Tag Archives: Bob Brown

Crypto-Creatures

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

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

Imaginary parrot
Imaginary parrot

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

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

Night parrot (CC)
Ground parrot (CC)

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

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

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

Spinifex country
Spinifex country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to work in alliance with existing systems.

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

South-west Queensland
South-west Queensland

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

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

Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

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

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

The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.