Tag Archives: Dingoes

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).

Thinking About Nature With Bonhoeffer

I read something today that reminded me of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s great words of wisdom. Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who refused to support the Nazi regime. As a Christian he could not, and as a theologian he could not. The depth and sincerity of his commitment to ‘love thy neighbour’ made it impossible for him to join the persecutors. His refusal put him at odds with the majority of German Christians who implicitly or explicitly acquiesced with the regime. His refusal went further, to acts of resistance including attempts to assassinate Hitler.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, St Johannes Basilikum, Sludge G (CC)

At a time when his colleague Niemöller had been imprisoned for eight years in concentration camps as the personal prisoner of Adolf Hitler, Bonhoeffer wrote these wonderful words:

“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionist, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out –
because I was not a Jew.
And then they came for me –
and there was no one left to speak for me.”

In the end, Bonhoeffer too was arrested and imprisoned. Even as the Nazi regime crumbled, one of Hitler’s last acts was to require some of his loyal henchmen to ensure that Bonhoeffer be executed. And so he was hanged, just two weeks before the liberating army arrived, and three weeks before Hitler committed suicide.

Although I am not a Christian, I am inspired by the perennial question ‘who is my neighbour’. Bonhoeffer is telling us that the neighbour is not only the one who is in some way like me. The neighbour is the stranger, the ‘other’, the ones whose lives disrupt my comfortable self-enclosure. The connection I was seeing today concerns the natural world, and so I am bringing social justice and ecological justice together in thinking with Bonhoeffer.

The division between social and natural is completely arbitrary and has its roots in the idea that humans are separate from and in some ways at odds with nature. This separation is false in the way it separates humans from all the others, and it is equally false in the way it lumps all humans together.

These days many of our biggest struggles are between two main human types: those who understand themselves as part of nature and want to see both humans and nature flourish vs. those who either despise nature or see themselves as its masters and conquerors. For this latter group nature seems to be only a collection of ‘things’ that matter to the extent that they can be made profitable.

For those of us who understand ourselves to be part of nature, our neighbours are not only human, but are all those fellow participants in living systems: forests, reefs, dingoes, Tassie devils, flying-foxes and the myriad other earth creatures.

Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)
Tasmanian Devil, Jamie Muchall (CC)

Bonhoeffer was not saying that we should defend others because it is in our self-interest. Rather, he is saying that we are all part of this world of life. Turn our back on any of the others and we turn our back on anyone’s claim to be part of the world of life. As a theologian he was almost certainly saying that to turn away from others is to turn away from God.

We who love the nonhuman world and want to see earth life thrive are often, I know, beset with the question: how does one keep going when the odds seem so stacked against us and all that we love? Where is hope to be found, and when it seems hopeless, what sources of inspiration keep us going?

I was inspired by an article from the  Wilderness Society concerning the Tasmanian Forests. The Tasmanian Legislature has been debating whether or not to throw out the Tasmanian Forest Agreement. This agreement brought forest activists, the timber industry, the unions, and other key groups together to work out a path that would be good for the forests and good for people. This long work of reconciliation took decades, and it set in place a legal agreement that was recognised by all the parties.

Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)
Tasmanian forest, Tatters (CC)

Now it is on the line. The report from  the Wilderness Society expresses the matter perfectly:

“With questions and opposition from the independent upper house and key stakeholders – including environment groups – flying thick and fast, and the novice Government amending its own legislation on the fly, the bill may yet fail or be heavily changed in the coming days.

What is clear, however, is that if the bill passes, the Tasmanian Government is lining itself up for years of pain. The Tasmanian community will hold the Government responsible for damaging the environment, hurting Tasmania’s reputation, and taking an axe to a forestry industry slowly recovering as a result of unprecedented collaboration between former adversaries….

The Tasmanian Forest Agreement has already delivered a securely-protected World Heritage area, kept the chainsaws away from half a million hectares of forest, and shown that a strong commitment to working with past adversaries can deliver for nature.

Regardless of the outcomes of the impending vote, the Wilderness Society is committed to working with the community to see Tasmania’s old growth forests and wild places protected – forever.”

Commitment as Bonhoeffer advocated recognises that ultimately we are all connected, and ultimately we must defend the world around us, even when it may seem hopeless. Over the last few years I have met many people who rescue and care for wildlife and who are activists on behalf of nonhumans. I am constantly awed by the way they keep on working with love and dedication even when the opposition is brutal and relentless.

I keep asking myself questions that resonate with Bonhoeffer and that I know trouble concerned people everywhere. This is the ‘where was I?’ question.

They came for the reef, and where was I?
They came for the flying-foxes, and where was I?
They came for the dingoes, and where was I?
They came for the forests, and where was I?

We can’t all be everywhere at once, and as we see so much that we love being trashed, it seems particularly vital to remember that we are part of a multispecies community of care. Within this widely inclusive community, it is good to remember that we humans too are creatures to be treasured. The nonhuman world needs defenders. The defenders need support from others. Who will be there?

Today it was great to read that the Tasmanian government has postponed debate on the bill to destroy the forest agreement. I love their slogan:

‘Governments come and go but my love for nature only grows’.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 

Resources: There is a wonderful biography of Bonhoeffer, written by Eric Metaxas, titled Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy (2010)

The full text of the Wilderness Society article is available online (view here).

The more recent announcement with the great slogan is also available (view here)

In an earlier essay and accompanying video I address the Prime Minister’s efforts to remove some of the Tasmanian forests from their World Heritage Listing (view here).

 

Keeping Faith With Death

This speech was presented by Thom van Dooren on behalf of both Thom and me.

The audience: The Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales

The conference theme: Dangerous Ideas in Zoology

Date and Place: 2 November 2013, Australian Museum

Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua'i, 2012
Hawaiian Monk Seals, Kaua’i, 2012

For roughly the past five years, our combined research has focused on extinction. Drawing on the resources of the humanities – in particular philosophy and ethnographic work with local communities – we’ve explored what this particular form of mass death means for those caught up in it. How does extinction undermine various lives and livelihoods? How are funerary practices and indigenous forms of multispecies kinship challenged and unravelled by disappearing animals and plants? Why do some people dedicate their lives to conservation – what principles guide and motivate them – and why do others care so little?

Importantly, however, our work has not simply focused on the ‘human dimensions’ of extinction. Instead, we have sought to challenge any neat separation between the ‘natural’ and the ‘cultural’. Our research has explicitly drawn the humanities into conversation with biology, ecology and ethology to explore entangled communities of humans and nonhumans – to explore how diverse ways of life are being transformed at the edge of extinction.

As philosophers and anthropologists, one of our central concerns has been exploring what it might mean to develop an ethical relationship with extinction in our current period of anthropogenic mass extinciton. In this context, we have been particularly intrigued, and more than a little alarmed, by the growing interest that has surrounded so-called “de-extinction” projects. 

Over the last few decades, but with increased intensity in the last few years, a range of technologies and approaches have begun coalescing under the banner of ‘de-extinction’. Often framed in terms of atonement for past sins committed by a collective ‘humanity’, these de-extinction approaches range from the relatively low-tech programs of back-breeding that produced Heck cattle, through to the new possibilities opened up by interspecies somatic cell nuclear transfer and allele replacement techniques. While successes to date have been incredibly limited, the enthusiasm that surrounds the promise of something to come has proven to be highly contagious in some sectors.

A central part of what concerns us about these projects was succinctly captured by environmentalist Stewart Brand – now a leading de-extinction advocate – in his March 2013 TED talk. After listing a range of iconic species driven to extinction by humans in the past couple of hundred years, he posed the question of how this history makes us feel, and how it is that we ought to orient ourselves in relation to it.

In his words: “Sorrow, anger, mourning? Don’t mourn, organize” (3:25).

There is something disturbing about this response to extinction. Extinction, of course, is both an historical and an ongoing phenonenon, but importantly, it is also one that is firmly grounded in a wide range of complex cultural, religious, economic and technological practices and systems. Brand’s commitment to practical action, to moving forward, is perhaps not in itself problematic, but when it is presented as an alternative to a meaningful and empathetic engagement, something is wrong.

Buried within Brand’s suggestion is a deep misunderstanding about the nature of mourning. We don’t mourn for the fun of it, or to avoid doing something about a loss. Rather, as many psychologists and philosophers have insisted, processes of individual and collective mourning do important work in allowing us to learn from and ‘work through’ experiences of loss. In philosopher and counselor Thomas Attig’s terms, grieving is a process of ‘relearning the world’. For Attig:

As we grieve, we appropriate new understandings of the world and ourselves within it. We also become different in the light of the loss as we assume a new orientation to the world. [107-8]

In short, mourning is a process of learning and transformation to accommodate a changed reality. Mourning is about dwelling with a loss and so coming to appreciate what it means, how the world has changed, and how we must ourselves change and renew our relationships if we are to move forward from here. In this context, genuine mourning should open us into an awareness of our dependence on and relationships with those countless others being driven over the edge of extinction.

In short, dwelling with extinction in this way – taking it seriously, not rushing to overcome it – might be the more important political and ethical work for our time. In contrast, Brand’s response seems to us to buy into what the philosopher Daniel Innerarity has called “false motion”. Here, the bright promise of new technologies, of doing something, undermines the genuine reflection needed to get somewhere better – not just different. In this context, Innerarity argues that we are living in a political time in which a perceived forward motion often “conceals an incapacity to confront needed reforms and to shape our collective future”(The Future and its Enemies p.5).

The reality, however, is that there is no avoiding the necessity of the difficult cultural work of reflection and mourning. This work is not opposed to practical action, rather it is the foundation of any sustainable and informed response.

It is precisely this kind of reflection that leaves us with a healthy sense of cynicism in relation to Stewart Brand’s vision of the world and the possible place of resurrected species within it.

Take, for example, his concluding remark in this same TED lecture: “some species that we killed off completely we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.”

But where is this world? In our research we have encountered many individuals and even small communities of people who miss extinct species. We would also be the first to agree that a plant species might ‘miss’ its extinct pollinators in a non-trivial sense that should be acknowledged. But to rush from here to a “world that misses them” is to move too far too quickly, and in so doing to brush over all of the difficult work of living well with others.

The history of endangered species conservation over the past few decades is one of a slow awareness of the need to work with local people – to take seriously their values, livelihoods and cultural formations. And yet, all this hard earned history seems to have been immediately forgotten when the possibility of a resurrected mammoth entered the room. Where would returned mammoths go? What about passenger pigeons? Once present in flocks of hundreds of millions of birds, which part of the contemporary United States will play host to these animals? How quickly will they be declared pests and targeted for ‘control’ or eradication? Closer to home, what sense does it make to dream of returning the thylacine when we cannot even ask people to make room for dingoes? How have the sheep farmers that once played a pivotal role in the extinction of the thylacine in Tasmania so changed their ways that this resurrection will be a success? Or are we resurrecting species for a future life in a theme park, or perhaps as pets – animals whose primary purpose is to serve as living testimony to the human techno-triumph of having brought them into being.

In short, while there might be some viable candidates for de-extinction, any realistic and responsible application of these technologies would need to take the broader cultural and economic context far more seriously than is currently the case. These are entangled human and nonhuman communities of life that need to be considered in all of their evolving complexity.

Taking this complexity seriously reminds us that many people do not miss these extinct species. Many people do not or will not welcome them back into their lives or environments.

The spate of recent monk seal killings in Hawaii is just one example from our current research. Here, an iconic charismatic mammal that is highly endangered is frequently targeted by locals – shot or beaten to death – and left on the beach. In the same island chain we have also been researching efforts to release captive bred Hawaiian crows (‘alalā), a species now extinct in the wild. Here too, local responses are deeply mixed – many supporting conservation but many others seeing it as an intrusion into local lives and landscapes. This is so much the case that conservationists fear that released birds may be targeted by local hunters unhappy about changing forest management.

What we see here is an all too familiar dynamic. As Jon Mooallem has noted with specific reference to the US, but the same could be said of many other places, “We live in … an age, with extraordinary empathy for endangered species. We also live at a time when alarming numbers of protected animals are being shot in the head, cudgeled to death or worse.”

The reasons behind these violent responses are always complex, but in more than a few cases – as Mooallem notes – it is the ‘success’ of conservation that is giving rise to these frictions. Species once at the edge of extinction have been restored and, in his words:  “[w]e suddenly remember why many of us didn’t want them around in the first place.” Wolves, sandhill cranes, sea otters, monk seals… the list goes on. “These animals can feel like illegitimate parts of the landscape to people who, for generations, have lived without any of them around — for whom their absence seems, in a word, natural.”

Of course, the difficulty we have convincing people that they should make room for a monk seal or a crow that has been missing from the forest for 10 years will pale in comparison to the suggestion that they ought to accommodate a carnivore like the thylacine or immense flocks of passenger pigeons.

In this complex context, we do not need the promise of a new techno-fix that allows us to reverse the unimaginable. Rather, what is needed is the kind of difficult reflection and discussion that forces us – as individuals and cultures – to dwell with our actions and their consequences, and in so doing – maybe, just maybe – begin to wind back the current rate of extinctions.

Bringing back a few species, through painful and fraught procedures that arguably have a very low chance of meaningful longterm success, whilst at the same time continuing to carry on the widespread destruction of living systems on this planet, is both monumental folly and cruelty. In an important sense, we are not yet ready for de-extinction – if indeed we ever will be.

Instead, what the current time demands is a genuine reckoning with ourselves as the agents of mass extinction.  In short, we need to mourn, to spend a little time with the dead; to keep faith with death and in so doing to own up to the reality of the world that we are ushering in.