Tag Archives: Endangered species

Crypto-Creatures

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

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

Imaginary parrot
Imaginary parrot

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

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

Night parrot (CC)
Ground parrot (CC)

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

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

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

Spinifex country
Spinifex country

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

to work in alliance with existing systems.

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

South-west Queensland
South-west Queensland

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

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

Three cheers for the gorgeous cryptic survivors!

© Deborah Bird Rose (2016)

Resources:

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

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

The Darryl Lyons quote is from a news report.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Peaceable Dogs in the Kingdom of Happiness

The plane swooped into Paro like a bird on a thermal. We followed the valleys, banking and turning, coming lower and lower. Between mountains and cliffs, alongside high-altitude fields and forests, past temples and prayer flags. A road came into view along the valley floor, beetling with trucks and cars, and then there was the fortress. At the last minute the runway appeared, and we were landing. We waited for the royalty on our flight to descend, and then it was our turn to put our feet on the ground, breathe the thin air, and take in the fact that we were now in Bhutan.

DSC02407

A banner in front of the airport welcomed us. We were participants in the Fourteenth Congress of the International Society for Ethnobiology, and we were welcomed again and again. At strategic sites along the roads we travelled, more banners announced our presence and our welcome.

Pele La (pass)
Pele La (pass)

During the coming weeks I will have more to share from my precious trip, but I decided to start with a short report on two of my favourite topics: dogs and happiness.

Bhutan is famous throughout the world for its commitment to ‘Gross National Happiness’.

The term makes a pointed reference to GNP or ‘gross national product’, defined as ‘the market value of all the products and services produced in one year by labor and property supplied by the citizens of a country’. Bhutan’s emphasis on happiness aims to hold economic growth within a philosophy of relational values that include spheres of the inter-human and the nonhuman.

According to one account I read, happiness in this context starts with basic freedoms – from fear, indignities and want. Beyond the basics, happiness becomes more nuanced. It includes love of life and consideration of others, and is a way of living rather than a state of being. We had the privilege of listening to the great monk Khenpa Phutsok Tashi who wanted us to understand the connections between wisdom and nature.  In his words, ecological diversity and resilience are part of happiness because of the interweaving of human minds and the natural world.

DSC02636AA (2)

Contentment surely contributes to happiness, and the dogs of Bhutan excel in the arts of peaceable living.

For the first few days in Paro we stayed at the Tashi Namgay Resort hotel. The dogs there, both residents and visitors, had their favourite places – grassy havens in the sun, and corners where they could curl up and be protected by walls.

DSC02427

Down in the town of Paro, the dogs were perfecting their relaxation techniques. They stretched themselves out on sidewalks and at the edges of the street. Very few were tied or chained, although some clearly had their special places in homes and businesses. Apparently they were being fed, for these were not sad and sickly creatures, but rather for the most part were handsome, well fed, and protected.

DSC02439

Up at the Dzong (temple /fortress/district administrative centre) the dogs patrolled the exterior and, from time to time, wandered into the premises.

patrolling the periphery
patrolling the periphery

Paro may have been a special case of contentment. In Bumthang, far to the east in the centre of the country, our volunteer guide Kinga told us that we should be a bit wary of the dogs. Some of them were not happy, he told us, and in fact were actually angry. This was owing to a policy of castrating the males in an effort to keep the population in check. In spite of the policy, reproduction was still happening, and it was delightful to see puppies in numerous neighbourhoods.

DSC02655

Sacred sites in Bhutan include many, many natural areas. The Bhutanese concept of ‘sacred natural site’ speaks directly to the conjunction of nature and culture in places of significance that are ‘natural’ in origin. ‘Burning Lake’ is one such site. It includes a gorge with an area where the river widens out in the manner of a small lake. The main story of its significance is that Terton Pema Lingpa, a 15th century incarnation of Padmasambhava, had a vision of the sacred treasures that Guru Rimpoche had hidden within the lake centuries earlier. To prove his claims, Pema Lingpa held a butter lamp in his hand as he jumped into the lake. He re-emerged carrying treasure, and with the butter lamp still burning.

DSC02602

The dogs were very much at home here. A travelling sage named Guru Baza was living somewhere in the vicinity of this site, and he told us that in the stone of the area there is the footprint of a black dog. The black dog who was in residence at the time was happily sporting a neckerchief made of a prayer flag.

DSC02610

From a perspective formed in dog-human relations, happiness in Bhutan is an interspecies project. Nevertheless, not all creatures are thriving. Bhutan is home to about fifteen endangered species, including charismatic creatures such as takin, Himalayan black bear, clouded leopard, musk deer, tiger, and red panda. One endangered species is the Indian wild dog, also known as dhole (Cuon alpinus). Its life in Bhutan may be as tenuous as elsewhere in its precarious range. According to the IUCN website, ‘In Bhutan, there have been recent press reports that dholes have recovered from a government-initiated mass poisoning campaign in the 1970s’.

A recent study explains that the poisoning was an attempt to protect livestock from dhole predation. With the dhole population drastically reduced, the wild pig population soared, and damage to crops rose accordingly. Now that dhole populations are recovering, pig populations are reduced, and thus crop damage is reduced. Current conservation initiatives emphasise co-existence rather than killing, and it seems hopeful that that the days of poisoning are well and truly finished.

To return to the more familiar dogs of streets, homes, temples and farms, I should note that most of my photos are of dogs at rest: conference dogs, hotel dogs, road works dogs, restaurant dogs, sacred mountain dogs, and dogs that hung out with ravens on the grounds of temples where they were regularly fed. This is a bit unfair. Out in the countryside the dogs were vigilant, and we saw many working dogs. And in general, whatever humans were doing, dogs were there too.

DSC02760

I should also note that along with a life free from persecution, dogs in Bhutan experience another great boon. In this country, as elsewhere in the region, cannabis grows wild.

DSC02437

Happiness has many dimensions. It circulates amongst selves, sites and species, and there are rough edges, as the dhole experience shows. At the same time, happiness in the Bhutanese mode has the capacity to expand the goodness of life through the gifts of shared sentience and consideration.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

A wonderful novel about a dog’s life in Bhutan is: Dawa, The Story of a Stray Dog in Bhutan, by Kunzang Choden, published by Riyang Books.

Information on how happiness is currently being conceptualised comes from Bhutan: The Mosaic of the Dragon, published by the Bhutan Media Services.

GNP quote is from Wikipedia

IUCN information on Dhole: http://www.iucnredlist.org/details/5953/0

Recent dhole study:  ‘Seasonal diet of dholes (Cuon alpinus) in northwestern Bhutan’, Mammalian Biology – Zeitschrift für Säugetierkunde, Volume 76, Issue 4, Pages 518-520; Phuntsho Thinley, Jan F. Kamler, Sonam W. Wang, Kinzang Lham, Ute Stenkewitz, David W. Macdonald

Empathy & Monk Seals

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

RK13 and pup
RK13 and pup

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

More to follow ….

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Resources:

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

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)

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.

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ ~ Janet Laurence

My friend Janet Laurence currently has a show at the Hugo Michell Gallery in Adelaide with the title ‘Residue’. When I saw the announcement, with its bold photo of the main piece, I knew I had to go and visit in person.

Janet-Laurence's-Residue-at-Hugo-Michell-Gallery-3

Laid out on the floor of the gallery, like a god on a bier, is the huge, broken, leafless branch of a white-barked gum tree. Here lies this recently living thing: perfectly tree, perfectly beautiful, perfectly dead. This installation is called ‘Blood and Chlorophyll’.

Adelaide is at the forefront of the heatwave weather that is becoming a key index of climate change in Australia. On January 16, 2014, this small city had the distinction of being the hottest city in the world. Other records were broken in Adelaide this summer, just as they had been during the previous summer, including eleven days of temperatures of 42°C or more (107.6F). The hottest days were 45°C+ (113F).

The weather became a participant in Janet’s work. While she was searching for a broken branch to bring into the gallery, Adelaide experienced a huge windstorm. Gusts of 100 kms (60 miles) or more knocked down heat-stressed trees all over the city.

The branch is about 9 metres (30 feet) in length and 6 metres (20 feet) at its widest. It is horribly disconcerting to see it as it is now – so large and strong, so vulnerable and lost. Janet bandaged some branches in white gauze, and she has installed tubes running from empty phials to a dead tree in gestures of forlorn life-support. Such green as can be seen is darkly dying.

JGP_7789

The great branch was placed on top of numerous sheets of mirror that were both reflective and stained. There were smears and drips, as if arteries had been cut into, and great gouts of blood had spurted through the area. And yet, almost everything here was white. This was a bleeding out that was desiccated, salty, bleached, and drained. It was beautiful, and it was scary.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

All these white smears and gouts spoke of death that depletes and does not renew. The branch, whose limbs still seemed to reach out to life, was fallen in the midst of desertification, salinity, acid sulphate soils, endless heat, endless sun.

I kept walking around the piece, seeing on every turn another element of this great white terrain of loss. There was bleached coral. There were animal bones, including vertebrae, jawbones with teeth, and the long thin leg bones of, perhaps, water birds. There were dried leaves and twigs, and there were powders, salts and stones.

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

‘Blood and chlorophyll’ – trees and other plants, and the bones and exoskeletons of animals – is a desiccated deathscape assembled with the most loving care. Nothing here is ugly, nothing is out of place, nothing seems to be in pain. The vials and tubes testify to care, and the whole piece bears witness both to death and to those who live on after the deaths of others. It testifies to we who care, who mourn, who keep faith with life, and who honour death, even as we are becoming bleached out in the great desert of future-earth here in our part of this struggling planet.

There is a lot of synergy between Janet’s work and mine. In my book Wild Dog Dreaming I wrote:

For some four billion years life and death have been working together, each finding its own level in relation to the other, and together sustaining a family of life on Earth, a family that is always changing, always finding connections, generating fit, seeking an always shifting balance in an Earth system that is itself far from equilibrium. We humans emerged in dynamic relationships with animals and plants; with them we share our dependence on water and air, and we share basic energy and basic substance: blood, and its plant counterpart chlorophyll.’

‘If we could hear the call of those who are slipping out of life forever …. We might encounter a narrative emerging from extinctions, a level of blood that connects us all.’

Blood and Chlorophyll, detail
Blood and Chlorophyll, detail

I have travelled through many of the bleached out deserts of Australia, and I have been made breathless with their beauty. In the early years of my travels, it did not occur to me that these white expanses of deeply arid desert might be the landscapes of the future. Janet’s work brings us this shock of recognition.

And yet – not only the weather, but tiny creatures also are participants in Janet’s work. Hugo Michell (gallery owner) and Ceridwen Ahem (gallery manager) told me that there were active ants in the tree. I thought immediately of borers or termites, but whatever they are, they are alive, and they are thriving. A couple of days ago Ceridwen wrote: ‘ANT UPDATE:   When I came in this morning there were lots of little piles of sawdust – the ants are working so hard that you can hear them at it.  The whole tree makes these little clicking noises – it kind of sounds like popping candy.  I am loving it!’

‘Blood and Chlorophyll’ is just one of several pieces in ‘Residue’. The show also includes a lovely selection of Janet’s larger oeuvre. Those that worked most profoundly on my sensibilities as I sat in the gallery and contemplated the ensemble, are those that carried the theme of a salty heat-struck zone of violence and death. ‘Traded I’ from an earlier installation ‘After Eden’ has cast resin antlers, mirror, calcite, quartz, and the white pigment that I see as stains and smears – the aftermath of some unimaginable violence.

Traded I, from 'After Eden'
Traded I, from ‘After Eden’

Along the back wall there was a set of x-ray images (duraclear and inkjet on acrylic and mirror) of endangered species.

From 'Fugitive'
From ‘Fugitive’

Janet is famous for her work with lighting, veils, and mirrors along with scientific equipment and biological remains. The effect of mirrors is to require us to see ourselves in all these places of loss. Gauze, veils, and shadows cast by mysteriously ambiguous  lighting are intended to slow people down, to disrupt the everyday and the expected, and to help us to experience anew the precious qualities of life in the midst of the haunting miasma of all this loss.

‘Hauntology’ is Jacques Derrida’s term for the spectre of the past which confronts us as the future. Like many of his excellent ideas, it is more readily grasped through the work of scholars who have sought to put it to work in analysing the contemporary world. Nick Mansfield writes beautifully about haunting and the Anthropocene. He presses us toward the understanding that what we are facing arises out of our past and comes at us from the future. He writes that ‘the material violence of the past emerges, reincarnate, re-fleshed, in our future, and in a politics for which our last centuries of politics cannot prepare or even forewarn us’.

Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II
Blood and Chlorophyll, Traded I, and Traded II

What politics cannot do, Janet and other artists are actually doing. They bring us into encounters and recognition, they hold us in that place where mystery and understanding mingle and overtake us. They bring us to our knees, astonishing us with awareness of our own mortality, complicity, grief, remorse, and unbounded love.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript ~ News from the Gallery: Ceridwen Ahern  writes that borers are now visibly active, as well as audibly active!

Insects at work in the gallery
Insects at work in the gallery

More news from the Gallery: The installation has been removed. The tree has been taken to a nearby park. The ants went with the tree. Life goes on.

Acknowledgement: All the photos in this essay were provided by the Hugo Michell Gallery.

Resources: Jim Hatley has written a beautiful essay on Janet’s installation ‘Memories of Nature’. Janet’s website contains a link to a video interview (view here) in her studio.

 

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).

 

Apologising to Dingoes

‘A Pardon for the Dingo’ is a short article just published in the journal Scienceand sent to me by my friend Eileen Crist, author of the excellent book Images of Animals.

Dingo in Queensland, Photo: John Murray
Dingo in Queensland,
Photo: John Murray

Why pardon the dingo? The background is this: for a long time it has been thought that when dingoes arrived in Australia about 4,000 years ago they displaced the Thylacines and Tasmanian Devils that inhabited mainland Australia. Dingoes did not make it to Tasmania, and there the Thylacines (Tasmanian Tigers) and Devils lived on until the European settlers got there. In Tasmania, settlers eradicated the Tigers and diminished the numbers of Devils. Now the Devils are threatened with extinction, and the tiger is extinct (according to most people, although some cryptozoologists differ).

Just recently, however, a more elaborate study has offered a more complicated story. The method is statistical modelling, so I can’t claim any expertise, but the results are as follows. The author of ‘A Pardon for the Dingo’ reports on a study that modelled varying combinations of human, climate, and dingo impacts, and concluded that humans and climate change had the greatest impacts on the loss of Tiger and Devil populations. Dingoes had the least impact. The stats show a probable scenario of growing human population leading to increased hunting of kangaroos and other herbivores, thus depleting food supplies for Tigers and Devils. My understanding of the stats story is that there came a time about 4000 years ago when a lot of things happened at once: human populations expanded, the country was becoming more arid, and another top predator (the dingo) arrived on the scene. This moment of change is lalso linked archaeologically with a new suite of smaller stone tools. With humans, dingoes, Tigers and Devils all trying to sustain themselves, it looks like the marsupials (Tigers and Devils) lost out.

Dingo in Arnhem Land Photo: Bill Griffith
Dingo in Arnhem Land
Photo: Bill Griffith

This is all interesting, but I think an element of the story has been left out. The unacknowledged factor is that humans and dingoes were capable of becoming allies. The old human-canine bond gave both humans and dingoes an edge in a time when climate and other pressures were putting stresses on everyone’s capacity to survive. It is well known historically that some dingoes and humans protected each other and hunted together, so I think it may be that the dingoes’ capacity for allying themselves with humans became a critical factor in how they established themselves in Australia.

The thought of alliance invites us to look at causality in another way. If everything was happening around the same time, it is equally possible that the dingo-human alliance boosted human hunting capacity, leading to increased human population. Thus would mean that human ‘intensification’ (rising populations) was due not so much to technology (‘small tool tradition’), but also, and perhaps most significantly, to the dingo alliance. In this story of an interspecies collaboration, the changes in human inhabitation of the country were facilitated by dingoes at the same time that dingoes’ inhabitation of the country was facilitated by humans. If Tigers and Devils lost out, it was not just due to interacting variables, but rather to a conscious alliance between humans and dingoes.

On a related theme, one of my favourite email-buddies, Ray Pierotti, wrote just yesterday with some thoughts on this alliance. Ray is an Associate Professor in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Kansas, and is a specialist on monogamous vertebrates, including wolves, dogs and other canids. He was asking a few questions about dingoes, and wrote: ‘I am writing a book tentatively titled The First Domestication, which is my attempt to address the complex love-hate relationship that humans have with the genus Canis in general, and Canis lupus [wolves] in particular.’ He writes that some societies, and certainly some humans, turn on canids. Instead of becoming allies, they make the animals into enemies. Ray concludes: ‘My feeling is that, in general, the Canids are shocked by this reversal….’ His evidence is primarily with wolves in North America; the Australian story is yet to be told.

Perhaps because it is Valentine’s Day, I began thinking about love and betrayal. I was drawn to consider the deep commitments animals themselves express: to offspring, to country, to partners, to modes of expression such as dance or song, to group or clan. Not all animals are alike, but few are without commitments. The story of love as commitment is integral to life on earth, and the human-canine alliance is one of its great interspecies expressions. And as is true within any complex love relationship, betrayal looms as a possibility. It is another side of the depths of life: without the commitment involved in love, there could be no betrayal.

The place where love and betrayal meet brings me to the terrible situation so many dingoes face in Australia today. As with wolves in America, they are being poisoned, hunted, vilified, tortured, their dead bodies strung up on trees, their future perilous indeed. Dingoes experience a betrayal that permeates and destroys the bonds that could be, and have been, so beautiful and beneficial. Many of us, humans and canines, are shocked by human betrayal of our ancient elective kinship.

To return to ‘Pardon for the Dingo’, the actual meaning of the word ‘pardon’ depends on context and agency. There is the context in which humans are now pardoning the dingoes, asserting that they were not responsible for the loss of the mainland Tigers and Devils. Here the agency is with the human: we grant a pardon. The other context is far more interesting: that dingoes hold agency and that we need to be pardoned.  Surprising though it may seem, it is well past time for humans to asking dingoes to pardon us.

This is what Barry Lopez was advocating years ago in relation to wolves. He wrote: ‘In the end, I think we are going to have to go back and look at the stories we made up when we had no reason to kill, and find some way to look the animal in the face again.’ As the years go by, we are forced to realise that these words can be said in relation to a growing number of animals and plants whose lives and worlds are disappearing under the weight of human pressures. How shall we ever meet them on ethical grounds?

'Trapped Dingo on Terachy Station, Adavale, Q’, Pastoral Review, 1925
‘Trapped Dingo on Terachy Station, Adavale, Q’, Pastoral Review, 1925

 What did he think as the man walked toward him with his camera and his gun? Did he sense, and did he know? Did his eyes speak the existential challenge: shall we live together?

We contemporary settler Australians have wronged dingoes terribly, and part of the awful contemporary knowledge of that wrong is that we were fighting a pointless battle. Retrospectively, it was misguided and fundamentally evil. Dingoes are a top predator whose ecological benefits were felt throughout Australian ecosystems. A recent article authored in part by Arian Wallach, the dingo expert whose views I love to share, makes the point that globally, top predators, or large carnivores, ‘are necessary for the maintenance of biodiversity and ecosystem function. Human action cannot fully replace the role of large carnivores.’ The further point is that a large number of the terrestrial carnivores are imperilled (and of course the same is true of large marine carnivores). The dingo is discussed prominently in this article, along with sea otters, gray wolves, pumas, lions and leopards, among others. The article makes the point that climate change will require (or is now already requiring) rapid responses from species, biotic communities, and ecosystems. With so many variables, it is impossible to predict exactly what will happen, but the authors suggest that large predators may well provide ‘buffers’ that offer some protection in the face of rapid change, giving others the chance to make adaptive changes. In short, we need the large carnivores now more than ever. And yet, as with dingoes in Australia, human pressures are forcing them to the edge.

To return to dingoes, my question is: are we homo sapiens actually sapient enough, that is wise enough, to come face to face with the fellow creatures we have so wantonly harmed? And if we did try to apologise, what would we ask forgiveness for? In keeping with my view that there are never just one or two answers to matters involving ecological complexity, I offer a number of wounds for which apologies are due.

1)   For all the direct cruelty: it is unnecessary, it is all one way; there is no war, it is just senseless slaughter.

2)   For all the 1080 poison and strychnine: it causes suffering and terrible death, and it keeps moving through the food webs taking other creatures too.

3)   For the desecration of dead bodies: for all the bodies hung from trees and posts, thrown over fences, and run over again and again on the roads.

4)   For the vilification: for the hatred that has no cause outside of the mess of violence and blame. It is not dingoes, but climate change and unrealistic land use, that is causing drought in Queensland and NSW.

5)   For the suffering and death of so many other creatures, for example, rabbits. In all the decades during which rabbits were infected with diseases, gassed, chopped, shot, trapped, and otherwise harmed, dingoes could have been keeping them in check properly so that their numbers didn’t turn into ‘plagues’.

6)   For all the small native animals driven to extinction because the dingoes were not there to hold the meso-predators such as cats and foxes in check.

7)   For all the ecosystems that once benefitted from the trophic cascades of functioning dingo families and are now disappearing.

8)   For our own failure to learn the lessons of how to be a top predator. For our over-population, over-consumption, and refusal to live within our ecological means.

9)   And with heartfelt sincerity – let us ask to be forgiven for the betrayal of our mutual kinship.

084

How to start such a momentous project of pardon? It is always worth reminding ourselves that first and foremost it is we who need to change. But change doesn’t come about without thought. As a first step, we need to move toward respect for the life that animates us all. I always think of the great 13th century poet Rumi. He wrote:

‘There are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground,

There are a thousand ways to go home again.’

 

Think of it ~ a thousand ways!  One of them, surely, is to seek pardon from dingoes.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

 Resources

For an interesting analysis of dingoes and rabbits, see the article by the philosopher Freya Mathews: ‘The Anguish of Wildlife Ethics‘.

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.

 

Climate Change and the Question of Community

Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle Wikimedia Commons
Hawaiian Green Sea Turtle
Wikimedia Commons

January 1, 2014

It is now official: Australia has just experienced its hottest year on record. According to the Sydney Morning Herald’s report, ‘2013 will go down as the year that registered Australia’s hottest day, month, season, 12-month period – and, by December 31, the hottest calendar year’. This was the year, it will be recalled, that the Bureau of Meteorology added two new colours to the temperature maps. Deep purple and pink joined the colour coding to indicate maximum temperatures of 50-54°C (122-129°F).

In case that was not enough, another report tells us that climate scientists at the University of New South Wales have published the results of a study showing that global warming is almost certain to be more extreme than previous models indicated. They have developed a method for analysing the effects of clouds on global temperatures, and their results show that on current trends we’re looking at global warming of at least four degrees by 2100. If you are in any doubt about whether four degrees really matters, Mark Lynas’s book Six Degrees is well worth reading. In 2100 the earth is unlikely to bear much resemblance to the world we now know.

The year 2013 also saw the publication of Bill McKibben’s latest book. In Oil and Honey McKibben takes on the fossil fuel plutocracy. His data are as bleak as ever, and lead directly to the point he has been making for some time: that we are in the midst of irreversible, unfathomable changes. Recently Verlyn Klinkenborg discussed this sense of impending doom in his review of the book. Klinkenborg contends that we are living in the midst of a rolling apocalypse that is changing pretty much everything. Our language, and our sense of time and destiny, aren’t up to the task of communicating this new, accelerating, event. For example, the great floods in the US in 2013 were described as ‘Biblical’. Klinkenborg offers the awful reminder that these floods are NOT Biblical. There is ‘no wrath, no retribution, no forgiveness, no ark, no dove.’

It is too late to avert global warming completely, as McKibben (along with others) has been telling us for a while now. Our political systems are not responsive to the need for quick and strong action, and the fossil fuel industries are at this time well-nigh unstoppable. In fact, the influence of oil, gas and coal industries on government is a sign of the subversion and retreat of democracy. On the one hand, scientists have determined that if we are to keep global warming to a manageable degree, we cannot put more than another 565 gigatons of carbon into the air by mid-century. On the other hand, the fossil fuel magnates plan to extract, sell, and burn every skerrick of oil, gas and coal. In McKibben’s words, the crucial number is 2,795 gigatons. That is ‘the amount of carbon already contained in the proven coal and oil and gas reserves of the fossil-fuel companies…. In short, it’s the fossil fuel we’re currently planning to burn. And the key point is that this new number – 2,795 – is higher than 565. Five times higher.’ In sum, ‘we already have five times as much oil and coal on the books as any scientist thinks it is safe to burn.’

McKibben continues to urge humanity to try to contain and reduce carbon emissions, and to ‘re-democratise’ our societies so as to require governments to act in the interests of the people rather than the mega-rich fossil fuel magnates. Most importantly, though, he urges us to acknowledge that tough times are all around us and are going to get worse, and to respond to that knowledge by fortifying ourselves and our communities to face these tough times. The safer places, he says, will be in ‘strong communities’, so a wise response to global warming will involve building and sustaining such communities.

This advice leads directly to the question of community. Is a strong community a fortress, or is it a web? Is it strong in the sense of unyielding, or in the sense of resilient? Who is in, and who is out? Aside from politicians and a certain type of populist, it seems clear to all that in times of change individuals and communities need to be flexible, adaptive, resilient, and capable of quick, intelligent, organised responses.

In the context of community, as in the context of climate change, it is necessary to ask if our languages, values, and sense of solidarity are up to the task of imagining and building the necessary strength. Nestled within these questions is the deeper question of ethics. This question involves the assumption of response, responsibility, care, concern, and the refusal to abandon others.

Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake LiYu, Taiwan
Dog in Dragon Boat, Lake Li Yu, Taiwan

Traditional ways of thinking about community are based on what we have in common. A community is made up of people who share language, values, and understandings of the world that enable them to sustain their commitment to working together for their common (shared) goals. This type of community is called the ‘rational community’. If those shared elements are lacking, then community building involves finding ways to develop shared values, and to accelerate the power and resilience of groups of people who work, communicate, and celebrate together. Many people are addressing these questions, and there are excellent programs in existing towns, neighbourhoods and social groups that work to develop resilience and the capacity for transformation.

In the years since World War II a number of philosophers have been addressing the question of ethics and community. Do communities demarcate a domain within which shared values, norms and belief systems prescribe ethics for action? If so, how can we imagine or understand an imperative toward ethics that arises and commands us from outside the domain of shared values and goals? What of the strangers, the excluded, the refugees, the helpless?

Alphonso Lingis has written an excellent book on this subject: The Community of Those Who Have Nothing In Common. This ‘other’ community does not come into being through what we have in common. Rather, it is made of people whose lives brush against each other without necessarily having anything in common. In these encounters, meaning arrives mysteriously. We often do not, and may never, understand others with whom we do not share the qualities of the rational community, and yet we recognise their personhood. We recognise our shared vulnerability, and it follows that although our ethical responsibilities have no clear rational command, they nonetheless make claims upon us. Lingis’s phrase ‘nothing in common’ is used in opposition to the rational community where what holds people together and gives them cause for care and concern is based on what they have in common. Breaking free from that which is shared, the analysis asks how ethics command us in the absence of shared religious and economic interests, and the solidarity of shared values.

This brings me to the conjunction of ethics, climate change, and multi-species communities. Concepts of community for this time of massive change must challenge our traditional concepts, as the philosophers are doing. At the same time, they must be far more inclusive. Climate change impacts on the lives of many, many species. In this rolling apocalypse of climate change, earthlings are enormously vulnerable. We are mortal, we experience meaning in life, we suffer, we struggle to remain alive. These are creaturely conditions that are inherent in the lives of all multi-cellular organisms, and perhaps of many single-celled creatures as well.

Multi-species communities arise in recognition of creaturely vulnerability. It needs to be said again and again that many of our fellow earthlings are at or near the edge of extinction. An incredibly large number of them are affected by climate change. Although the factors that push a species toward extinction are complex, climate change is not only a factor in itself, but also further impacts on creatures’ capacity to adapt to the changes that are now happening.

Probably everyone is familiar with the image of a polar bear on an ice floe, and has heard about coral bleaching. Other creatures are affected by other aspects of climate change – rising sea levels, heat stress, extreme weather, and much more. In addition to specific climate change impacts, almost all creatures now also experience a great number of other, more direct, human impacts. Violence is a large and visible factor, as I have been writing about recently. So too are numerous others: loss of habitat and related issues of over-crowding and urbanisation, plastics, toxins, ocean acidification, and many more. Of course these and other impacts affect humans as well. This is the point. Earthlings today have one great thing in common (with a few exceptions): extreme vulnerability to the unstoppable damage now in process. Our species is not exempt, but at the same time, our species has huge responsibilities.

My current research is dedicated to exploring questions of multi-species communities that form around animals that are vulnerable to extinction. I am interested in communities of care, by which I mean communities in which humans acknowledge and act upon their ethical responsibilities toward other (non-human) creatures. There is no single model for how such communities come into being, and how they work. The research is on-going, and involves a number of people including many of those in the Extinction Studies Working Group.

Here are just two examples of the kinds of multi-species, ethical, responsive and responsible communities I am talking about.

Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons
Sea Turtle, Brocken Inaglory, Wikimedia Commons

Scientists tell us that there are seven species of sea turtles on earth, and six of them are endangered. These ancient and beautiful creatures are experiencing a huge number of threats some of which are directly attributable to humans. Hunting, pollution, plastics, entanglement in fishing gear, habitat loss and other hazards have driven many species of sea turtles into the zone of the endangered – they may not survive the rolling apocalypse. The problems are all interconnected, but at the same time, climate change poses a number of quite specific threats. It is difficult to imagine in the abstract, but the specifics are arresting:  sea level rise that wipes out beaches and nesting habitats; weather extremes involving storms that damage beaches and seagrass beds; hotter sand from increasing temperatures leading to death before the eggs even have a chance to hatch. Bear in mind that the sex of sea turtles is determined by the temperature at which the eggs develop. With increasing nest temperatures, there are likely to be more females than males, thus threatening genetic diversity.

It is impossible to think of turtles without also thinking of plastics in the ocean. The long slow death of a turtle that has eaten plastic is almost too terrible to contemplate. In the midst of all this suffering, people are rescuing sea turtles, creating protected areas for them, healing their wounds, protecting their nests, and developing hatcheries where nest temperature can be controlled.

Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.
Sea turtle beach, Hawaii.

WWF initiative that brings scientists together with Indigenous Rangers in North Australia is a great example of human action in the face of the many disasters afflicting sea turtles. Long live the turtles and the people who work so hard to help them survive!

A second case study brings us from sea and beach to land and air, in order to consider the vulnerability of flying-foxes to climate change.

Flying-fox 'belly dipping'. Courtesy of Nick Edards.
Flying-fox ‘belly dipping’. Courtesy of Nick Edards.

Of the four species in Australia, two are endangered, while world-wide a large number of species is threatened. We know from experience here in Australia that when the temperatures hit 40°C, approximately, flying-foxes start to suffer severe heat stress. Wherever possible they camp in rainforest gullies, mangroves and other heat-protected areas, but the combination of habitat loss and rising temperatures is lethal. According to Justin Welbergen, a flying-fox scientist, in extreme heat ‘flying-foxes first start fanning their wings, then they seek shade. Next they pant heavily and spread saliva on their bodies. Finally they fall out of tees, or climb down, and crawl on the ground looking for a cooler spot. At that stage they are close to death.’

Most vulnerable to heat are the females and juveniles — bad news indeed for endangered species. In urban areas, volunteers turn out during heat waves to spray a cool mist into flying-fox camps in an effort to keep the temperature down and the humidity up. They rescue as many downed flying-foxes as they can.

In spite of all the help, it seems that some 50,000 flying foxes have died of heat in the last fifteen years, and the number will grow as temperatures rise. Welbergen concludes that flying-foxes are showing us a glimpse of the future, when not only more flying-foxes but also many more species of animals will be affected by heat stress.

Sydney flying-fox rescue volunteer Storm Sandford was interviewed last year (the hottest on record, it will be recalled). Her inspiring story is a perfect example of a multi-species community that arises in response to vulnerability. Her actions emerge in recognition of the needs of others. Her human response to that need is an exemplary demonstration of the generous spirit of all the people who rescue and care for flying-foxes, She gives us a glimmer of how life can be ethical, committed, and engaged in the midst of terrible and unstoppable events.

Juvenile in care, Sydney.
Juvenile in care, Sydney.

Multi-species communities in the time of climate change are made of this: the recognition of vulnerability, the responsiveness of love, the capacity to act, and the refusal to stand by and do nothing.

© Deborah Bird Rose (2014)

Postscript

Since posting this little essay a few days ago, a media release came out concerning heat stress in Queensland. I reproduce it here:

6 January 2014
Media release

Extreme heat event devastates Qld native Flying-fox colonies.

Thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of native flying-foxes have died as a direct result of the weekend heat event with temperatures of over 43°C. The deaths will continue over the next few days as surviving orphans from dead mothers will slowly die of dehydration.
Many colonies across South-East Qld have been severely affected including those at Camira, Mt. Ommaney, Pan Pacific Gardens, Regents Park, Boonah, Bellmere, Pine Rivers and Palmwoods. Reports indicate all Western Suburbs colonies and inland, and colonies from Gympie down to Yamanto have been devastated.
Deaths include Grey Headed Flying-foxes which are on the vulnerable to extinction species list and Black Flying-foxes. Flying-foxes are Australia’s only nocturnal, long-distance pollinator and seed disperser.
Volunteer rescuers have been overwhelmed with the mammoth task of collecting dead bodies and tending to survivors as part of their service to the community. Currently there are over 200 baby flying-foxes in care “We have never seen this type of heat event devastation before and the massive amount of casualties as a result. From the initial call onwards, the camps fell like dominos.” says Louise Saunders, President, BCRQ.
“A huge thank-you to all the dedicated volunteers who rallied to the call and worked so hard in the diabolical heat to save the bats that were still clinging to life”. Bat Conservation & Rescue Qld wish to thank the many residents adjacent to colonies who came to the carers and offered their assistance and support.
“Never try to perform your own rescue. For your safety and for the sake of flying-foxes, always call a wildlife rescue service,” BCRQ president Louise Saunders said.
“A frightened flying-fox is likely to bite or scratch, potentially exposing a well-meaning rescuer to Australian Bat Lyssavirus. Less than 0.5% of bats may have the virus, there is a safe vaccine to protect anyone who may be exposed. Anyone exposed to a scratch or bite must seek prompt medical attention. “That inevitably means vaccinations for anyone bitten or scratched, and death for the flying-fox because Queensland Health requires them to be euthanased for testing.
for the full text, see: http://bats.org.au/uploads/news-events/media/press-releases/Heatdisastermr6012014.pdf