Tag Archives: Biodiversity

Big Players

There’s a lot of talk about growing inequality, and often we’re confronted with the idea that this is all just natural. Shakespeare said it best, as usual. In Pericles:

Third Fisherman: Master, I marvel how the fishes live in the sea.

First Fisherman: Why, as men do a-land; the great ones eat up the little ones; I can compare our rich misers to nothing so fitly as to a whale; a’ plays and tumbles, driving the poor fry before him, and at last devours them all at a mouthful.

Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)
Killer Whale, Matthew Allen (CC)

Recently I read Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money, the new book about the Koch brothers. It offers a sober view into the lives and deeds of men of incredible greed and selfishness; men with a totalising determination to treat the whole world – social, environmental, cultural – as a standing reserve which they and their billionaire cronies can devour or discard at will. They are completely unlike whales. Their impacts are disastrous. The Koch brothers are living proof that evil is indeed alive and well, and that it plays nauseating games with U.S. and world politics.

Here in Australia, too, we are enmeshed in systems in which big fish, the wealthy bullies, rise to the top. We are witnessing the abject failure of many key politicians to take action on the urgent environmental and social justice issues that matter for the future of life on Earth. And so I am all the more grateful for the strong moral leaders we do have. Phillip Adams hosted a great panel recently with three articulate, passionate men: Bob Brown, Julian Burnside and Kerry O’Brien. Bob Brown was for many years the leader of the Greens Party in Australia; while guiding one of the west’s first and most successful Greens parties, he became, and is today, an inspiration to the nation and the world. He is breath-takingly honest, and in this recent panel discussion he excoriated the system of powerful lobbyists, describing many current politicians as ‘venal, strong, aggressive people who do what the big money wants them to do’.

Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)
Marionettes, Priit Tammets (CC)

Big money, big players, big politics: it all seems to fit, and from a tooth-and-claw vision of the world around us, it could all seem perfectly natural. Recent studies in ecology tell quite a different story, though. Outside the toxic domain of human avarice, living beings are inter-entangled in fascinatingly functional ecological circuits.

Take wolves, for example. There is a perception that wolves and other top predators will have a detrimental impact on other species by the very fact of their food consumption. Recent research, however, is showing a far more interesting story of direct and indirect impacts that work their way through an ecosystem in flows (trophic cascades) that are extremely beneficial.

Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)
Wolf in Yellowstone, Oregon State University (CC)

Top order predators like wolves are key ecological regulators. The effects of their predation are felt all through the system among other animals, plants, and even land forms. The most accessible study concerns wolves in Yellowstone National Park. Here the re-introduction of wolves impacted first to regulate numerous animal populations, including elk. As the elk were forced to move into marginal areas where they were less exposed to wolves, the river vegetation was able to regenerate. As erosion lessened, the rivers stabilised, and species like beavers and birds were able to return. Beavers are notable for altering river flow to produce a diversity of habitats that are beneficial to many species of mammals, fish, and birds. And so it went. The wolves were few in number; they regulate themselves as well as others, and the whole system was changed in the direction of greater functionality.

These top predators brought about trophic cascades of diversity and stability.

Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)
Yellowstone by HikrChick (CC)

Top predators are keystone species: the term concerns relationality and connectivity. A keystone species is one with a greater impact on its ecological community than would be expected given its abundance. Across the deep time of ecological relations these impacts have become mostly beneficial. All top predators are keystone species, but not all keystone species are top predators. This is to say that there are many keystone species whose impacts are large, but who are not big charismatic carnivores like wolves or killer whales.

The wonderfully insightful scientist Stephan Harding explains: ‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)
Dung Beetle, by Camilo Hdo (CC)

Harding gives the example of dung beetles in the Amazon forest. These seemingly insignificant creatures are critically significant for the whole forest. Before, when there was greater functionality, they killed off parasites, buried seeds, and facilitated quick and efficient recycling of nutrients. In forest fragments, where the connectivities are coming apart, there is less dung because there are fewer animals. Less dung means fewer dung beetles (fewer in number and fewer in species). There have been extinctions, and the reasons include lack of good quality mates, lack of good quality habitat, and changing micro-climates. The result is that remaining forest fragments are losing their ecological health: more diseases, fewer nutrients, seeds unable to germinate. Harding concludes: ‘Seemingly insignificant, the dung beetles of the Amazon are major players in their ecological community.’ One loss leads to another, leading to more: this is the downward spiral, the loss of vitality, the extinction cascade. It  is happening all over the world.

Amazon forest by Dams999 (CC)
Amazon forest , Dams999 (CC)

Among the many lessons to be gained from thinking with dung beetles, consider this: to see any living being is to know that there is a story involving others, and that behind them are still more stories. To see the luminous beauty of a forest is to see the work of many others, including insects. Indeed, every vibrant living being and biotic community is enmeshed in looping, entangled benefits, in cascades of flowing life. From a keystone point of view, many big players may barely be visible in themselves, and are best seen through the lens of the wider community whose health tells of their activity.

Australians will soon be heading into a federal election, and the U.S. will have one next year. I would love to walk into the polling booth and cast my vote for dung beetles. I am, of course, attracted to the metaphorical dimension of this fantasy. There is an awful lot of shit in political life, more than enough for an army of insect removalists.

Dung beetle 'debate', Jochen Smolka (CC)
Dung beetle ‘debate’, Jochen Smolka (CC)

More seriously, though, I would vote for beetles because I would love to vote for forests. Indeed, each biotic community has its species and relationships: I would love to vote for the giant triton snails that eat the crown-of-thorns starfish that damage the Great Barrier Reef; I would love to vote for those great Australian regulators, the dingoes; really, I would love to vote in any and every way for the future of life on Earth. Good votes, like good ecological actions, are complex, as Aldo Leopold told us long ago: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

There are a lot of bullies who think they’re big players, and they are very good at what they do, which is to wreck things. They have packed huge amounts of destruction into a very short time frame. They are spatially expansive: the cascades of destruction go everywhere. And yet the truth of deep ecological time remains: the wild world is greater than politics, and the big keystone players are doing their best to keep Earth vibrant and dynamic. Long may they live!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

The quote from Pericles is found online (here).

Bill McKibben’s review of Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right by Jane Meyer can be read online (here).

Philip Adams on Radio National, Late Night Live, ‘Advance Australia Where?’ (listen here).

The quote from Stephen Harding is in his article: ‘Gaia and Biodiversity’ in Gaia in Turmoil: Climate Change, Biodepletion, and Earth Ethics in an Age of Crisis. E. Crist and H. B. Rinker.

For more on top order predators, see the excellent article by Ripple and colleagues (view here). I discussed some of these issue in earlier essays relating to Australian dingoes, for example, ‘Partnership ‘Rewilding with Dingoes’ (visit here). The Yellowstone video, ‘How Wolves Change Rivers’, is terrific (view here). For more on dingoes as top predators, see the essay ‘Apologising to Dingoes’ (view here).

To watch a giant triton snail eating a crown-of-thorns starfish, view here.

The Goodness of Salmon

Our festive season here in Sydney was mostly damp: sultry and tropical at times, at other times chilly, but persistently wet, wet, wet. Whenever the rain carries on like this I think of Seattle in all its watery glory, from salt water to fresh, and from drizzle and showers through to sudden squalls and wild horizontal lashings of the most torrential rain. Love them or not, these rains are essential to the bountiful, moody, temperate rainforests that make the Pacific North West so special. The greatest concentration of biomass on earth is found in these forests, more even than in the Amazon, and one of the great scientific questions has been: how do the trees do it?

Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)
Hoh Rainforest, Elizabeth Gomm (CC)

David Suzuki offered a surprisingly elegant and complex answer. He pointed out that while rain is essential, it is also the case that it washes nutrients out of the soil. Those months-long downpours take away nutrients at a rate that would seem to make huge forests impossible. So: where on earth does the actual fertility come from?

The Answer: Salmon!  And therein lies a true story of life’s goodness.

Sockeye salmon run, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)
Sockeye salmon, Todd Radenbaugh (CC)

The scientific analysis of the relationship between forests and salmon is fairly recent. The evidence comes from nitrogen. It is possible to distinguish two types of nitrogen, one that is land based (14N) and one that is ocean based (15N). Analysis of the forest, from trees to soils, shows that the main nutrient is ocean-based nitrogen.

Salmon hatchlings make their way to the ocean and live there for several years, consuming foods such as plankton that are rich in ocean based nitrogen. When it is time for them to spawn, they return to the river in which they hatched, swimming upstream in order to reproduce and die. Along the way they are prey to a great diversity of animals, especially bears.

Doug Brown (CC)
Doug Brown (CC)

Salmon and bears – how iconic! Bears grab fish out of the water and take them back into the forest for a private feast. They gobble up the choice bits and then return to the river for more. They transfer from river to forest upwards of 60 million kilos of salmon every year in British Columbia alone! The forests become rich in salmon carcases, and all manner of birds and other scavengers eat the remains.

The bears go on their way in the forests, pooping nitrogen rich fertilizer. The last remains of the salmon become food for flies; the flies lay eggs (on both salmon remains and poop) that hatch out as maggots and transform into pupae. Then, in a moment of perfect synchrony, zillions of nutritious flies emerge just in time for the annual northern migration of many insect-eating birds. Among them are the beautiful little olive-sided flycatchers who fly from Central and South America to the northern forests and back every year.

Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike's Birds (CC)
Olive-sided Flycatcher, Mike’s Birds (CC)

And so vast amounts of ocean based nitrogen are transferred to the forests, their inhabitants and their visitors. Indeed, the scientists have learned that they can correlate tree rings with salmon runs: the wider and healthier the tree ring (indicating greater annual growth), the bigger the salmon run that year.

Salmon not only benefit a great diversity of other creatures, including the mighty rainforest trees, they also benefit their own offspring. After spawning, the adults die. Their bodies are consumed by fungi which are themselves consumed by bacteria and other micro-organisms. Later the young salmon feed on these same micro-organisms, building strength for their journey back to the ocean. Indeed, salmon are food for almost everyone – in the course of their travels not only are they prey to bears and birds and humans, but also to whales, seals, dolphins and sea lions, and to larger fish including sharks; their decomposing bodies are consumed by micro-organisms; as youngsters they are scooped up by snakes and water birds ~ everybody eats them! And still they thrive, and still they carry the ocean’s bounty into the freshwater rivers, and into the forests, and into other land, sea and sky creatures.

'Seal snack', Larissa Saye (CC)
‘Seal snack’, Larissa Saye (CC)

The scientific analysis is fascinating, but it barely begins to capture the wild exuberance of this story. The transformation of fish into food sustains bears, humans, eagles, crows, otters, trees, microscopic river organisms and much more. In these transformations life itself is shifted across plant, animal, fungi and other kingdoms. The great nutritional loops conjoin land, sea and air, seasonal and migratory cycles, birth and death.

Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)
Eagle with fish, Jerry McFarland (CC)

David Suzuki wanted to make a point about management. With all the connectivities and transformations that loop through species and individuals to form ecologies, it is clear that a forest is not just a collection of trees. And yet, from a management point of view, trees are to be managed by one bureaucracy, rivers by another, oceans by another, wildlife by another, fish by another; forestry, fishermen, hunters, and a myriad other human-centric interests argue passionately about their particular part of the great system. The real issue, however, is that the health of any part of this vibrant system is integral to and dependent on other parts of the same vibrant system. In Suzuki’s words, ‘… if we keep looking at our own self-interest without seeing the big picture … we are going to screw it up for sure.’

More than forests are at stake here – more than trees and salmon, more than bears and micro-organisms. The wildly entwined loops of transformation are the very practice of goodness in Earth life. The goodness of salmon, as with all goodness, lies both in their lives as lived for themselves and their offspring, and in the benefits others gain from them.

In a human-centric world of narrow ‘self-interest’ and stubborn resistance to recognition of entangled connectivities, it is good, I find, to think of the philosopher Lev Shestov. He argued for a kind of craziness that is exactly what is needed here. Craziness for Shestov meant that a person would immerse themselves in life that is specific in its time and place, situated in awareness of its entanglements with others, and fully committed to the complexities of birth and death. His craziness is a commitment to transience, flux and uncertainty, and perhaps part of the craziness is that none of these qualities offers a promise that leads to human complacency. Rather, uncertainty means that nothing can be taken for granted. And so craziness goes hand in hand with Earth’s exuberance. It offers joy in the form of commitment to transformation, metamorphosis, synchronicity, and shared, looping connectivities.

Mills (CC)
‘Tree of LIfe’, Mills (CC)

For us humans, to become crazy-in-love with the living world would mean becoming crazy for salmon and crazy for bears, crazy for forests, fungi, clear running rivers, healthy oceans, migrating birds, nitrogen and much more. We would become absolutely crazy for goodness.

At the end of the day, goodness is the way and the truth of living creatures, and craziness is a human being’s way of remaining part of it.

I find it hard to imagine becoming crazy for rain. Even while I treasure its gifts of life, the truth is that day after day of the stuff makes me fretful. It was a great delight, therefore, when the sun returned for a day or two. And so it is in this world of flux: nothing lasts forever, except perhaps the great earth herself, and change is yet another aspect of goodness.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

David Suzuki spoke on the Science Show (ABC Radio National – listen here).

Scientific research on salmon, bears and forests has been carried by Tom Reimchen, and James Helfield and Robert Naiman (among others).

So Many Faces

I am reading Tim Low’s terrific new book Where Song Began. Tim Low is a renowned science writer, and in this new study he tells fascinating stories about Australia’s birds.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

The birdsong of the world originated here in Australia.

It is wonderful to see the evidence piling up. For decades, though, this conclusion was resisted by many biologists who simply could not open their minds to the idea that something as significant on earth as birdsong could have evolved in a place so far from what many them liked to think of as the centre of earth-life, i.e., the northern hemisphere. And yet, DNA evidence is now showing beyond any doubt that Australia was the original home of songbirds. In Tim’s words, birdsong brought ‘a new dawn for planetary acoustics’.

Tim Low is a biologist with a strong interest in connectivity. The story of Australian birds is told in the context of soils, sunshine, trees, seeds, sugars and nesting areas. In the case of parrots, for example, primary breeding sites are tree hollows. Eucalyptus hollows can take hundreds of years to form. In one of the great understatements of the year, Low notes that ‘the demise of large trees in farmland raises concerns about future parrot success’.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Land Clearing, Queensland

I visited Tim last week, and as I was driving through his neck of the woods there was a lot going on both in the country around me and in news from elsewhere. It was adding up to a pretty awful moment in the ecological life of this amazing continent that had the exuberance to bring forth birdsong.

I saw a lot of evidence for the ‘demise of large trees’, and I am moved to express myself in more vigorous language: I saw trees being killed and paddocks massacred. I know from my study of land clearing issues that a lot of dying was happening here in addition to the highly visible trees.

According to a Bush Heritage publication on Land Clearing and its Impacts, Australia is still clearing way too many trees, and the effects are not only on the trees themselves but on all the other creatures who live in and amongst 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.

Nearly half our mammal species, including some wombats, wallabies and bandicoots, are either extinct or threatened with extinction as a result of land clearing, habitat destruction and other threats.”

Another point made in this report concerns that great ecological dictum: ‘what goes around comes around.’ Bush Heritage warns that land clearing increases the potential for salinity, adversely affecting both soils and water, and thus generating negative impacts for farms, towns and cities.

One side of the story is the lack of political will, another side is human intransigence. As it happened, I was driving past recently cleared paddocks whilst listening to reports on the radio about the funeral of Glen Turner. Mr Turner was an environment inspector in the state of New South Wales, a government employee whose responsibilities included monitoring land clearing. He was shot and killed, and a local farmer Ian Robert Turnbull has been arrested. The news reports state that Mr Turnbull had a history of conflict over land clearing. Previously he had been in court over the matter of ‘clearing’ some 3000 trees. We will learn more about it in due course. In the meantime, Mr Glen Turner, a local man who was said to have loved farming life and the rural community, is gone forever.

One of the many reasons we take death seriously is that individual death, like species extinction, doesn’t offer return tickets.

There is so much evidence about the value of trees on properties that one is left wondering why people become so intransigent. It strikes me that some people get smart when they have to figure out how to make a living that will be legal, sustainable, and ecologically inclusive.  Others, it seems, just get mean.

The human capacity for meanness was on display in Brisbane during this same week in another case that also involved clearing. According to a report ‘Bat Battle on the Bayside’, some people whose homes are adjacent to a park where the land is zoned ‘environmental reserve’ are annoyed. Apparently the fact that the environmental reserve was actually fulfilling its function as a haven for both humans and nonhumans was not appreciated. It is not clear that all residents felt equally angry about having to live in proximity to flying-foxes from time to time; what was clear was that the on-going actions of the strident residents led to a response that was euphemistically called ‘trimming vegetation under storey’.

Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City
Trees, understory, and flying-foxes, Redlands City

The ‘trimming’ took place at night because it was anticipated that the flying-foxes would be out foraging, and thus would not be directly disturbed by the machinery and activity. The method involved a machine that bites into the understory, chomps it up, and mulches it on the spot. Plants, animals and fungi go in one end, mulch comes out the other, and everything that was alive – birds, eggs, skinks, snakes … whatever was sessile or not quick enough, was ground up and spat out.

The point in relation to flying-foxes was that they do not like camping in areas where there is no undergrowth. All the deaths in the understory would, it seems, be validated because the changes would encourage the flying-foxes to move a few meters further away from human homes.

Many grey-headed flying-foxes were camping in this area (Pteropus poliocephalus). This species is listed as vulnerable to extinction and protected under the Environmental Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act (1999). This is one of the mammal species the Bush Heritage Report was discussing in relation to vulnerability and land clearing. In addition to species vulnerability, many individuals are pregnant females, and are now or will soon enter the critical third trimester. Both they and the next generation are at risk in actions that cause shock and stress.

Young grey-headed flying-fox in care
Young grey-headed flying-fox in care

The most strident resident (at least in the news) was Annette Brown. She called the flying-foxes ‘noisy and smelly’, and said she ‘wants them gone’. Ms Brown’s televised statements encapsulate to perfection the lack of thought around these issues.

1) living in a home near land zoned for environmental reserve and deciding that nature will have to go

2) remaining indifferent to the direct and indirect suffering that has been and will continue to be caused by the ‘trimming of understory’

3) failing to connect the dots: flying-foxes lose their bush habitats through land clearing, then they are shoved from one spot to another in urban areas.

The pressure comes from everywhere, and if there is a grievance it would  more fairly be directed against other humans.

I went to visit the site on the morning after the first night of ‘trimming’. When I got there the sky was thick with flying-foxes flapping about in agitated consternation. This was in broad daylight, a most unusual event for these nocturnal creatures. I hear that some of the residents may be out there during the day harassing the flying-foxes in order further to force them away.

Mr Bill Lyon, Redlands City Council CEO, spoke of the action as a limited effort to make more space between human homes and flying-foxes. He was well aware that dispersal would just shift ‘the problem’ somewhere else, and he seemed to be hoping not to do that. Ms Brown had no such concerns. In her words: ‘I don’t care where they go. I just want them gone.’

In the same news report, Denise Wade (Bat Conservation and Rescue, Queensland), made the point that loss of habitat is pushing flying-foxes closer to humans. In her words: ‘It’s about planting alternative habitat and preserving the habitat that we have left. I see a very bleak future for bats.’

Helicoppter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster
Helicopter in Charters Towers, Photo: Adele Foster

I have been interviewing many talented and committed rescue and care volunteers, and this perception of a bleak future is widespread. Every little bit hurts, and of course much of what hurts is by no means small, as we know from the actions in numerous Queensland towns and cities in recent years (discussed here).

Over the course of those few days in Queensland I was gaining the sense of a desperately disturbing deep-time trajectory. The steps go like this: this is the continent that brought forth birdsong and enriched the whole earth; this is the continent that was inhabited by Aboriginal people for millennia under a cultural regime we now know as ‘caring for country’; this is the country that now has the highest rate of mammalian extinction in the contemporary world.

When Tim told me that another animal appears to have gone extinct I can’t say I was shocked. The only surprise was that it was a lizard. The Christmas Island Forest Skink suffered a quick and severe decline. At one point they were prevalent, then suddenly their numbers were down, and earlier this year the last known individual died. The authors of the report find that ‘In most cases, extinction can be seen as a tangible demonstration of failure in policy and management, of inattention or missed opportunities.’

If I were writing up a report card, the result would be terrible. But the failure goes way beyond reporting and assessing. There is widespread, systemic failure to consider and protect individuals, species, ecosystems, habitats, and ecological connectivities, along with the failure to cherish beauty, to prevent harm, and to show consideration for the lives of others.

This deep and exhaustive failure offers on-going evidence of a terrible wound in the biocultural fabric of Australia.

I suspect that none of us knows how, or whether, it can be healed. Our capacity for ethical action is bleeding out all over the place. The great continental philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote of the ‘face’ as that which interrupts my self-absorption and calls me into ethical responsibility. There has been a lot of discussion in recent years as to whether the face means ‘a human face’. What about other animals? What about trees? What about understory? The definition of face that I find most inspiring treats it as a form of action. Here face is something one does rather than something one has:  ‘facing is being confronted with, turned toward, facing up to, being judged and being called’.

The living world is filled with facings – to be alive is to live among faces, many of which are noisy and interruptive. This is good. This is life in the mode of ethics. At this time, this is also tough. There are so many facings, and often one feels so helpless.

Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)
Australian magpie, David Jenkins (CC)

And yet, the exuberance of living creatures continues to be inspiring. It is still possible to step outside and listen to birds. For the moment, now, I am taking myself off to the garden. It is true that these songbirds are not all equally musical to my ear, but they sure are smart and lively, and many of them sing beautifully. They have been here for a very long time, and I hope they and many of the others will continue long beyond this current regime of terror.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources: Where Song Began: Australia’s birds and how they changed the world, by Tim Low published by Viking/Penguin, 2014.

In a couple of my previous essays I have had a few words to say about ‘creature languages’ and ‘songsters’.

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

‘Trimming vegetation understory’ (view here)

Bat Battle television story (view here)

‘Vale ‘Gump’, the last known Christmas Island Forest Skink’ (view here)

A number of terrific essays on Levinas and nature can be found in the book Facing  Nature, edited by William Edelglass, James Hatley, and Christian Diehm.

The quote is from Susan Handelman’s book Fragments of Redemption. (Indiana Uni Press, 1991)

Dingo Prayers

I have been packing my bags again, this time for a trip to the Northern Territory. Travelling with the ‘legendary bushman’ Darrell Lewis, the plan is to visit family, friends and flying-foxes in the Victoria River District. With the first National Day of Action for Dingoes (NDAD) on September 21 very much on my mind, I was also longing to see and hear a few dingos.

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

My hopes were not too high. Last year in the Victoria River District many of the stations had been putting out the 1080, and in 2012 the NT Parks and Wildlife Commission had spread the poison around in the Judbarra-Gregory National Park.

As it turned out, I did not hear a single dingo. The only live one I saw was a forlorn and confused young creature who seemed, to my eyes, to personify the life of the lost in the aftermath of grievous trauma. Thoughts of the young fellow continue to trouble me, and there was more to come.

Out on the Victoria Highway, the main road between the Territory and the Kimberley, we encountered the dead and desecrated body of a handsome golden dingo.

Perhaps he had been deliberately run down on the road. It happens. But there was no ‘perhaps’ about the deliberation with which he had been taped up with packing tape on the roadside sign advising travellers to stop and refresh. He had become another trophy death in the war against dingoes.

There was also no doubt about the deliberation with which the sign had been shot at repeatedly, just as there was no way of knowing whether the shots had been put there before or after the dingo. The dents were very fresh.

We stopped the truck. I had picked some flowers earlier in the day, and I laid them on the ground beneath the dead body. There was a lot of blood, and the internal organs were bulging out from a belly wound. A long string of bloody saliva hung from his mouth. The flies were there, but the scent of decay was still faint. We were witness to a very recent event.

It is true that death often brings a sense of peace, and there was in this desecrated body the aura of a finality that goes beyond trauma. The golden fur still glowed as if life could return, but of course the rest of the body told otherwise. Confronted with the actual dignity of death, the vile evidence of desecration, and one’s attempt to imagine the deranged and brutalised humans who had done this, my offering of flowers seemed utterly inadequate and yet still necessary.

I do not know how to stay in the presence of dingoes that are being killed for no good reason. Their lives are being wasted, there is endless heartbreak for dingoes and for humans, and it is all pointless and relentless. I do not know how to stay with it, and nor can I turn away.

To honour the memory of this dingo and all his kin, and as a reminder of why we need NDAD, I am reprinting part of an essay I wrote in 2005 called ‘Dingo Prayers’.

Dingo Photo: Arian Wallach
Dingo, Arian Wallach

“Often when I am in Dingo country, my thoughts stray to Old Tim Yilngayarri. His country was out in the savannah region of the Victoria River region, and he was the greatest Dingo boss I have known. He was the only person I’ve spoken with who not only told long complicated stories about Dingo Dreamings, but also spoke with dogs in daily life. As Old Tim told the stories, Dingoes made humans as humans; before that we were all one species.

They are today our closest relations on Earth, our ancestors, our contemporary kin, and the creatures who show us what it takes to be human. Tim was acutely aware of the injustices dogs and dingoes suffer at the hands of humans. In his stories the ancestral Dingoes give voice to their sense of lost reciprocity, and to current grievance: ‘”I been make them man and woman. Now you been drop me, put me in the rubbish dump'”. Old Tim called them by their kinship names: Mother and Father Dingo, and there have been times when I have too….

Across Australia there is a concerted war against dingoes.

In the Northern Territory they talk about dingo control, but in Queensland they aim for destruction. In spite of all the evidence to show that dingo baiting itself is creating the problems that it is supposed to be controlling, and in spite of evidence for the significant role dingoes play in sustaining biodiversity, the killing goes on. Discursively the war against dingoes has shifted to a war against ‘wild dogs’, as if it were more legitimate to kill dogs than to kill dingoes.

Queensland has taken the most vigorous approach to eradication. With its carefully maintained 2,500 kilometres of Dingo Barrier fence (now Wild Dog barrier fence), and its restrictions against travel along the fence, the commitment is clear. In the western regions of the state the fence runs along state borders and there are large gates that allow motorists through. You stop and get out of the truck to open the gate, and then you carefully close it behind you, and when you do that you can’t help but think of death. At each gate there are signs that read:

THIS GATE SHOULD BE CLOSED
AT ALL TIMES
IF FOUND OPEN PLEASE CLOSE
Wild Dog Destruction Board

For years I have been photographing Dingo fences, Dingo gates and 1080 signs in order to document for my own conscience the war against dingoes. Some of the Dingo fences had dead dingoes strung up near the gates or ramps, and I have photos of them too. For years, too, I have been removing the poor shattered bodies of dead dingoes from the road, tucking flowers under their bruised corpses, and saying a small farewell to them in apology for the disasters that run them down.

On a recent trip through Queensland I stopped to photograph a hand-lettered sign, white on green background, announcing that this is a Dingo Barrier Fence. Bureaucracy hadn’t gotten here yet, either to erect a formally printed sign or to change the words from Dingo to Wild Dog. On the ground in front of this homely little sign two flat rocks were set up, one on top of the other. Their placement was so casual and so unexpected that it could have meant anything.

The stones may be something or nothing, purposefully placed or just a whim. I took hold of that ambiguity and interpreted them as a prayer, and when I left, I put a round stone on top of the two flat ones. Since that day I’ve made other trips and started other prayers around sites that proclaim the war against dingoes. At Hawker Gate, Fortville Gate, Warri Gate and others, I have gathered stones and made unobtrusive little cairns. Wherever possible I add stone flakes, reminding whoever may take notice that the war against indigenous folk has been widely as well as brutally focussed.

For me, the stones are an intention, an apology, a counter-action, a visible prayer for a world in which all this killing can be stopped. I think of Old Tim and his dogs, his stories and his love: that Dingoes are our relations, our kin and co-creatures. The stones mark gratitude for him and his teaching.

Mother and Father Dingo, I say as I place yet another stone, precise words don’t exist for the heartbreak that this death work is piling up between us. Let me offer stones along with words, and pray for our fellow creatures in their torment. I mean to inscribe a human conscience that is shaped into action by Dingoes and by the people who hold and tell the stories. A human conscience that stands within, and affirms its opposition to, a world of wilful and deathful bloodshed.

But perhaps I am trying to put too many words on it.

The poet Rumi tells us ‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground’.

Think of it! A thousand ways –
One way, surely, is to make dingo prayers.”

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: The original version of ‘Dingo Prayers’ was published in 2005 in Island, 103, pp. 6-10.

Information on the role of dingoes in biodiversity, and the havoc wreaked by 1080 is available in several of my earlier essays (view here), and on the excellent webpage developed by award-wining scientist Arian Wallach. A recent radio program in the Freedom of Species series (listen here) addresses matters concerning 1080.

I discuss the desecration of dingo bodies in my book Wild Dog Dreaming: Love and Extinction.

 

 

 

Good Friday, More Death

Another drought, another witch hunt in the form of dingo persecution. Another program to ‘improve’ the country through slaughter. I think this is called dysfunction: you keep on doing the same violent thing in the hope that somehow the issues you face will go away.

Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray
Young dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray

The Longreach region of western Queensland is rolling out their biggest and most expensive attack on dingoes ever.

According to the ABC report:

“Longreach Mayor Joe Owens says more than 30,000 square kilometres will be covered in a new wild dog baiting campaign, one of the largest in western Queensland’s history…. The $150,000 campaign is due to begin next week, with nearly 30 tonnes of meat being ordered for baiting.”

I expect that the money is coming from the drought relief funds. It is public money, and it is utterly astonishing that there seems to have been no public consultation on this. Discussions with dingo experts would have explained both the causes of the problems and offered some solutions. There are alternatives to the deathwork.

Consultations could also have addressed the matter of conserving endangered species in the area, and the role of dingoes in suppressing invasive species such a foxes and cats. We can expect a massive spurt of pressure on birds and other vulnerable creatures.

The ‘zombie politics’ reaction says if there’s a problem there’s an enemy, and that enemy must be persecuted and made to suffer, and that enemy must die. There are plenty of alternatives. Another way into dealing with problems is to try to understand their causes, try to implement practices that actually address the causes, and become adaptive. Landscapes change, climates change, markets fluctuate and consumer desires shift. Life changes, humans have to adapt. These are basic truths and it is difficult to understand why they are so hard to grasp.

Queensland has been at the forefront of cruelty in recent years, and this new program maintains that position. The other recent mass cruelty event in Queensland was the Charters Towers days of shame when flying-foxes were persecuted, tortured and killed. Noel Castley-Wright has made an excellent short film ‘State of Shame – Queensland’s Legislated Animal Cruelty’ (view here).

Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards
Flying-fox, courtesy of Nick Edards

The big difference between Charters Towers and Longreach is that out on the pastoral properties most of the suffering will be take place out of sight of humans and their cameras. We will never know the full story of all this terrible suffering. We know it will happen, we know the shock and trauma will spread amongst the surviving dingoes, we know the poison will spread to other species who also get into it, we know the cascades of death will accelerate, and we know that these damaged ecosystems will be further degraded, losing ever more resilience. We can predict (and time will tell) that the next drought will be even more damaging.

Let there be no doubt: 1080 causes terrible, painful deaths. If you have ever wondered whether this is true, listen to the people who have witnessed its effects. Emma Townshend interviewed a few of them on her recent ‘Freedom of Species’ program about 1080 (listen here). These are people have seen animals die of 1080, and have resolved not to use it. They are admirable individuals who have confronted the suffering and decided it will not happen on their properties. The same program contains an excellent interview with Arian Wallach. Speaking as both a pastoralist and a scientist, she discusses the beneficial ecological role of dingoes as top predators.

Encountering this terrible persecution on Good Friday caused me to ask what a religious person might think about all of this. I remembered a heart-felt  comment that came to my site during the Charters Towers mass persecution. This is from Sharon Peterson. She describes herself as a Christian and an American.

“I’m a Creationist, so I see man as created by God and given stewardship over the Earth’s animals. That stewardship does not include cruelty, or senseless violence. Animals should be treated ethically and appreciated for their many unique qualities bestowed on them by our Creator. Just as He preserved man during the flood, He preserved every kind of animal. This shows Jews and Christians that God cares for all of His creatures. The Bible says, His eye is on the sparrow, which means He has compassion for even the smallest of His creatures.”

“No matter how we look at this, through humanistic or Biblical lenses, the answer is still the same. Man does not have the right to cruelly, and with great harm and mortality, attack animals.”

And then there are those wonderful words of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. At a time when humans’ mass slaughter of animals was becoming very clear and very troubling, he wrote the ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’ (1834), with its famous lines:

He prayeth best, who loveth best, All things both great and small; For the dear God who loveth us, He made and loveth all.

The only good news on this bleak and sorry Friday was that not all the pastoralists in the Longreach region are taking part in the dingo baiting. Thus far, it seems, the law cannot force people to use poison on their properties. I imagine it takes a lot of guts to resist the majority view on poison, and as the article makes clear, those who refuse are already being set up as scapegoats for when the project fails. There is a lesson here: the ‘good shepherd’ not only takes care of his or her flock, but also protects the others who share in the life of the land.

There is great courage and dignity in refusing to join the deathwork mob. Pastoralists of honour, I salute you!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

The ABC Report can be found at:  http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-04-17/longreach-unleashes-150k-wild-dog-baiting-campaign/5396628

In response to some of the comments questioning various aspects of the viability of pastoralism and alternatives to broacacres baiting, I thought it would be good share a link to a site in the usa that focusses on predator-friendly pastoralism and desertification. I think they are working toward something very important. Well worth reading! (view here)

Under The Mistletoe

Keystone species ‘punch above their weight’, to use a popular metaphor. They contribute more to their ecosystems than their numbers would indicate. Charismatic top predators such as wolves and dingoes are great examples of keystone species. They generate the trophic cascades that enhance whole systems of life including the geophysical foundations (discussed here). But as the fascinating ecologist Stephan Harding tells us:

‘You never know who the big players are in the wild world.’

Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)
Native mistletoe at Edeowie Station, by Michelle Bartsch (CC)

To my mind one of the least likely ‘big players’ is mistletoe. Can a parasite actually be a keystone? Surprisingly, the answer is ‘yes’. Not only is mistletoe good for kissing, this great cohort is a ‘keystone resource’.

Let us enter the entrancing world of mistletoe through symbiotic mutualism. A relatively non-technical definition is ‘two or more species that live together to their mutual benefit’. Although the idea of symbiosis was not the dominant paradigm for much of the 20th century, a growing body of research is showing that it complements competition and is utterly fundamental to life on earth and is part of how every creature lives. The great biologist Lynn Margulis declares:

‘We are symbionts on a symbiotic planet.’

Mistletoe, it turns out, is a highly eclectic and inclusive symbiotic mutualist. One of the main families all around the world, and a prominent player in Australia, is Loranthaceae – a family of mistletoe with about 1,000 member species. Most of them are ‘obligate, stem hemiparasites’. This means that they can only live by being attached to another plant (obligate), that they attach to stems (not roots), and that while they get water and some nutrients from their host, they are also able to photosynthesise.

The story of mistletoe mutualisms is all about entanglements of interdependencies, nutrient cycles, and seductions. Loranthaceae are themselves deeply dependent. First there is dependence on the tree or shrub on which they grow. No host, no parasite. Next, there is dependence on birds and bees to pollinate. No pollination, no seeds, no future generations. Then there is dependence on birds, in particular, to eat the fruits and disperse the seeds. No dispersal, very little chance of germination and growth. And there is dependence on the leaf-eaters: no browsing means too much mistletoe growth leading to multiple deaths and disasters.

Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)
Brushtail possums, by David Cook (CC)

If mistletoes are to survive they have to entice and nourish their mutualists. The brightly coloured flowers are powerful attractors of pollinators, and the nectar is not only high in sugars, but also fats. Some of the Australian Loranthaceae produce nectar containing droplets of pure fat. The berries are highly visible, abundant and full of nutrition. Worldwide, many ‘folivores’ eat the nutritious leaves: deer, camels, rhinoceroses, gorillas and possums, amongst many others.

Their adaptive edge goes beyond mere provisioning and involves dazzling abundance.

The most awesome interdependence is between mistletoes and their mutualist mistletoe birds. ABC Science journalist Abbie Thomas wrote a delightful account:

Many mistletoes continue to flower in drought or during winter, when few other blossoms are available. Indeed, they are often the only local source of nectar and pollen during hard times. Packed with sugar and carbs, mistletoe fruits are good tucker, not just for the ubiquitous mistletoe bird, but also for cuckoo-shrikes, ravens, cockatoos, shrike-thrushes, woodswallows, bowerbirds, and even emus and cassowaries.

The mistletoe bird plays an important role in the mistletoe plant’s life cycle. The life of most mistletoes begins when a viscous, gluey seed drops onto a branch from the rear end of the brilliantly coloured black, red and white Mistletoe bird. Found throughout Australia, these birds are highly mobile and go wherever mistletoe is in fruit. Once eaten, the seed of the fruit quickly passes through the bird, emerging just 10-15 minutes later. The sticky seed fastens onto the branch, although many seeds fail to adhere, and are lost.

Within days, a tiny tendril emerges from the seed, growing quickly and secreting a cocktail of enzymes directly onto the corky outer protection of the branch. Unable to resist the onslaught, the bark yields a small ulcer-like hole into which the tendril probes, seeking its way down into the sappy tree tissue until it hits paydirt: the water and mineral-rich plumbing of the tree.’

Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)
Male mistletoe bird, by Leo (CC)

Mutualisms are entanglements of interdependencies. The host tree supports its mistletoes physically and nutritionally, and it also buffers them against the vicissitudes of climate uncertainty. So, too, mistletoes support other species and provide a buffer against fluctuations and uncertainties. A study from Australia shows that mistletoes have extended nectar and seed producing periods, and that within a given region nectar and fruit are available from one or another mistletoe species all year round. In addition, as mistletoes are host to so many insect species, the insect-eating birds also get the benefit. Mammals join the feast, eating leaves, seeds and flowers. Possums are amongst the main leaf eaters, and are seasonally dependent on mistletoe.

Along with all the creatures who consume mistletoes, there is yet another entourage that benefits. Some animals build their nests in the mistletoe where they get some protection from the elements and predators. The action of the mistletoe itself increases hollows in trees, and so all the creatures that nest in hollows get the benefit. A further benefit is that their presence in trees alters the forest canopy and reduces the severity of bushfires.

In life systems, what goes around comes around. The host tree or shrub gets a steady rain of litter, droppings, and other organic matter that become part of the nutrient cycle, benefiting both the host and other plants in the area. In short, the benefits of mistletoes pass through the lives and bodies of many species before turning into nutrients to be drawn up by hosts and tapped into by mistletoes.

The relationships work because of the extravagant generosity of interdependence: highly nutritious nectar produced by bright showy flowers; shiny seeds loaded with carbs and sugars; mistletoe birds with their gorgeous red feathers, lovely song, and fertile poop; gliders and possums; butterflies who visit, eat, and reproduce.

Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)
Mistletoe (Amyema) flowers, by Bill and Mark Bell (CC)

There is an association between songbirds and mistletoe, and as new evidence is showing that both groups have their origins in ancient Gondwanaland, perhaps there is more to this old and beautiful alliance than is yet properly understood. I found myself totally captivated by a story shared by Andrew Skeoch, a sound recordist specialising in the sounds of nature. He recorded a mistletoe bird in full song, and inadvertently also recorded the fact that this talented little creature was singing and pooping at the same time. Something about this bright little bird creating and performing musically, while depositing mistletoe seeds securely wrapped in glue and fertiliser seems almost magical in its joyfulness (listen to the birdsong here).

It is good to recall that there is an old European history of respect. Mistletoe is sacred to Druids (contemporary and ancient), and it is still a customary Christmas decoration. Hung over the threshold, it invites people to kiss. In earlier days it was said to be able to find buried treasure, keep witches away and prevent trolls from souring milk! It would be good also to recall that Aboriginal Australians respect mistletoe as a food for humans and for many other creatures. In North Australia, where so much of my learning has taken place, people give berries to children, but adults avoid them. Perhaps they are aware that growing children have a particular need for the high nutritional value of mistletoe.

At this time, many people think mistletoe is a pest. The term ‘parasite’ conjures negative imagery, but the larger issue, at least in Australia, is that in some areas mistletoes are over-abundant. Trees are dying, and something has gone askew because mistletoe cannot thrive if the host dies. The renowned science writer Tim Low tells us that the loss of possums, those folivores who love their mistletoe, is a key. “Foxes, by preying on mistletoe-munching possums,” set up conditions where mistletoes can grow out of control. Possums are only prey to foxes when they come down out of the trees. Along roadsides and on farms, they are at risk. Within forests where they can remain up in the trees possums thrive and mistletoe is contained.

Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)
Ringtail possum, by Visible Procrastination (CC)

So, what would partnership rewilding be like if the focus were on mistletoes and their ‘ground up’ trophic dynamics?

First, it would involve fewer foxes and more possums. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of the dingo. As I have been reporting in other essays, the evidence is overwhelmingly clear that dingoes reduce the numbers of invasive species such as foxes and cats, and promote the viability of smaller native marsupials such as possums.

Second, it would involve on-going health and reproductive capacity of more extensive stands of trees. Here the answer is readily to hand in the form of flying-foxes. Their pollination is utterly crucial to the future of forests and woodlands in Australia, and their lives and livelihoods are central to partnership rewilding.

Third, it would involve changes in human thought and action. Not everyone thinks mistletoes are innate pests, but, as the great mistletoe scientist David Watson indicates, “pretty much all of the public’s perceptions about Mistletoe are fundamentally incorrect.” I want to be clear that Aboriginal people are not likely to hold these misperceptions. Here, as with other matters, the limitations of the mainstream public cannot readily be attributed to everyone. Having said that ~~

I want to set up camp, metaphorically at least, under the mistletoe. Here the kiss of life is sensuous, continuous, and diverse.

I hope others will join me, and I rather hope we won’t get pooped on! Let us open our lives to the great, complex, on-going, joyful, benefit-rich, exuberant and dazzling generosity that holds entangled interdependencies together. A camp in the midst of all these mutualisms is place of coming-forth for those whose flows of life and death are achieved together. These entangled partnerships have co-evolved over millions of years, and if the human newcomer can partner in with them, we may yet become part of ecosystems that will hold together in this time of flux and uncertainty.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

This is the third in a series of essays on partnership rewilding. The others include: Partnership Rewilding with Flying-Foxes, and Partnership Rewilding with Predators. 

Resources

Most of the scientific information in this essay is drawn from David Watson’s outstanding work. One of his main articles is free online: http://rspb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/early/2012/07/03/rspb.2012.0856.full

Another is not open access except for the abstract: http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev.ecolsys.32.081501.114024

Abbie Thomas’s article is available online: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2004/03/05/2044992.htm

Lynn Margulis’s book is Symbionic Planet (a New Look at Evolution).

The book by Tim Low mentioned in this essay is New Nature.

Information on dingoes as top predators is available in previous essays, and is the subject of a recent article by Arian Wallach, published in The Conversation. (read here)

My essay on flying-foxes and the kiss of life is not freely available online but I am happy to share copies if asked.

Songsters

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring continues to haunt us with remembrance of all the Earth is losing. It calls us repeatedly to realise how beautiful are the lives of others, and how precious. With remembrance comes sadness: how lonely and grief-stricken are the silences. And as Paul Shepard reminds us, Silent Spring is also a warning against ‘the deafened self, against emptiness’. Two kinds of violence, then: the silencing of others, and the shutting down of one’s own capacity to hear.

Recently I listened to a radio documentary made with and about my friend Hollis Taylor. Hollis is a musician and composer, as well as a deeply serious student of birdsong. For nine years now, she has been recording and analysing the music of the pied butcherbird (Cracticus nigrogularis) in various regions of Australia. Central Australia is one of her research areas, and from time to time her friend Jane Ulman, sound artist and radio director, accompanies her. The radio show ‘Bird Interrupted’ takes listeners on a trip through the MacDonnell Ranges with two remarkable artists, listening not only to birdsong but also to a delightful array of human characters (listen here).

Hollis Taylor, Photo: Jane Ulman
Hollis Taylor,
Photo: Jon Rose

Hollis explains that the key features that mark birdsong as music are: the fact that it is learned (not innate), and that it is improvisational. Not only do birds learn to sing by being taught by other birds, but individuals develop their own musical repertoires. Some of them are wonderfully creative – a joy not only to other birds, but to humans as well.

Her research asks the probing question: ‘Is birdsong music?’ Most of us probably think we know the answer to this question, and we may well wonder why it even needs to be asked. The question is provocative because music is one of the markers selected to show that humans are different and special creatures. According to those who seek to sustain an impassable boundary between us (humans) and all the others (our Earth kin), our capacity for music (along with language and other capabilities) makes humans exceptional.

Pied butcherbird research tells a different story. At certain times of year, these birds perform solos for up to six hours a night. It is helpful to have a good ear in order to appreciate the musical complexities of pied butcherbird song. Hollis’s description (with sound bites) of the main motif in the Alice Springs region is further brought to life by her presentation of some of the regional and individual variations on the main theme. I was enthralled to be introduced to music that, left to my own devices, I would have heard as beautiful but been unable to understand in its complexity.

Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor
Pied butcherbird, Hollis Taylor

‘Bird Interrupted’ is a great reminder that one of the outstanding characteristics of planet Earth is that living beings communicate. One of the great desires of many life forms is the desire to put sound out into the world – to announce, to call, to communicate, to seduce, and much more.

Our planet is not only blue, watery, and filled with cycles of nutrients, it is symphonic.

At the recent conference ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, Richard Nelson spoke about our musical Earth. Richard is an Alaskan anthropologist whose life is dedicated to participatory learning with Indigenous people and to documenting the sounds of life and shaping them into radio programs. Richard takes an expansive view of ‘the singing planet’, including wind, water, ice and animals, amongst others, as ‘voices’. They and we are all part of the ‘single language of living things’, he tells us. The video of his engaging speech is now posted online (view here).

Richard also brought up another form of violence: human din. Our species is getting noisier, as well as more numerous, and noise is a hallmark of the Anthropocene. We are acoustically crowding out others and even worse, we are assaulting them. Whales and other marine mammals, for example, are among many Earth creatures whose lives are threatened by lethal sound. Navy sonar and other underwater high-decibel noise has such terrible impacts on whales and others that one orca researcher calls it an ‘accoustic holocaust’.

Many of the animals who are under acoustical assault are themselves songsters. According to Hollis, ‘about half of the world’s approximately 10,000 bird species are songbirds, so distinguished because they learn their song. Intriguingly, vocal learning is rare; our closest primate relatives, for example, are not vocal learners. Even the elaborate song bouts of gibbons are innate. Aside from songbirds, to date this capacity appears limited to hummingbirds and parrots (and possibly a few other avian groups), as well as marine mammals, elephants, and bats.’

Humpback Whale  by Andrew Schaefer
Humpback Whale by Andrew Schaefer (CC)

While pied butcherbirds are singing their themes and variations in Central Australia, humpback whales are singing their way through the oceans. A recent study of whale song, undertaken by Ellen Garland, a University of Queensland PhD student, identified eleven different humpback whale song types. They ‘typically started in the eastern Australian population and spread in a step-wise fashion across the region to French Polynesia’. In a fascinating interview (view here), Ellen explains that the cultural innovation taking place here is extremely unusual in non-human culture. Only males sing, and it seems they want to stand out from the crowd. A new song is a stand-out performance. It is adopted as a novelty, but soon becomes what everyone is doing, and so males develop new songs. Every two years or so, a new song comes into being.

The desire to express one’s presence vocally is, for many creatures, integral to their living self.

I learned this the sad way when I picked up a severely injured sulphur-crested cockatoo and put it in the car to take to the vet. On the way, the bird died. Before he died, however, he let loose his last raucous call, as if unwilling to leave silently. I knew it was the end when I heard him, and I felt kinship as well as sorrow in the presence of his desire to make a final acoustical mark showing that he had lived and been part of the world.

In life as well as in death, we are songsters, many of us. A couple of years ago I travelled with my friend Jim Hatley, philosopher, artist and poet, to Central Australia. We visited gorges along the MacDonnell Ranges, including one of my favourites – Trephina Gorge. After hiking along the top country, we went down into the dry river bed. We walked on pale sand amidst tall river gums whose single great tap root shoots down into the underground water; and like a quiet miracle in this dry country, we saw small birds whose presence signals water. Around a bend we came upon a permanent waterhole no more than a few meters across in any direction.

'Zebra finch 4', by Jim Bendon
‘Zebra finch 4’, by Jim Bendon (CC)

The country was pulsing with life, both visible and hidden. Jim paused under the shade of a river gum to sing. His voice moved up and down the gorge, honouring this place and giving something in return. As he poured forth his praise, the finches gathered. Small, elegant songbirds of desert and waterhole, they settled in the tree above him as he sang.

We are songsters to the core of our being, but we are not therefore alone or exceptional.

Amongst the great and varied kindred of Earth life, blessed are the singers of new songs ~ they bring creativity, along with all this great wild beauty, to the symphony of life.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources

Silent Spring was first published in 1962, and is still in print. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/27333.Silent_Spring

The quote from Paul Shepard comes from his book The Others: How Animals Made Us Human. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1640911.The_Others

Hollis is the co-author of a fascinating article about lyre birds that is available online: http://environmentalhumanities.org/arch/vol3/3.3.pdf

Richard Nelson’s most beloved book is Make Prayers to the Raven. http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/134644.Make_Prayers_to_the_Raven

Some of Jim Hatley’s inspired work can be encountered at his website: http://geoaesthetics.blogspot.com.au/

Partnership Rewilding with Predators

Elk near Jackson Hole, Photo: Dave Rose
Elk near Jackson Hole,
Photo: Dave Rose

My father, Dave Rose, was fascinated with the elk that came down out of Yellowstone National Park during the winter months. He took us kids to Jackson Hole to see them, and he persuaded the guy with the hay to let us ride on the trailer while he went through the herd dumping fodder. Dad took slides (and more slides). Sometimes it seemed as if every slide show was all about elk!

Only much later did I learn that the National Elk Refuge was founded in 1912 by local ranchers who were concerned that this great herd might go extinct. Its migration routes were disrupted by ranches and the town.  Conflict between ranchers and elk over hay led to killing, and there was mass starvation.

The establishment of a winter refuge adjacent to Yellowstone, with funds for fodder, was an early action in America’s long and often odd conservation movement. For almost one hundred years wolves were persecuted. Herbivores were hunted. Still today at the National Elk Refuge, ‘both bison and elk populations are managed through refuge hunt programs. Permits specific to each hunt are required and are obtained online or through the Wyoming Game & Fish Department.’

When we went there all those years ago, it was pretty easy to see that this great migratory herd had nowhere to go. Problem and solution seemed pretty clear. But if Dad had read Aldo Leopold’s essay ‘Thinking Like a Mountain’ he might have suspected that there was more to the story. Leopold’s brief, influential essay starts with him killing a wolf, as people did in those days, and then working through the implications of predator loss, overabundance of deer, stripped vegetation, and barren ground.

American wolves in captivity
American wolves in captivity

For centuries mainstream European-origin culture has feared, despised, and sought to annihilate wolves and other predators. The outcome, if one can use such neutral term to describe the result of all this suffering, has been extinctions and extirpations. If Dad had asked about wolves, he would have come upon a story of vicious, cruel persecution that would have deeply saddened his kind and generous heart.

As if in counterpoint to all the death work that has gone into efforts to eradicate wolves, conservation biologists are discovering that the top carnivores have ecological roles that benefit numerous species of flora and fauna. This is counter-intuitive thinking for western peoples, but it is actually integral to indigenous peoples in many parts of the world. The novel Wolf Totem by Jiang Rong tells the story in the context of Mongolia: kill the wolves and you kill the grazing lands, and so you kill the herding way of life.

‘Trophic cascade’ is the scientific term for ecological processes that ripple from one species through others, and through whole ecosystems.

This process has been documented with the re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone National Park after a seventy year absence. The consequences are completely stunning. A recent video narrated by George Monbiot tells the story in words and images (view here). It is helpful to know that Monbiot uses the word ‘deer’ where Americans would use the word ‘elk’ for the species Cervus elaphus. I don’t want to spoil the drama of the video, so I’ll just make the point that a trophic cascade starting with a top predator ripples through other animal species, plant species, and ultimately even through the physical geography of their ecosystem.

Furlined/Creative Commons
Furlined/Creative Commons

The re-introduction of wolves into Yellowstone is an example of the new thinking that is often called ‘rewilding’. It addresses ecosystem restoration on a large scale; there is no attempt at retrieving primeval ‘wilderness’ – that would be impossible, and if it were possible it would be counterproductive. Rather, rewilding aims to let ecological processes start up again.

The development of rewilding programs in the USA depends on three key strategies: cores, corridors and carnivores. The carnivores are the first key, as Monbiot narrates in the Yellowstone video. If they are healthy, the benefits flow on through the system.

The second key, then, recognises that the top predators require adequate range to sustain themselves across generations. The third key is corridors; it recognises the fact cores can become death traps unless the animals can move. This is so genetically, and equally because ecosystems and climate always offer the unexpected. With climate change, even more unexpected changes are (paradoxically) expected to occur. Animals need the versatility and flexibility in order to be able to respond to change.

Carnivores with ample area and ample connectivity will regulate ecosystems in ways that achieve complexity, diversity, and resilience.

So far, so good, but now the news turns alarming. An extremely important recent publication addresses these issues in the context of climate change and the accelerating extinction event now underway. A great number of the large carnivores that ecosystems need are themselves vulnerable to extinction or local extirpation. The authors state that in light of all the recent evidence ‘alongside climate change, eliminating large carnivores is one of the most significant anthropogenic impacts on nature.’

Photo: John Murray
Photo: John Murray

A good section of the study is dedicated to dingoes, and it summarises the work of Arian Wallach and the other dingo scientists whose work last year was awarded the Eureka Prize. Their conclusion: ‘Overall, the suppression of dingo has probably contributed to the endangerment and extinction of small marsupials and rodents over much of the continent.’ It has also enabled the expansion of a range of invasive species over much of the continent.

The biggest threat to large carnivores is the human species. Finding ways of co-existence is therefore absolutely crucial. Not only is the work that carnivores do ‘underappreciated’ (the authors’ words); in many areas, as is well known, predators are actively persecuted. Many pastoralists have formed the view that livestock and predators are incompatible. Having set up an ‘us or them’ opposition, they destroy the predators.

Dingo Barrier Fence
Dingo Barrier Fence

Here in Australia the conflict is between cattle and sheep farmers on the one hand, and dingoes on the other. I wish they would all read Wolf Totem, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps they will listen to the recent  Bush Telegraph radio report ‘Could dingoes actually help farmers?’ (listen here) The program starts with a fascinating interview with Lyn Watson of the Dingo Discovery Centre speaking about dingo physiology and behaviour. It concludes with Arian Wallach, the dingo research scientist and one of the authors of the influential study of carnivores and climate change. She carries out research on Evelyn Downs Station, a working cattle station (ranch) that is one of the few predator-friendly ranches in Australia.

In the radio interview Arian reminds listeners that dingoes are top predators here in Australia: ‘ …  the health of the ecosystemits biodiversity, its productivity, the condition of it’s soil, the rivers, the endangered speciesare all tightly linked up with the dingo.’ She then very precisely changes the story from ‘us vs them’ (pastoralists vs. dingoes) to interconnection. Rather than barriers, there are connections. Cattle and sheep need biodiversity, dingos sustain biodiversity, therefore pastoralists, livestock and dingoes are all interconnected and are, in effect, on the same side.

Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)
Cattle and Dingoes at Evelyn Downs (A. Wallach)

Arian and Lyn also discuss the problems that arise when dingo ‘control’ (poison, trapping, shooting) creates homeless, unsocialised creatures who are effectively out-of-control. It is a truly vicious circle, and one of our great challenges is how to break the cycle of violence without destroying either pastoralists, or livestock, or dingoes.

To return to partnership rewilding, therefore, I see hope in the idea that the best thing we humans can do for the earth at this time is to work in alliance with other creatures whose lives regulate, pollinate, and otherwise sustain flourishing ecosystems. In relation to flying-foxes I proposed the establishment of vast corridors or networks of flowering trees. ‘Rewilding’ the open savannah woodlands would enable flying-foxes to sustain themselves and continue their work of pollination. Those same corridors could also be habitat for dingoes and many other creatures, and as core areas are maintained, and more corridors are established, the country can become criss-crossed with edges and zones of co-existence.

Life on earth is not ours to destroy, and nor is it ours to engineer solely for ourselves.

Partnership Rewilding acknowledges and works with interconnections. At this time, most ecosystems are massively perturbed and there is a huge role for humans in working to re-establish favourable conditions. The ethics of multi-species alliances thus have several sides. Humans may at times be active partners, and at times may simply need to get out of the way so that others can do the work they are so beautifully evolved to do.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript: Arian Wallach has just published and excellent article in ‘The Conservation’ (read here)

Her recent interview on Freedom of Species is also relevant and insightful. (listen here)

Resources:

Aldo Leopold’s essay is available online: http://nctc.fws.gov/resources/knowledge-resources/wildread/thinking-like-a-mountain.pdf

The horror of the violence against wolves is conveyed, along with much else, by Barry Lopez in his great book Of Wolves and Men.

Mongolian herders’ relationships with wolves are analysed in Natasha Fijn’s ethnography Living with Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia. She is a terrific film-maker as well, and films from her Mongolian experience are also available (view here).

Acknowledgements: Thanks to Ray Pierotti, author of Indigenous Knowledge, Ecology, and Evolutionary Biology, for the wolf photos and for clarification of the elk/deer nomenclature.

Partnership Rewilding With Flying-Foxes

Thanks to a conversation with my friend the environmental humanities film-maker/director Rob Nugent, I have become entranced with ideas of how we humans can work with flying-foxes rather than against them. Human-animal alliances that work toward greater integrity of ecosystems are, I propose, forms of ‘partnership rewilding’.

Sociable little reds,  photo:  Ashleigh Johnson
Sociable little reds,
photo: Ashleigh Johnson

‘Little reds’ (Pteropus scapulatus) are one of the four flying-fox (mega-bat) species in Australia, and they’ve been the focus of a lot of public talk and action recently. On the positive side was the enticing announcement of the arrival of little reds in Brisbane for the flowering of the bloodwood trees. I couldn’t get away from home in January, and so had to settle for a very short video clip and delightful write-up of the ‘wildlife spectacular on a world scale’ posted by the Bat Rescue and Conservation group in Brisbane (view here).

Further north in the Atherton Tableland town of Herberton, residents were complaining about little reds and calling for them to be removed. Apparently the mob arrived in late November and camped along the Wild River. One person in the know wrote recently: ‘The trees are literally flattened and the bats are still camping in them. About half have left in the last week’.

The Herberton story re-entered my imagination last week at the environmental humanities conference here in Sydney. The snappy title was ‘Encountering the Anthropocene’, and in the midst of an extremely lively program, it was great to catch up with Rob Nugent. His first film in the area of human-animal interactions focussed on locusts – their strange, beautiful, ‘Biblical’ and in many ways disastrous lives. ‘Memoirs of a plague’ is filmed across Africa and Australia and tells beautiful and disturbing stories about human-animal relationships.

Rob had recently been in Herberton and had filmed the little reds. I am so grateful to be able to get a glimpse of a big mob of ‘little reds’ in situ (view here). In Rob’s words:

“I particularly like the idea that they had decided to camp on a river called ‘Wild’… I suppose the river was named after someone called Wild, but perhaps it was named for its “wildness” too. The vegetation on the river was probably stripped for tin mining and is now regrowth…. In any case the bats are doing their best to “rewild” it by gradually breaking it up and pulling it to bits. I don’t think they are killing the trees though they will take a bit to recover. As it’s such a high rainfall area it’s unlikely that the bats’ superficially dramatic impact on the trees, sculpting roost sites to hang out together, branches being bent and broken under their collective weight etc., will last very long at all.”

Rob’s wry comment about rewilding the Wild River is partly tongue-in-cheek, but also wonderfully provocative.

Little reds characteristically love to hang together in tightly packed groups. According to the bat experts Les Hall and Greg Richards, ‘their habit of forming dense clusters, with up to 30 bats hanging together from one small branch, often results in the branch breaking. The combined weight of many such clusters will cause even large branches to break…. The resulting effect of a camp of little reds on a patch of vegetation is somewhat akin to the damage done by a severe hail or wind storm.’ It would seem that the trees where flying-foxes camp get a large influx of organic nutrients along with all the ‘pruning’, but it is still difficult to imagine the scene when a million or more little reds gather together in one place. As Hall and Richards point out, ‘fortunately these large camps of little reds are mobile, and move on when the local flowering ceases.’ Increasingly, as land clearing reduces their options, they may return before a camp has had time fully to recover.

Little reds in Boonah, Qld Photo: Paisley Hadley
Little reds in Boonah, Qld
Photo: Paislie Hadley

In 2000 Hall and Richards wrote that little reds had not normally lived in the Atherton Tableland, but were coming more frequently. Their arrival has truly upset people in this area as well as in inland towns such as Charters Towers where the recent disastrous cruelty is well documented. I will never condone that cruelty, but what strikes me in this context is the fact that here humans and trees share a perspective when it comes to little reds. For both species (humans and trees) the big question is: when will they leave?!!!

The answer, of course, is ‘when they have somewhere to go’. Little reds are the most nomadic of all the flying-foxes of Australia. Their range overlaps with the others, but goes further inland, bringing flying-foxes deep into the arid zone of Central Australia.

They are the odd group out amongst the Pteropids of Australia. Little reds are smaller, with a different colour and smell; they breed at the opposite time of year to the rest of the three main species; they are more reliant than the others on blossoms and nectar, and thus are almost exclusively nectivorous. Their large groups and greater mobility are responses to the focus on nectar.

The lure of the Atherton Tableland is likely to be related to the failure of the blossoming trees further inland, a factor that is influenced by climate and weather. However, Hall and Richards also note that ‘continued wide-spread clearing in central Queensland has removed trees which were major winter and spring food sources for little reds.’ As a result, large numbers of creatures were starving, and were looking for alternative places and alternative foods. Since 2000, land clearing has continued, and (surprise) the Newman government has recently altered legislation to make it easier for land owners to clear fell. One figure of the many that could be offered demonstrates the impacts of land clearing: for every 100 hectares of bush destroyed, between 1,000 and 2,000 birds die from exposure, starvation and stress.

Queensland cattle country
Queensland cattle country

As habitat destruction and persecution go hand in hand with starvation and heat stress, it sometimes seems the odds are stacked against flying-foxes. Every time I hear calls for expulsion, dispersal, eradication, war on bats, and other violence, I have to do a double-take and remind myself that in spite of all the propaganda, there are actually many creatures for whom the future of flying-foxes really matters. That’s in addition to the creatures themselves who, in their determination to find their food, survive heatwaves, and raise their young, clearly care deeply about their future.

We need to step away from the hype of hate to get a wider perspective on how flying-foxes are appreciated by many creatures. It is probably fair to say that the predators who get an occasional mouthful of little reds and other flying-foxes appreciate these creatures. Crocodiles, powerful owls, pythons and perhaps an occasional lucky large raptor that finds a flying-fox getting about by day, all get a benefit from flying-foxes. This tooth and talon (or crush ‘n’ gulp) kind of benefit ensures that for hungry predators flying-foxes are indeed a pleasure.

Little red with blossoms Photo: Helen Gormley
Little red with blossoms
Photo: Helen Gormley

Undoubtedly trees are the greatest ‘fans’ of flying-foxes. Many of the trees they visit, lap upon, and pollinate require out-crossing for best pollination. This means they need to be pollinated with more distant trees, not just with themselves and their immediate neighbours. Little reds are the pollinators par excellence of the inland arid-zone trees. A study of little reds showed that 95% of the time they range beyond ten metres from where they start their evening meal. In contrast, 80% of birds remain within a ten metre range of where they start their meal. In the arid regions of scattered eucalypts, corymbias and other native flowering trees, little reds ensure that the future of these trees will be adaptive and flexible. In this time of rapid ecological change, that capacity for adaptive and flexible response, especially for long-lived creatures such as trees, is especially important.

Among the many beautiful Myrtaceous trees, the inland bloodwood (Corymbia terminalis) and desert bloodwood (Corymbia opaca) have a range pretty much identical to the inland range of little reds. Both thrive best with outcrossed pollination. From the perspective of bloodwoods, flying-foxes are the generous nomads who take their pollen from tree to tree across these inland regions.  Their work holds whole life-worlds together, for trees do not live in isolation. As I learned through my ethnobiological work in the Northern Territory, the future of the trees is entwined with the lives and future generations of many other creatures, creating a shimmering tapestry of life sustained by flying foxes.

Birds and butterflies live amongst the bloodwood, and so in some sense are entwined with them, and thus with flying-foxes. Native bees positively adore making their homes in bloodwood hollows, as well as feeding on the pollen, and so they too are entwined. Bloodwood ‘apples’ are the growths that result when an insect lays eggs in the bloodwood bark. The gall of the desert bloodwood is said by those who know to taste rather like coconut.

‘Sugarleaf’ is a sweet crust called ‘lerp’ that forms on bloodwood trees and a few others. Shaken off, formed into cakes, and stored for ceremony, ‘sugarleaf’ was once an extremely important food for Aboriginal people. Lerp is part of the life cycle of a set of insects, and sugarleaf is eaten by a range of other creatures: birds such as honeyeaters, parrots, and willy-wagtails along with lizards and others.

Corymbia terminalis
Corymbia terminalis

For humans, bloodwoods also offer a good wood for firewood and for tools; the ashes are good for use with chewing tobacco; in the arid regions, some bloodwoods hold water in their hollows and have saved peoples’ lives. Many of the first cattle yards were made with bloodwood posts.

Orchids love to grow in protected corners of bloodwood trees, and centipedes lurk (if that is a fair term) in orchids. Mistletoe, too, thrives happily in bloodwood trees. Where mistletoe lives, the mutualist mistletoe birds also live. Along with mistletoe birds, others such as painted honeyeaters, a species threatened by land clearing, are reliant on mistletoe. Children too chew on mistletoe berries. And where mistletoe thrives, small mammals such as possums also tend to thrive.

Who cares about flying-foxes? The chorus of bloodwoods and those who live in, on, and with them, has many voices. Taken together with the many other trees such as river red gums, coolabahs and paperbarks, it becomes a symphony of praise for the pollinators, and for all the blessings that flow from them. Its two-part chorus comprises joy in the present with a call for health, vitality, and connectivities in the future.

This call inspires me to imagine a program of partnership rewilding. The term ‘rewilding’ has come into use in recent years. It carries with it all the problems of what we may mean by wild, but it is useful in our struggle to find language equal to the issues we face. It isn’t fully appropriate to talk about ecological restoration anymore – there are too many questions about what makes an appropriate baseline, and who is included or excluded. Equally, in Australia a lot of restoration work is all about killing, as Thom van Dooren discusses in his great article on this subject. And, too, there is much uncertainty about the future in this time of climate change. Restoring ecosystems to a past state may not be what is needed for the future. Increasingly, scientists talk about resilience, and increasingly everyone realises that for the foreseeable future humans and animals are going to be living in ever more cheek-by-jowl proximity.

Flying-fox flyout, Sydney
Flying-fox flyout, Sydney

The two big ideas of rewilding are to protect and connect natural processes (core areas and connecting corridors), and to protect or re-introduce keystone species and apex predators. Little reds and other flying-foxes are keystone species because of their pollination work, and the benefits they bring to eco-systems cascade across a huge range of other species.

My not-so-modest proposal is that we humans start to understand ourselves as mutualists. In partnership with flying-foxes, we could work to facilitate the great nomadic blossom-chasing way of life, and all the gifts it brings to creatures great and small.

This program would reverse the long history of land clearance, and would be designed to enable flying-foxes to continue their beneficial work. There would be extensive corridors with a well-planned succession of flowers, catering particularly for the most difficult times of year. Rewilding corridors would draw flying-foxes away from urban centres, helping them live the life they are evolved to live, and sustaining the integrity of Australian ecosystems. Rather than we humans trying to drive flying-foxes away by injuring them, partnership rewilding would entice them back into the bush where everyone benefits.

There are many other gains. Trees reduce local temperatures, and would make a real difference in this heatwave era; trees sequester carbon, and the renewal of the bush reduces our carbon footprint, just as land clearing exacerbates that footprint.

The ethical beauty of partnership rewilding is that it inspires us humans work with others.

It allows us to acknowledge the great work others do to keep life flourishing, and to assist in that work. It puts humans in their place as part of the community of life rather than as dominators, as Aldo Leopold was proposing so many years ago. Partnership rewilding fulfils in every way Leopold’s great dictum: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.’

 

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

This is the first of a series of essays on Partnership Rewilding.

Resources

Leslie Hall & Greg Richards, 2000, Flying Foxes: Fruit and Blossom Bats of Australia, UNSW Press.

Aldo Leopold, 1949, ‘Land ethic’ in Sand Country Almanac, Oxford University Press.

Figures on bird deaths in land clearing come from an article by Bush Heritage Australia.

I got some home video footage of a massive fly-out in the Northern Territory last year (view here).

 

Sharks in a Sea of Death

Tiger shark, Albert Kok, Creative Commons
Tiger shark,
Albert Kok, Creative Commons

Every year, between 5 and 15 people are killed by sharks world wide. For their part, human beings kill more than 100 million sharks, world wide, every year. Three quarters of these deaths are due to commodity killing, particularly ‘finning’. This is the cruel practice of cutting the fin off the shark and, often, throwing the shark back into the ocean to die a lingering death as it is unable to swim properly. One quarter of the deaths are ‘by-catch’, meaning that they are the collateral damage of other fishing practices.

This is the context in which the  Western Australian government is ‘culling’ sharks, in spite of protests in WA and around the world. Let’s be clear: this means killing. The method is to set out baited hooks and wait for sharks to come and get caught. They are then killed (if not already dead), and the bodies are towed out to sea. Only three species are meant to be killed: great white sharks, tiger sharks and bull sharks. Only animals over two meters in length are meant to be killed. The great white shark is protected by both state and federal legislation as an endangered species. Already the hooks are catching individuals that are smaller than can be killed. There appears to be no monitoring of the effects of this method on the individuals of these beleaguered species.

Once again I am reminded of the zombie politics that seeks to display power through killing. The discourse may be managerial (a problem to be solved), but the underlying logic is not. Zombie politics seek power through the demonisation and death of unwanted others. Such politics, which should have died out centuries ago, remain with us even today  in this time when the rapid degradation of the ecological webs of life would inspire any thoughtful person to develop a politics of care. And yet, this politics of death-making seems to be thriving. It suppresses ethics and compassion, and  refuses to engage in a reasoned understanding of ecosystems. This is the politics that is driving so much of the damage that is unmaking planet earth today.

Our standard discourse often inadvertently feeds into the politics of death-making. In an earlier post, I objected to the idea that ‘both sides’ of every story should be told. My point was that every story has more than two sides. In that post, I offered eleven sides to the story of the cruel persecution of flying-foxes in Charters Towers, Queensland. There’s no fixed number. The significant point is that good ecological thought involves exploring numerous sides to any story. I came up with 13 sides to the current shark kill, and I am sure other people will be able to add more.

In contrast to ecological thinking, the decision to kill sharks is based on a simple oppositional binary: which is more important, the lives of humans or the lives of sharks? Politicians are of course saying the lives of humans are more important.

Almost everyone else, though, is refusing to play the binary game. They are saying it doesn’t have to be ‘either-or’. There are many ways to achieve co-existence, they are saying, and killing gets in the way of better solutions. These are people who are able to think with sharks, to see the commonalities of our creaturely lives rather than sliding into vilification and killing.

Interesting as these human sides of the story are, the issue is even more fascinating when ecological thinking starts outside and away from the noisy human sphere. Stories of ecological functioning are usually win-win at the level of populations. That is, big fish eat smaller fish, and so on through the food web, so that when systems are functioning well, populations benefit from the interactions. Sharks are top predators (also called apex predators). The only creature that regularly preys on them is the human.

Steve Garner, Flickr Creative Commons
Shark, Steve Garner,
Flickr Creative Commons

Here are thirteen sides to the  culling frenzy:

1) The sharks themselves. Those who die did not choose to die. Some will have died painful deaths, caught on hooks, and unable to free themselves. Others who were not meant to be targeted will also suffer, and some will die.

2) The species. While a species can’t be said to have a ‘perspective’, it does have a history, and unless extinction takes over, it has a future. That great lineage is not ours to destroy.

3) Turtles, dugongs and seagrass. As top predators sharks exert pressure on the ways in which turtles and dugongs graze on the seagrass. That pressure is good for the health of all three kinds of beings, as well as for sharks.

4) Coral reefs. In order for coral to continue to grow, algae has to be kept in check. Small herbivorous fish do this. Sharks have a positive effect on small fish by keeping in check the mid-size fish that feed on the small ones.

5) Bivalves (scallops, oysters, clams). This story is known in detail because it is happening along the east coast of the USA at this moment. The large sharks of this region have been so reduced in number that they are functionally extinct. The waves of disaster that follow from this functional extinction tell the terrible story of extinction cascades. Loss of sharks meant that certain other marine animal populations increased enormously. One creature is the ‘cownose ray’ which migrates up and down the coast eating scallops, clams and oysters. The scallop population has collapsed, and the scallop fishing industry is suffering. The rays are now expected to turn to clams and oysters.

6) The ocean itself. Bivalves are the ‘filtration system’ for the ocean, according to the Oceana report. Their decline means that ‘already stressed coastal areas could experience additional uncontrolled algal blooms and dead zones…’

Turning now to humans:

7) Activists. Most of these people also swim, surf and dive. They are turning out by the thousands, with support from around the world, to say that co-existence is possible.

8) The Aboriginal people of the Perth area. The Noongar people, led by their Elders, are taking a leading role in opposing the killing. Their long-term co-existence with sharks has involved cultural relationships which remain private.

9) Scientists who are carrying out research into shark life and behaviour. ABC Radio’s Bush Telegraph program on the shark issue gave space to marine neuroecologist Ryan Kempster. He drew on evidence from shark control around the world, and said that the best approach is to capture and tag sharks, and take them further out to sea. In this way the ‘problem’ is taken away, and the sharks can be monitored. Both science and surfers benefit by knowing more about sharks and by identifying individuals.

10) People concerned with the legal implications of these exemptions. The same radio program brought in Green MP Lynn MacLaren; she expressed concern about the legalities of the process, and indicated that legal challenges might be forthcoming, perhaps from the Environmental Defender’s Office. The bottom line is that state and federal legislation, most significantly the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, has as its main aim the protection of endangered species. It isn’t a luxury to be dispensed with whenever politicians decide on a bout of death-work.

11) Surfers themselves who oppose the killing. A particularly articulate statement was put forward by Jack Serong. He writes: ‘On average, 87 people drown at Australian beaches every year. These are preventable deaths. On average one person will die by shark attack in the same period. And it probably won’t be preventable. His conclusion:  ‘For the cost of a national shark cull, for the environmental damage it would do, how many sharks could we tag? How many kids could we teach to swim? How many more beaches could we patrol? This is the delicate dance of numbers, so easily skewed by fear.’

12) WA surfers who may support the killing. Kevin Merriman spoke on the Bush Telegraph program. He acknowledged the fact that surfing is risky, and described surfers as people who are at one with mother nature. He thought that human lives should take precedence over shark lives, but after hearing about the possibility of capture, tagging and removal, he acknowledged that it seemed like a reasonable option.

13) The WA government, led by premier Colin Barnett. As far as can be determined, Mr Barnett is unwilling to consider alternatives to killing. He managed the exemptions from the WA legislation that is supposed to protect the great white whale, and he asked for, and received, federal exemption, granted by the Minister for the Environment, Greg Hunt. The Minister, it may be noted, is making a name for himself as the honcho with the most destructive approach to the environment that Australia has ever known.

The most stunning thing about looking at so many sides of the story is that the proponents of killing are so few.

As I was considering the 13 sides to this story, I was struck by the  diversity not only of human sides but also of ways of expressing those sides. There have been inspiring photos, and there have been wretchedly vivid ones. There have been some wonderfully pointed comments as well.

This one particularly appealed to me:

LOTL Rescue
LOTL Rescue

Along with visual imagery, there are forms of writing that are more poetic and more personal. My friend Kim Satchell is a poet, philosopher, teacher, and life-long surfer. I asked him if he had any poetry on surfing and sharks, and he sent me this poetic essay:

Terror Australis

There is an eerie calm that accompanies the murky Saturday afternoon—the brown sea is a jumbled mess. An onshore wind is ripping the surface to shreds. Little waves fall apart on the shore. While news of a nearby shark attack spreads a contagion of fear and anxiety. Each person who knows, seems compelled to tell someone else. I am checking the surf and a man I know drives up, winds down his window and blurts out the gruesome facts, relieving himself in auto-absolution. The radio and television get in on the act, by Sunday morning its front page headlines and photographs in both papers. The death is brutal, a young body-boarder’s legs torn from him, bleeds toward death, while his mates wrest him from the troubled sea. On the beach CPR cannot avert a shocking cardiac arrest. The bravery, the tragedy, and the utter helplessness meld together as shock gives way to grief. Experts are called in to identify the teeth marks, names are bandied about—tiger, bull, great white. Cold comfort for those already gripped by the psycho-socio phobia, of panic around sharks. A frenzy feeding on human frailty and the vulnerability that is exposed by the deep blue sea. Talk inevitably turns to all too human concerns of patrols, nets, a vendetta kill and more broadly the question of culls. Ah the taste of blood in the water. Straying far from common sense, the sacred balance of the more-than human world and its complex relations seem implausible, alas, and the reality of mass destruction of habitat as inconceivable to the narrow mind; whose sense of rights and territory are bound and bonded by a human exceptionalism, vouchsafed by the misguided progress of the dominant species. Whose built environment supersedes the necessity of the wild and untamed or the god of industry forbid, a thriving ecology. The irony of rhyming slang, the shark—Noah’s Ark or maligned doubly in the euphemism, as the men in grey suits. I know sharks not only belong in the sea, they are integrally woven into the fabric of all marine life, to the health of the ocean. To be honest they are woven into the fabric of my life, not through fear or mistrust but through presence and respect. When people seek to needlessly destroy them, they hurt us (living organisms and sentient life) all and all we rely on is further compromised.    (© Kim Satchell, 2014)

The great shark lineage has been swimming the oceans for about 400 million years . As a lineage they have survived four of the five previous mass extinction events. Perhaps some members of the lineage will make it through the extinction event that is now occurring, perhaps not. But it isn’t only a question of numbers, or of time, or of survival. It is for us today a question of how we take a stand for the lives and deaths of others. The threats to sharks go way beyond the WA kill, and our activism is needed everywhere. At the same time, these deaths are caused specifically in our name, and it is our responsibility to bring them to a speedy and lasting halt.

Postscript

After completing this post, I came across an article discussing research that shows that many sharks practice ‘natal philopatry’, meaning that females return to their own place of birth in order to give birth to their own offspring. Whether or not these findings are applicable to sharks in WA is unknown, but the authors conclude that ‘our findings support the emerging paradigm that natal philopatry is widespread in mobile marine vertebrates’. Somehow, when I think of mums going home to have their babies, sharks don’t seem quite so remote from us humans! And I would like to know: have any of the sharks that have been killed in this latest assault been pregnant?

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources

The greatest part of the factual information concerning sharks is sourced to the Oceana publication ‘Predators as Prey‘, Wikipedia, and the IUCN.

Postscript: this just came in – an update on the drum lines, and a chance to voice your oppostion!

Dear Deborah,

It’s sickening. More than 100 sharks have now been caught and many killed or found dead on the drum lines under Western Australia’s terrible bait-and-kill policy.There’s still no evidence that the program improves the safety of beach swimmers, yet now it could be extended for another THREE years.

WA Premier Colin Barnett is trying to seek approval to continue the shark slaughter until April 2017. But Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt is reviewing the ‘trial’ policy and has the power to end it for good. He’s accepting public submissions right now, and a huge public outcry could tip the balance at this critical moment.

We have to act fast: there are only a few days left to make our voices heard before Minister Hunt makes his final decision. Can you send an urgent email to stop the cull and save our sharks?

Take-action-button.png
The WA shark culling program has already created massive international embarrassment and controversy for Australia. More than two-thirds of the sharks caught were under the 3-metre length limit. The majority of the sharks caught and killed were tiger sharks, a species never known to have ever killed a single person in WA.

Then there’s the cost: since 26 January, one man has been paid a whopping $5,705 per day to catch and kill innocent sharks [1]. What’s more, the drum lines strung out at sea have been known to catch protected species, including dusky whaler and mako sharks.

Whatever way you look at it, this shark cull is a dead-end waste of time and money that could be otherwise spent providing real solutions to protect beach swimmers. The millions of dollars being diverted to this program could be spent on more and better scientific research into shark behaviours, or trialing tracking devices and sonar beacon repellents.

Show Minister Hunt to you want him to end the WA shark cull for good and instead ensure these funds be used for more effective shark management programs.

Of course no one wants to see any more people injured by sharks at sea. I regularly visit Sydney’s beautiful beaches with my wife, six-year-old son and four-year-old daughter. We’re truly lucky to have beautiful beaches so close to our homes. But the oceans are there to share.

I know I’d regret giving the next generation the impression other living creatures should be simply killed if they caused an ‘inconvenience’ or fear. If you feel the same way, please consider sending an urgent email to Minister Greg Hunt today.

With hope for a humane solution,

Ben Pearson
Program Director
Greenpeace Australia Pacific

[1] Shark catch-and-kill fisherman being paid $5705 a day, Perth Now, 29 January 2014.