history, and are foundational to what the historian R. I. Moore calls a ‘persecuting society’.

Moore developed this term through his research into Medieval European history. He concluded that around the year 1100 western Europe ‘became a persecuting society, and … has remained one.’ He was very clear: it was not just that persecutions happened, it was that they were deliberate and central to society. In Medieval times it was lepers and heretics who were persecuted; later it was witches and freemasons; throughout it all there were eruptions of persecution of Jews, and from time to time ‘sodomites’ were targeted. Persecution was based on stirring up hatred and fear, and was achieved ‘through established governmental, judicial and social institutions’.

Some scholars have objected to Moore’s idea on the grounds that surely all societies persecute those they deem to be outsiders. That may or may not be true, but Moore’s idea was that in western Europe persecution became part of the actual fabric of society. European societies became modern states through deliberate use of persecution. Their culture of persecution was flexible and transportable, and in general they took these zombie politics with them to their colonies.

The fact that there is political mileage to be gained from stirring up hatred is a stand-out feature of contemporary Australian politics. Terrible questions arise. Are we so in thrall to our vice of persecution that we cannot imagine a society that is not held together through vilification and exclusion? Are our politics so impoverished that the best way to mobilise large numbers of votes is through fear and its companion persecution?

When we think about society, politics, and the rhetoric of inclusion/exclusion, it seems obvious that we are talking about human beings. So it may come as a surprise to realise that the analysis works equally well in relation to the persecution of animals.

Flying-foxes are having a hard time of it in many urban, suburban and rural areas at the moment. In the language of those who want to get rid of them, they are ‘pests’. A pest, it turns out, is a creature who may be vilified, persecuted and killed without compunction, perhaps even with a sense of righteousness. According to educational materials provided on the feral.org website: ‘The word “pest” is used to describe an animal that causes serious damage to a valued resource. Such a pest may be destructive, a nuisance, noisy or simply not wanted.’ Pests are creatures you can feel good about getting rid of, although of course not everyone does feel good. Not surprisingly, pests make good political capital when the objective is fear-mongering and persecution.

Let us be clear: the vast majority of people who live in proximity to flying-foxes are managing co-existence just fine. There are good ways to get along with our fellow creatures, and it is totally possible to enjoy the fact that we in Australia live amongst some of the most unusual and beautiful animals on earth. As the journalist James Woodford wrote of flying-foxes (also known as giant fruit bats): ‘watching bats silhouetted against the stars is one of the greatest, but little known, pleasures of life’.

And yet, in Queensland at the moment, the government is preparing to unleash a new round of violence against flying-foxes under legislation that will come into force in 2013. The legislation is outlined in a discussion paper titled ‘A new approach to managing flying-fox roosts’. The plan is not exactly ‘new’ since it reinstates largely uncontrolled opportunities for violence that were the norm decades ago. Local councils will be authorised to undertake ‘dispersals’ where, when and how they choose, and for whatever reasons they choose. This differs from current practice. At the moment local councils or other groups must apply for permission, and the Department of Environment and Heritage Protection has oversight of the process. The new plan includes a code of practice that is meant to ‘minimise’ suffering and death, and adherence to that minimal code will be self-assessed. Even this is not enough for the most vociferous purveyors of hatred. Bob Katter, leader of Katter’s Australian Party, has repeatedly expressed the view that individuals have the right to shoot anything that enters their backyard, including flying-foxes. At the very least, Katter proclaims: ‘It is the policy of the Australian Party that they will be removed from all population centres – full stop’.

A submission by a group of twelve of Queensland-based NGO’s dedicated to wildlife conservation points out that while there are indeed ‘genuine problems with urban camps’, these problems ‘are outweighed by perceived, imagined or concocted problems, often promoted by irresponsible fear-mongering….’ They go on to assert the basic truth that ‘concoctions or imaginings are not a proper basis for good public policy’. The submission is well worth reading, as it addresses the points that are central to the hatred campaign.

The corrosive effects of all this hatred, and the thought of all the suffering that flying-foxes will be subjected to once this legislation takes effect, were weighing me down, and as I thought of toxic zombies I began thinking about antidotes. That was when I remembered Jenny McLean’s back yard. The Tolga Bat Hospital is located in the north Queensland heartland of anti-flying-fox politics. In need of sustenance for my spirit, I went for a visit.

Jenny Maclean, a dedicated carer and advocate, founded the Tolga Bat Hospital and visitor centre. Her back yard includes a large enclosure where individuals of all four Australian Pteropus species live. They have arrived through misfortune, and are not able to be released back into the bush, but their injuries do not detract from the quality of life. So there are flying-foxes who have been rescued from barbed wire, but whose broken bones mean they will never fly again. Some have come in with electrical burns, others were injured in cyclone Larry. Still others have been rescued from cages where they were living lives of misery, and a few have been rescued from dogs and cats.

The Hospital was actually founded in response to a recurring disastrous local situation. The main species of flying fox in this region is the endangered spectacled flying-fox (Pteropus conspicillatus). They are pollinators and seed dispersers for the world heritage rainforest located in this region, as well as for other ecological communities. In this part of the Atherton Tablelands, they forage on the berries of Solanum mauritianum (a weed from South America) in October, November and December of each year. Their foraging brings them close to the ground and they are then prey to paralysis ticks. They have not developed resistance to the ticks, and so they become paralysed. Jenny and her team of dedicated volunteers walk the forest floor looking and listening for flying foxes in distress, rescuing them, and bringing them back to the Bat Hospital. Some can be saved, many cannot, and many babies are orphaned. The purpose of care is to sustain those with a chance of survival, and return them to their forest homes as soon as they are ready for release. At times up to two hundred orphaned babies are being fed every four hours by the team of volunteers. Most of them will be released back into the bush.

Not so long ago, release meant a return to a life of relative safety. Queensland had shown its progressive side and had banned the shooting of flying-foxes because it is inhumane. Dispersals were subject to external oversight and were meant to be accomplished without long-term impacts on the species or specific cruelty to individuals. This meant that there would be no dispersals while the females were in the later stages of pregnancy and no dispersals while the young were dependent on their mothers. But this situation has changed. Queensland has reinstated shooting, and has had to exempt flying-foxes from the Animal Care and Protection Act in order to do so. The ‘new’ plan for dispersals looks set to amplify the suffering. Increasingly, flying-fox rescue and release may mean saving vulnerable creatures from one fate only to return them to an extremely chancy life as long as they are anywhere near humans.

In spite of these uncertainties, the Hospital is a wonderful antidote. Jenny puts food out for the resident flying-foxes every afternoon, planning for them to come down to eat around the time that the Hospital is open for visitors. Tourists arrive daily, and their faces light up with joy and amazement as they come into close but safe proximity with flying-foxes. Fear and hatred not only evaporate but suddenly seem incomprehensible.

It is a great gift to be able to look a wild animal in the eye and see the glow of intelligence. Sometimes one encounters a reciprocating glow of interest. It is a privilege to be close to members of endangered species, and to know that outside the enclosure the full and rich life of flying-foxes continues. And so it shall continue, unless humans decide to get rid of them. Such decisions are political. They take no notice of ecological relationships, and nor do they concern themselves with cruelty and abuse. They are driven by the zombies of hatred and persecution, and they aim to win elections. They do no credit to anyone.

 

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

 

References:
Moore, R. I. (2007). The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Authority and Deviance in Western Europe 950-1250 (Second ed.). Malden: Blackwell.
Woodford, J. 2003. “The Swingers,” in Sydney Morning Herald. Sydney.

For a short video about Jenny McLean and the Tolga Bat Hospital see:
http://vimeo.com/31001848

On pests see:
van Dooren, T, 2011, ‘Invasive Species in Penguin Worlds: An Ethical Taxonomy of Killing for Conservation’, Conservation and Society, vol. 9, no. 4, pp. 286 – 298, http://dx.doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.92140

Flying-foxes in Outback Australia

Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards
Black Flying-Fox, photo courtesy of Nick Edards

 

The country was touched with gold by the late afternoon sun as Darrell and I drove the last kilometres of gravel road taking us to Wadeye, an Aboriginal community formerly known as Port Keats. Darrell Lewis is often described as a legendary bushman. He had been in Wadeye a week earlier, and had sent a text saying there was a flyout that surpassed anything he’d ever seen. I knew that anything that awed him must be truly fabulous. The flying-foxes were camped by day in the mangroves. There were probably several hundred thousand of them, at the least. Just on dark they had been lifting off – hundreds of thousands of wings beating through the still air, fanning out across the country to flowering trees and shrubs where they would spend much of the night feasting on nectar and pollen. As the main pollinators and seed dispersers for numerous Australian trees and shrubs, they are identified by scientists as a group of keystone species.

Darrell offered to take me to see the flyout, if I could get myself to Darwin. I arrived a week later, hoping like mad that the flying-foxes hadn’t all decided to go somewhere else in the meantime. Everyone out there was talking about it, though, and Darrell was getting texts saying it was all happening. Still, one never knows with flying-foxes. The scientist Kerryn Parry-Jones and her colleagues reported on a camp of about 80,000 individuals in New South Wales where almost the whole mob decamped on one night in June 1989.

As we drove we saw smokes on the horizon where people were burning the country. Closer at hand, the fires had been and gone. The sun lit up the black trunks and brilliant new branches of cycads. We raced past ant hills with fluted tops, and past black and green cycad groves where new fronds formed shapes like wine glasses resting on top of tall black stems. We slowed down through paperbark swamps, and crossed small, clear running rivers. Through hot scrub and entrancing flats, we chased the lure of flying foxes.

Once we got to Wadeye we positioned the video camera, almost holding our breath as we waited. I filmed the sunset, and still we waited. The sky became a deeper mauve, the blue vault grew darker, and still we waited, watching the line where the mangroves met the sky.

When the first ones finally appeared, it felt like a treasure box had just sprung open. The horizon was almost black in intensity, and then it started to fragment as flying-foxes in their thousands separated from the trees and from each other, taking flight and heading off toward the west. Some travelled low across the sky, while others fanned out over our heads. The sky was thick with them, and we could hear their wings fanning the air. From time to time, one would turn and go back, but the vast majority kept going in the direction they had chosen for their night time feast. We were looking at ‘blacks’ – Pteropus alecto – one of the four Australian species. It is possible that ‘little reds’ (P. scapulatus) were there too.

We had no way of knowing how many there were. It is impossible to gauge the number of individuals in a fly-out unless one is an expert. And yet, large numbers are by no means impossible. Even in NSW where the numbers are in decline, there are reports of camps of 200,000 individuals as recently as the 1980s. I was reminded of what the naturalist Francis Ratcliffe wrote about his experiences with flying-foxes in his 1938 book Flying Fox and Drifting Sands. He described a cloud of grey-headed and little red flying-foxes in southern Queensland in the 1920s. At that time the populations were in decline because settlers had been killing them in large numbers. Here is his description of a flyout:

The scrub by that time was belching forth foxes. They rose up in thousands circled once or twice, and then joined the southbound stream. In three or four minutes a column of the beasts about a hundred yards wide was stretched away across the sky as far as I could see.

From a very rough census I estimate some of the flocks which congregate together for shelter in the daytime number hundreds of thousands. Not so long ago a few must have crossed the million mark.

Ratcliffe was writing at a time when flying-foxes were being heavily persecuted. He had, in fact, been brought out from England to carry out research with the aim of eradicating flying-foxes. Orchardists in NSW and Queensland had tried many methods; they’d they shot, poisoned, gassed, and burnt flying foxes. They’d cut down their maternity camps, created a great variety of forms of harassment to drive them away, paid a bounty for scalps, and even bombed them. In recent years other cruel methods have been used with the result that many flying-foxes live with increasing conflict and terror. And of course they are not alone in this: many animals, including humans, are today afflicted with terrible violence.

Like many people who spend time around flying-foxes, Ratcliffe came to respect and perhaps even grow fond of them. And so it was with a touch of regret that he concluded that while efforts to eradicate flying-foxes would probably not be successful in the short run, the populations were in steep decline and it seemed possible that ‘the problem’ would take care of itself. Today both grey-headed (P. poliocephalus) and spectacled flying-foxes (P. conspicillatus) are endangered, and are protected (in theory) in accordance with the Commonwealth Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999.

The awe I felt at seeing the Port Keats mob was tinged with the knowledge that in many parts of Australia flying-foxes are reviled and persecuted. Even as I treasured every moment of the flyout, I couldn’t help but hold in the back of my mind the sense that someday this sight might no longer be possible. For the moment, though, the experience was exhilarating.

We were not the only ones to feel the excitement. Darrell’s friend Mark Crocombe lives there, and he told Darrell that the previous night the flying-foxes had varied their track and flown directly over the community. The children were out playing, getting the most out of the last light of day when the flying-foxes flew over. The kids stopped their play, and they cheered!

Wadeye has its problems, as do many communities, but it also has its strengths. The great flyout was a wonderful moment for realising that this is how life is meant to be: country that is well cared for; animals free to lead their own lives of purpose and beauty. And amidst all this splendour, humans who respond in kind: the cheering children, the watchful and awestruck adults.

©Deborah Bird Rose (2013)

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References

Parry-Jones, K. A., and M. L. Augee 1992 ‘Movements of Grey-headed Flying Foxes (Pteropus poliocephalus) to and from a Colony Site on the Central Coast of New South Wales’, Wildlife Research 19:331-40.

Ratcliffe, F. 1938 Flying Fox and Drifting Sand: The Adventures of a Biologist in Australia. Sydney: Angus and Robertson.

For a longer essays on flying-foxes, see:

Rose, D. 2012 ‘Multispecies Knots of Ethical Time’, Environmental Philosophy, IX, 1, 127-140. (See: https://www.academia.edu/4539615/Multi-species_Knots_of_Ethical_Time)

Rose, D. 2011 ‘Flying Foxes: Kin, Keystone, Kontaminant’, Australian Humanities Review, 50: 119-136. (http://epress.anu.edu.au/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/ch076.pdf)

For a conversation with the legendary bushman, see:

http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/conversations/darrell-lewis/4766348