Chris Watson

The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia: An Early Account by A. E. Newsome

Review, EcologyChris Watson

by Thomas Newsome and Alan Newsome

CSIRO Publishing, July 2016

Paperback AU$39.95

“Desert lands have an appealing starkness and simplicity. The very grain of the countryside is exposed to all. Ancient mountain ranges plunge and rear from the plains. Rocks and boulders lie tumbled at their feet. Dry watercourses break through mountain gorges to meander and die in the desert. Stunted trees stand mutely enduring the heat.

Biological survival in such a land is not simple.” - p.15-16

 

It is just such a land, however, which is home to the Red Kangaroo Osphranter rufus; the largest extant marsupial on Earth and Australia’s largest terrestrial mammal. The Red Kangaroo is an Australian icon that ranks with Uluru and the Sydney Opera House for international recognition. The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia presents the gathered thoughts and findings on the species, from the early work of one of the great minds of Australian ecology.

Alan Newsome’s work was already familiar to me when I gained employment as an environmental consultant in Alice Springs in 2011. As it happens, Alan’s son, Thomas Newsome, was working at the firm which took me on, and I’d learn that he is a gifted ecologist in his own right. I’d been living in Central Australia for several years at that time and, being interested in the ecology of Central Australian fauna, Alan Newsome’s name was a regular feature on my reading list. Though I only worked with Thomas for a short time, my excitement at the publication of The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia comes, not only from my own affinity for the country and animals that it describes, but from an appreciation of his standing, and his father’s, in the Australian ecological community.

Alan began studying the Red Kangaroo in 1957 and it’s important to appreciate how rudimentary our understanding of the animal’s ecology was at that time. Alan was the first to discover many of the behavioural and physiological adaptations that have allowed the species to live so successfully in a landscape with such famously extreme and irregular conditions. Working on the beautiful plains to the north of the MacDonnell Range, Alan methodically uncovered the mysteries of the Red Kangaroo’s life. His book takes us through the challenges the kangaroo must overcome to survive in this country in chapters dealing with the landforms, climate and vegetation; distribution and abundance; reproduction (some of Alan’s most astonishing discoveries relate to the reproductive biology of the Red Kangaroo and these breakthroughs, and the methods by which they were revealed, are presented in considerable detail); food and water; sociology and a final chapter titled Ecomythology.

In addition to the main body of text there is an enlightening foreword by famed marsupial biologist Hugh Tyndale-Biscoe and a preface by Thomas Newsome in his role as co-author and editor. [Alan Newsome passed away in 2007. This book is the edited result of a mostly complete manuscript which Thomas discovered among Alan’s effects in 2010.]

In the intervening decades since Alan Newsome’s field work, another generation of ecologists has built on his findings and we understand the Red Kangaroo’s biology well. But perhaps the great story presented by The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia, and a thread running through the entire book, is Alan’s determination to also come to grips with the Aranda* understanding of kangaroo ecology.

Like few other outback zoologists since Baldwin Spencer and F. J. Gillen, Newsome allows room for Indigenous Ecological Knowledge (IEK) to be interpreted scientifically and considered alongside his own findings. The culmination of the book is in the final chapter titled Ecomythology in which Alan sets out the close alignment of his own hard-won knowledge with the traditional knowledge of his Aranda colleagues. The world has turned now and it is routine for IEK to be incorporated into scientific research and reporting, but we see the foundations of this practice in Alan’s work at a time when such considerations were by no means commonplace.

In addition to the book’s value as an important work of science and history, it is a beautiful piece of writing. As the brief excerpt I’ve used reveals, Alan's was an engaging writing style, as stripped-back and plain as the desert landscapes he describes. As an avowed desert-lover myself, Alan’s deep affection for the country in which he spent so much of his career, is instantly relatable from the way he writes about it. He also had that all-too-rare talent for rendering scientific writing enjoyable for the reader, without sacrificing any of its rigour. The ease of his style is such that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia reads more like a story than a scientific treatise at times. This is testament to his ability to render deep scholarship comprehensible to the lay-reader rather than any “dumbing down” or skimping on detail.

Ultimately, The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will appeal to an audience far beyond the ranks of biologists. It includes almost as much history and anthropology as it does ecology. It’s difficult to avoid drawing comparisons with the writings of other prominent Centralian researchers like T.G.H. Strehlow, with whom Alan discussed his work at some length, and the correspondence of the aforementioned Spencer and Gillen.

As well as being a peerless account of animal ecology and scientific investigation in the desert, it is a postcard from Central Australia and the ecological adventures of a young scientist on a personal journey of discovery. There is no doubt that The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia will continue to inspire and inform future generations of Australian ecologists for a very long time to come.

CBW

 

*Also spelled Arrernte and Arunta, these are the Aboriginal Australians who are the traditional custodians of the lands surrounding Alice Springs and much of the MacDonnell Ranges in Central Australia. 

Buy it from Andrew Isles

What was the first name for grasswrens?

ResearchChris Watson

“The valid name of a taxon is the oldest available name applied to it, unless that name has been invalidated or another name is given precedence by any provision of the Code or by any ruling of the Commission.” -  International Code of Zoological Nomenclature, Article 23: Principle of Priority

Clearly, the ICZN only applies to names provided through the Linnean system of scientific names. If this were not the case, our catalogue of scientific names for organisms should be peppered with the words of the Earth’s surviving Indigenous languages. Humans have been knocking about the planet for a couple of hundred thousand years or so and they must have always had names for the plants and animals familiar to them. Where those names persist, why do we not admit them to the Linnean system?

I only pose this question half-seriously. I’m not suggesting that the system of scientific naming which has served us perfectly well to this point needs such a shake-up. But it is an interesting thought to follow.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, an adult female in the MacDonnell Ranges. 

My current research interest is the grasswrens of the endemic Australian genus Amytornis. The range of these birds takes in a lot of Australia in which the human inhabitants are more likely to list an Indigenous language as their first, rather than English.

In Pitjantjatjara country therefore, we know that the local name for Rhipidura leucophrys is tjintir-tjintirpa. Even if you’re unfamiliar with the scientific name, if you’re musically inclined and have an ear for Australian bird songs, you might recognise tjintir-tjintirpa as an onomatopoeic rendition of the ratcheting call of the Willie Wagtail. Similarly, Taeniopygia guttata is nyii-nyii (Zebra Finch), Epthianura tricolor is miititi (Crimson Chat), Malurus splendens is mirilyirilyi (Splendid Fairy-wren) and, my personal favourite, Oreoica gutturalis is panpanpalala; a clearer evocation of the ringing song of the Crested Bellbird is difficult to imagine.

I’ve got dictionaries and bird lists in most of the Indigenous languages of Central Australia and the Western Desert. They’re all fairly comprehensive but, when it comes to grasswrens, all of my references either turn up a blank or provide confounding and imprecise results.

If I limit my search to just those species which occur in Central Australia, we’re dealing with a maximum of four species: Dusky, Sandhill, Thick-billed and Eyrean – Amytornis purnelli, A. oweni, A. modestus and A. goyderi respectively. In most of the references that mention grasswrens specifically, the Western Desert name given is the same as that applied to all three species of Malurus fairy-wren which occur in the region – mirilyirilyi. If it is the case that fairy-wrens and grasswrens are “lumped” in this fashion by Western Desert speakers then I have no qualms accepting that.

But I’m interested in putting the right name to things wherever possible. Being scientific means sometimes having to settle for a degree of imprecision if the available facts don’t support one conclusion or another. And species are mutable entities so no classification can ever be truly final. But vagueness is only acceptable after all lines of investigation have been exhausted. And my research certainly hasn't been exhaustive yet.

I think it unlikely that no distinction was drawn by early desert-dwellers between the fairy-wrens, with their males cycling through brightly-coloured breeding plumage and the grasswrens, whose males do not. At a passing glance the grasswrens and fairy-wrens share a superficial resemblance, but we’re not talking about casual acquaintance here. We’re talking about many millennia of co-habitation between humans who are highly attuned to their environment and the animals they share that environment with. Aside from obvious plumage differences, grasswrens are much more restrictive in their use of the landscape. So while fairy-wrens often occur in the same habitat as grasswrens, they also occur in an array of habitats in which grasswrens are decidedly absent. Certainly the two groups sound distinct from one another also.

Splendid Fairy-wren Malurus splendens - even to the untrained eye; pretty difficult to mistake for a grasswren.

So I'm trying to find the specific names for grasswrens species in the Indigenous languages of the country where they occur. I have a few leads already, but if anyone can help confirm or enrich any of the following I’d be overjoyed to hear from you.

1.       The bird list in the University of South Australia’s Wangka Wiru: a handbook for the Pitjantjatjara language learner, provides tjinytjililinpa as the name for a bird listed simply as “wren”.

2.       The Native Tribes of Central Australia by Baldwin Spencer & F. J. Gillen dating from 1899 mentions the “Striated Wren Amytis striata” (which is an anachronism for A. oweni), being referred to as lirra-lirra in the local tongue.

3.       Handbook to the Birds of Australia by John Gould gives nyern-de and jee-ra as names for Amytis macrourus (an early epithet for A. modestus), in the language of the “interior of Western Australia”.

4.       Eastern and Central Arrernte to English Dictionary by John Henderson and Veronica Dobson gives a lengthy list of bird names under the entry titled “types of small bird” with no further specific information. I’d love to hear from anyone who can give me an English name for any of the following:

akake-atweye,

alerterrperterrpe,

alpiltherriltherre,

alpilthwerrilthwerre,

ampeltyelkere,

antenye-arteperrke,

antenye-arteperrpe,

arntenye-teperrke,

artenye-artepe,

ntinye-arteperrke,

artetyeltareltare,

artityerrityerre,

atenyekarnpe,

atenyekirnpe,

atnemetyerrtye,

atwintengintenge,

inentyerlaperlape,

nentyerlaperlape,

ipenye-apetyeme,

irlpwerre,

tyarrwe,

tywetalpe

5.       The same reference as (4), lists the name lyerre-lyerre as “wren” which agrees with (2) and (8).

6.       Ngaanyatjarra & Ngaatjatjarra to English Dictionary by Amee Glass and Dorothy Hackett gives an encouragingly restrictive listing. Tjinytjirlirlin(pa) is given as the name for both “Striated Grasswren: Amytornis striatus” – until recently, conspecific with A. oweni, and “Dusky Grasswren: Amytornis purnelli". This is tantalising and tallies well with the reference at (1) but even these two species of grasswren are quite visually and acoustically distinct and occupy different habitats.

7.       Kaytetye to English Dictionary by Myfany Turpin and Alison Ross has the name for Striated Grasswren (after recent taxonomic work now A. oweni in Kaytetye country) as ntyalkarlenye. Dusky Grasswren also occurs in Kaytetye country so clarification is needed.

8.       Central & Eastern Anmatyerr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides lyerr-lyerr and lyerretyelyerr as names for, “types of wrens, including fairy-wrens and grasswrens”. Again Dusky Grasswren occurs through this country as well so it would be good to get clarification. It also agrees well with Spencer & Gillen’s information at (2) and the reference at (5).

9.       Alyawarr to English Dictionary by Jenny Green provides antyarlkarleny as the name for “Amytornis sp.”, which in that part of the country could also be either A. purnelli or A. oweni.

In this search I have already been greatly assisted by comments and information from Marg Friedel, Mary Laughren, David Nash, and Bob Gosford has been immensely helpful in tracking down many of these references.

Can you help?

Perhaps you are (or know/work with) a native speaker of Central Australian languages. If you think you have any information that might clarify the use of any of the names that I have set out above please get in touch and let me know. I can be emailed at birdscentral@gmail.com or you can use the “CONTACT CHRIS” form on this page.

If you are an Indigenous Ranger from Central Australia, or work with an Indigenous Ranger Group, perhaps you could spread these questions among your colleagues and see what turns up.

1.       Do you know grasswrens (as distinct from fairy-wrens)?

2.       Where do they live?

3.       What are they named?

My research is, so far, restricted in scope to Central Australia. However, grasswrens of different species occur in much of northern Australia as well. If you have any information relating to the Indigenous nomenclature of any species of grasswrens in any Indigenous languages, I’d enjoy hearing about your knowledge.

Thanks in advance for your help and thanks for reading.

CBW

Grasswren Grand Slam in Record Time

Birding, TourismChris Watson

There’s a well-known saying among birders, particularly among those who live near the coast: seabirders are real birders. Anyone who has spent a day on the blue paddock trying to compare the bill dimensions of prions while dodging the sluicing chunder from birders of more delicate constitution as the floor rolls under your feet and the salt spray mists your binocular lenses will understand that it’s a claim not without some justification.

In Australia though, it’s arguable that there is one other type of extreme birding that may lay claim to also being the domain of “real” birders: grasswrenning. That’s a word now.

I’ve heard it said that any old duffer can notch up a list of a few hundred species in Australia if they simply do some pretty basic birding and visit a handful of different regions. International birding tours sometimes rack up Australian bird lists of 400 or even 500 species in just a few weeks of busy birding and a few internal flights. But a good measure of an Australian bird list, and of the true birding grit of the list-owner, is the number of grasswrens on the list.

The grasswrens in the genus Amytornis are a group of birds which are fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. They’re among those bird species which can look drab or boring in a field guide but which routinely knock your socks off in the field when they are up close. If you’re lucky enough to get a prolonged look at any species of grasswren in the open, their plumage reveals all sorts of subtleties that you won’t have anticipated.

Dusky Grasswren Amytornis purnelli, adult female.

There are anywhere between 10 and 14 species recognised, depending which taxonomy you follow. None of them live in particularly accessible places and most live in decidedly remote and difficult terrain. Most of them favour the shin-ruining spinifex grasses; a group of plants with the distinction of being both figuratively and literally, a complete prick. The ones that don’t live in spinifex, live in clumps of similarly dense and unfriendly vegetation. They range from some of the hottest and driest deserts to the humid and monsoonal tropics. They’re mostly furtive, shy, and able to disappear from view in their chosen habitat leaving a birder feeling completely gormless in the infuriating knowledge that the birds are all around, at close range, but completely hidden from view and unlikely to reveal themselves.

A few species favour rocky slopes with either loose scree underfoot or large boulders that only a rock wallaby, and the grasswrens themselves, can safely negotiate. Some are endangered and disappearing from their already restricted ranges as a result of fire, feral cats, land clearing, or combinations of all three.

Grasswren habitat: harsh, beautiful and remote. Cane grass on dunes of the Simpson Desert is home to the Eyrean Grasswren A. goyderi.

So in summary: they’re small, rare, fast, furtive, superbly cryptic, hard to get to, hard to find, and hard to see if you do find them. And this is their charm. They’re a real birder’s bird.

Well-known South Australian ornithologist and tour leader Peter Waanders recently hatched a plan with two of my Northern Territory off-siders. It was a plan that was nothing if not ambitious and, frankly, had some questioning Peter’s sanity – to see all species of grasswren in a single tour. It’s audacious. If ever a leader was going to be able to pull-off such a feat of birding brilliance, Peter’s name would be near the top of the list. His guiding outfit, Bellbird Tours, is already best-known for running the regular 6- and 9-grasswren tours which plough through the dry interior of the country each year and only rarely miss any of their targets. His dry country tours also have an enviable strike rate with other highly-sought desert delicacies like Grey Falcon and Letter-winged Kite.

To cut a very long story short – they did it.

In an achievement which must be a historic first for Australian birding, Bellbird’s Great Grasswren Air Safari saw all 11 of the currently (widely-accepted) species of grasswren in just 14 days [and I think they may have seen one of the proposed splits as well which would take their total to 12 species by Clements taxonomy]. In fact, the news of their final tick, White-throated Grasswren Amytornis woodwardi, came through the day before the tour ended so they actually saw every grasswren species in 13 days.

For anyone familiar with traveling in outback Australia, you’ll understand what an extraordinary achievement this is. By car, aircraft (both fixed-wing and helicopter), and finally on foot, the intrepid band crossed the entire continent. With crucial assistance from Red Centre expert Mark Carter and Top End bird-finder and River God, Mick Jerram, they nailed the tricky central and northern species.

In under a fortnight, they found and saw an entire endemic genus; a genus of our most infamously challenging birds. I’d be surprised if there is anyone else who has ever completed this coveted full house in less than a month. Well done one and all and congratulations Peter, Mark and Mick – only other tour leaders will ever understand how nerve-wracking a tour like this can be.

A Short Digression

Amid all the back-slapping and the celebratory Darwin stubbies though, there’s another consideration. An important aspect of an initiative like this is that it demonstrates the productive symbiosis that can exist between research and tourism. This is a partnership which is well-established in numerous locations internationally but has yet to be widely-explored in Australia.

Some grasswren species are infrequently recorded and their distributions are imperfectly known. Many of the species which are seen each year are recorded at the same sites; well-known sites where public access is granted and the birds are known to be present. Tours like this don’t just provide an opportunity for birders to get difficult species on their lists. They also provide the means for experts (and all of the leaders on this tour are certainly that), to visit different areas, both during the tour and on reconnaissance visits during preparation. During these visits, birds are sometimes found at new sites. Breeding activity is sometimes noted. Previously occupied sites might be discovered to have been abandoned or habitat destroyed. Non-target species are also noted and atlas surveys are completed. All of this is crucial observational data which is coming from country rarely accessed by researchers from professional research organisations because visiting is prohibitively expensive.

Research and data collection of this nature being funded, directly or indirectly, by tourism is something we really ought to discuss more often and support wholeheartedly.

 

Well done again to all involved and particular congratulations to Peter, Mark, Mick and the team at Bellbird Tours for pulling off the grip of the year.

CBW

Contained Cats & Crowdfunding Conservation Justice

OpinionChris Watson

Kent Wilson shot his neighbours’ cat the other day. With nothing more to go on, that seems like a shitty thing to have done, doesn’t it? Predictably, the tabloid press and online trolls bought themselves an all-day ticket and went to town…

ADELAIDE CAT KILLER ESCAPES CONVICTION was the headline that 9news.com.au went with.

ADELAIDE HILLS MAN AVOIDS ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION said the headline on 5mu.com.au

The Advertiser led with NATURE-LOVER KENT WILSON, WHO SHOT AND KILLED NEIGHBOUR’S CAT, SPARED ANIMAL CRUELTY CONVICTION BY COURT.

Never backwards in cramming as much eye-catching clickbait into a headline as possible, the Daily Mail went with an even more wordy headline: MODEL WHOSE CAT WAS SHOT AND BURIED BY HER NEIGHBOUR SAYS SHE IS NOW TOO SCARED TO WALK NEAR HIS PROPERTY AFTER HE ESCAPES PRISON SENTENCE.

You’ll notice, however, that all of these headlines share a common, and crucial, piece of information: no conviction was recorded against Mr Wilson and that’s important.

An earlier court proceeding had found Mr Wilson guilty of ill-treating an animal to cause death or harm, which he unsuccessfully appealed in the Supreme Court. Despite that failed appeal, at the sentencing, not only did he not get a prison sentence, but Mr Foley, in the Adelaide Magistrate’s Court, refused to record a conviction against him despite the urgings of lawyers for the RSPCA. Bizarrely, for an organisation which ostensibly concerns itself with cruelty to animals in a case that categorically involved no animal cruelty, the RSPCA were hoping that Mr Wilson might receive the maximum sentence for this offence; a $50,000 fine or four years in jail. Instead, Magistrate Foley recorded no conviction and, noting that Mr Wilson had already paid compensation to the cat’s owners, issued a fine of $2000.

In his sentencing remarks Magistrate Foley was very clear as to why he had decided to spare Mr Wilson a conviction for animal cruelty:

“The typical example involves a person who either grossly neglects an animal or whose motive is to simply cause pain and suffering. I accept you genuinely believed [the cat] was a threat to native wildlife on your property, particularly bird life.”

 Mr Wilson had previously been ordered to pay the RSPCA’s costs relating to the appeal.

A neighbour's cat in my back yard. Why do cats get a free pass?

RSPCA: For All Creatures Great & Small?

If all you do is scan such stories in the papers, that’s about as much information as you might have gleaned from the commercial media. As always though, there’s a lot more to it and the more you learn, the more understandable Mr Wilson’s actions become and the more perplexing becomes the RSPCA’s determination to pursue a legal decision against him.

Speaking on the phone with Mr Wilson the other day, his love for animals was obvious. He enthused to me about the 5 acre former apple orchard that he and his family took over 40 years ago and have since been managing for biodiversity. He has counted 60 species of bird on the property and regularly sees Short-beaked Echidna and Western Grey Kangaroos. The property shares a boundary with a 100 acre bushland reserve which is also rich in native wildlife.

Kent says that he routinely sees cats hunting on the block and his usual response is to chase them away, follow them to the boundary of his block and ensure that they have left the property. On the day that Kent shot the neighbour’s cat, he had already shooed away 4 cats – 2 with collars and 2 without. The cat he ended up shooting had already been chased off the property twice the same morning and Kent had been trying to trap it for 2 months without success. It wasn’t wearing a collar.

He’d previously asked his neighbours to keep their cat contained within their own property; a request that was either repeatedly ignored or with which the cat’s owners found it impossible to comply. After repeated attempts to trap the itinerant cat and shoo it off his block only to have it return a short while later, Kent took the, by his own admission, rash decision to shoot it. He’s a licensed and experienced shooter and firearm owner. He discharged a legally registered rifle on private property in full compliance with relevant laws, quickly and humanely killing the cat. He then buried it on his block.

If there is any animal cruelty evident in these actions I must have missed something. Hunters around the country perform similar actions around the country on a variety of animals and usually with a much lower standard demanded of the ethics and humanity of their actions. In this case, a single animal was humanely shot by a legally permitted and experienced practitioner in accordance with ethical guidelines for the humane destruction of pest animals set out by the RSPCA themselves here.

Neither can Kent’s actions since shooting the cat be impugned. When an owner inquired about the cat, Kent made no attempt to hide his actions and openly stated that he had shot the animal and buried it on his property. Without this single act of honesty none of these vindictive legal proceedings, and vindictive is precisely what they are, would have occurred. Pet cats which are allowed to roam freely beyond the confines of the owner’s property often go missing, the victim of snake or dog attack, falling down drains or ditches or getting bowled over by traffic. All of this is acknowledged in the RSPCA's own policies relating to pet cat containment and responsible ownership which can be found here. A less honest man could have chosen the path of least resistance and denied any knowledge of the pet’s whereabouts and that would have been the end of it.

And some media outlets have done their best to ensure that Mr Wilson’s honesty does not go unpunished. This includes making far too much space for neighbours’ baseless attacks on his character including claims that they are afraid of him or too scared to go near his property. This is a very serious innuendo and is utterly unfounded. It amounts to a suggestion that Mr Wilson actually intends physical harm to the cat’s owners should they approach him. This is slanderous, ridiculous and is not supported by the merest acquaintance with the facts of the case or Mr Wilson himself. He’s a long-serving volunteer member of the Country Fire Authority, the local scout group and a dedicated conservationist. He and his family have been well-known members of the local community for 40+ years. Any attempt to paint him as some sort of anti-social, animal-hating, gun-toting weirdo is transparent fabrication of the most laughable (and pernicious) kind. 

 

An Indoor Cat is a Safe & Healthy Cat

Which brings us to the most perplexing aspect of this story: why has the RSPCA pursued this case against Mr Wilson? The RSPCA is a federal organisation made up of representative societies in each state and territory with a combined annual budget in the vicinity of A$80,000,000. The organisation’s website states its vision is, “to be the leading authority in animal care and protection.” The same page states their mission as “to prevent cruelty to animals by actively promoting their care and protection.” That’s great. Fighting negligence and animal cruelty; promoting responsible pet ownership, care and animal health. I’m right behind all that. Come to mention it, so is Kent Wilson.

This is the most important point to come out of this case for me. The RSPCA is utterly confused; firstly about what constitutes animal cruelty and secondly about the expansiveness of its chosen, decidedly biblical, motto, “For All Creatures Great & Small.”  If this case is an accurate measure of how they prosecute their chosen duty, perhaps a better motto might be, “RSPCA: For Cats, Dogs & Livestock”.

Considering that the RSPCA relies on charitable donations for a large chunk of its bottom line, you might speculate that perhaps there is a lot more to be milked from the public purse through appealing to the emotion we attach to our companion animals than the cursory sympathy shown for the plight of native animals. That would quite neatly explain the apparent limiting of their concerns about animal cruelty, mostly to animals kept by humans rather than animals more broadly. But that’s pure speculation.

The RSPCA has prosecuted a member of the public for humanely killing an introduced predator; an act which spared countless native animals a less humane fate. In their simplistic ethical calculus it seems the RSPCA bestow human companion species with greater weight; which is fine if that’s their choice, but it should be reflected in their publicity material.

The fact that the animal in question was a neighbour’s pet is what Kent Wilson is really paying for – not cruelty. And if we’re to believe any of what the RSPCA claims to stand for, why is it not holding the cat’s owners to account? Their pet was unsupervised and roaming free outside the boundaries of their property. They left it vulnerable to predation by wild animals and free to prey upon threatened native species as well. In this case, irresponsible ownership also brought their pet into the rifle sights of a neighbour who should be as free to have the native wildlife on his property untrammelled by cats as his neighbours are to own them. According to the RSPCA, the onus is on the animal’s owners to restrict them, for their own safety and health, to their own property. Why then, is it not the RSPCA’s duty to enforce this?

This case throws up numerous questions that the RSPCA could be putting to local councils and state and federal politicians rather than harassing individuals with vexatious legal action. There are many questions which are relevant to their stated aims that they seem to be acting counter to:

Why aren’t cat owners legally bound to contain their pets?

In a few places they are – how can these laws be better enforced?

Why are we wasting resources wrongly targeting a private citizen when the Victorian duck shooting season persisted despite all scientific advice that it is inhumane and unsustainable?

Why aren't feral cats, considering the massive threat they pose to native animals, a major issue being investigated and publicised by RSPCA?

Rather than vilifying a man who hastily, perhaps even rashly (but humanely) took action to protect native wildlife, the RSPCA’s considerable public profile and financial clout should be put to the task of helping cat owners across the country to understand one simple truth: an indoor cat, is a safe and healthy cat. At the moment, the propagation of that crucial message is being left to other organisations like the Discovery Circle at UniSA, Land for Wildlife and Arid Recovery.

If the RSPCA really is for all creatures great and small, then our record for mammal extinction alone, and the extent to which stray and feral cats are responsible for that, show them to be derelict in their duty.

 

Support Kent

Kent Wilson has not shied away from accepting the consequences of his actions in this case. He has been unfairly penalised for the negligence of others. I don’t think he has done anything wrong.

A fund has been set up to ensure that Kent Wilson is not out-of-pocket as a result of these legal proceedings. Your donations and support are gratefully received not only to offset Mr Wilson’s legal expenses, but as a show of support for a citizen who has been erroneously singled-out by an organisation which is hoping to deflect attention from the shortcomings of its own policies by attempting to make an example of him.

DONATE HERE

(Excess money raised will be donated to Arid Recovery in South Australia who do a lot of research around feral cat ecology and threatened species recovery.)

 

A place for everything and everything in its place. A Leopard Cat Prionailurus bengalensis, in eastern Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. Photo used with kind permission Samantha Hopley.

Postscript

I’m regularly accused of hating cats and have already worn a great deal of abuse from this article and my opinions expressed elsewhere. I shudder to think what Kent and his family have had to endure. I’m a well-known animal lover. I love cats too. I can even find them cute in the right circumstances, but I mostly get excited about wild animals. I have stalked Puma in the cloud-forests of Ecuador and the Andean foothills in Chile. I’ve trudged Bornean rainforest at night hoping for a glimpse of Sunda Clouded Leopard and was delighted to come away with an encounter with a Leopard Cat instead. I’ve almost gone cross-eyed and been eaten alive by midges while scouring the Scottish highlands for the increasingly rare Scottish Wildcat. Any accusation that I hate cats is simply false. I recognise, however, that owning such a beautifully evolved predator as a domestic pet carries a very serious responsibility which I don’t think is taken seriously enough in Australia.

I cannot abide any cruelty toward, or mistreatment of, animals. As a professional scientist, I’ve been employed on cat-control programs many times in the past and have euthanased countless animals. This is always done humanely, in keeping with strict ethical guidelines and under regularly updated permits. It’s very important not to conflate these actions with cruelty or hatred. I don’t enjoy killing any animals, but when it has to be done it should be done humanely.

Numerous species of cats are seriously endangered around the world. If you have time and energy to spend defending cats, seek out the charitable organisations listed below which are working to protect and study these vanishing species and they will welcome whatever help you are able to offer. Please don’t waste your time abusing me (or others) for supporting evidence-based responses to our own ecological crises here in Australia or trying to convince me that there is a place in our landscape for feral cats or that your house cat doesn’t do any damage. All the evidence says you are probably wrong.

This is an emotionally-charged subject but it doesn’t have to be. Cat-lovers and conservationists simply need to recognise that we are on the same side. We are all against animal cruelty and support the protection of our native animals as well. The simple message that we all need to get behind is: an indoor cat is a safe and healthy cat.

 

Learn more about endangered cats...

The Snow Leopard Trust

Cheetah Conservation Fund

Felidae Conservation Fund

Clouded Leopard Project

Amur Leopard & Tiger Alliance

Panthera.org

Save Tigers Now

Sand Cat - Saharan Conservation Fund

The Cape Leopard Trust

Scottish Wildcats

Mountain Lion Foundation

The Orange-bellied Parrot: extinction, taxes and conservation realpolitik

Opinion, Current Affairs, BirdingChris Watson

Orange-bellied Parrots at Werribee in 2015. Perhaps as much as 10% of the wild population in a single (crummy) photograph.

“Don’t tell me what you value; show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.” – US Vice President Joe Biden.

 

Heading down the Geelong road the other day it was impossible not to think of the Orange-bellied Parrots. I write the Orange-bellied Parrots, not in the sense of the species as a whole, but in the sense of those specific Orange-bellied Parrots there. This is virtually what it has come to. Driving past the Western Treatment Plant (WTP) at Werribee I could be fairly confident that we were passing within just a few kilometres of some of the only individuals of their species that had been seen on the mainland this year. Maybe two birds; three on a good day*. This from a remaining wild population of 50 birds; or maybe even half that. Estimates vary.

This will not be news to birdwatchers. The precarious dance with oblivion that Neophema chrysogaster has been stepping for the last few decades is well-documented and widely-known in birdwatching and scientific circles. For the last few years the Gang-of-Four at Werribee (two colour-banded pairs) have been the only regular sightings of the species during the annual surveys conducted across their potential wintering range and among very few mainland sightings overall. My information this year is that the gang has dwindled by at least one of its female members who was observed being taken by a goshawk during the summer season at Tasmania.

What occurred to me as we zipped down the Geelong Road was: how many of the tens of thousands of other folks using the same road that day, and every other day, knew about these birds and, if they did, who among them cared?

It might sound a bit wishy-washy but it’s an important question. We can talk and write about conservation and how special our animals are ad infinitum, but it doesn't mean a thing if we aren't getting the rubber on the road; we need to take effective action or it's all so much hot air. This was driven home to me recently by a superb article by Australian ecologist Dale Nimmo et al on The Conversation. That article presented the plain facts about the widespread changes and degradation assailing Australian ecosystems and native animal populations. Frogs, birds and mammals; forests, reefs and savannah are all struggling.

That article introduced me to the stellar quotation from Joe Biden which I’ve pinched for the top of this post, “…show me your budget and I’ll tell you what you value.” The stark truth of that statement is inescapable. So what do we value? Considered in the context of Australian government spending, it illuminates a nation whose values are wildly out-of-touch with reality.

The Gang of Four at a distance in 2015 over the shoulder of Steve Davidson, a long-time leader of OBP winter surveys in Victoria.

The Orange-bellied Parrot is vanishing before our eyes on the doorstep of one of our largest cities. A large portion of our remaining small and medium-sized mammals are on a similar trajectory. There are swathes of Australia’s remote interior that remain poorly-sampled and numerous species that are virtually unknown. The Great Barrier Reef is knackered. Our forests are riddled with dieback. The last of our south-eastern tall, wet forests are still under threat from an antiquated and unprofitable logging industry. Dangerous and barren legacy mines dot The Outback, uninhabitable and toxic. The scars left behind by unsuccessful mineral exploration criss-cross even the remotest regions of the continent's interior. They are rehabilitated in the most perfunctory manner permitted by law and left to testify to our rampant disregard for the natural heritage to which we are all heirs. Most of our frogs aren’t having a good time. The oceans are increasingly full of plastic and empty of fish. The entire continent is awash with feral cats, foxes, camels, horses, donkeys, fish, goats, pigs, deer, rabbits, ants, toads... and then there are the weeds. Changed fire regimes often shadow the spread of weeds laying waste to further remnant habitat and wildlife refugia. We’ve already cleared a fair whack of the native vegetation anywhere that might be good for a farm and there are many out there who don’t seem to grasp the folly of proceeding to clear the rest. Both of Victoria’s faunal emblems (Leadbeater’s Possum and Helmeted Honeyeater) are classified as Critically Endangered. There’s only one classification worse than that. And on top of all this we’re entering an increasingly unstable and erratic climatic future characterised by changes in temperature and rainfall that are already proving too rapid for some species to successfully adapt to.

Faced with all of this, as Dale’s article concludes, it is difficult not to question exactly how urgently we need to spend $50 billion on submarines when expenditure of just a few hundred million dollars could mitigate or eliminate many of the problems listed above. Do we really need to cut $54 billion from public health spending in order to provide tax cuts (coincidentally totalling a very similar figure) to the wealthiest individuals and overseas business owners?

When did Australian democracy jump the shark?

Our leaders wring their hands and furrow their brows with earnest sincerity while explaining, apparently without an ounce of irony, that the savings must come from the smallest funding pools: human services, health, science, education, the environment. The burden of funding cuts must be shouldered by the most vulnerable and least represented in our society. Never mind that just a handful of our wealthiest individuals, chipping in just a fraction of their combined wealth, could fund everything we could ever need and not notice the slightest difference in their standard of living. This while the Australian Taxation Office seems to be legally incapable of ensuring that the businesses and individuals who accrue the most wealth from Australian resources pay proportional taxes on that wealth, while simultaneously falling over themselves to hound lower income earners and hold them to account for their pittance.

It’s not even the stuff of conspiracy theory to suggest that our government is now led by a corporate class which serves any interest but the national interest. This much is observable. At best, we now live in a thinly veiled oligarchy; the cynic in me might suggest outright kleptocracy.

This is only occasionally contested, half-heartedly, by those in Parliament House and nobody with the capacity to think for themselves would believe them. It isn’t happenstance that some individuals at the top of Australian politics rank among the wealthier in Australia, and have friends and associates among the wealthiest. Neither should it be a surprise that they might collude and go out of their way to preserve the status quo.

The same people who helplessly hold up their hands when exposed for exploiting loopholes that allow them to needlessly consolidate their already obscene economic advantage, are the same people who are uniquely placed to close those loopholes and render the system more equitable.

On top of saving billions on unnecessary submarines and corporate giveaways, we might not have to look too far to find funds that could return to government coffers if they simply decided to make it so.

Stop imprisoning innocent people. Tax the church. Legalise marijuana. Tax wealth.

These ideas are simply expressed here but I acknowledge they would not necessarily be simple to put into effect. These are concepts that have been spoken about and debated at length for decades and their time has well and truly come. Are they really that revolutionary? Is it objectionable to demand a government that takes clear action toward building an equitable society that looks after the weak rather than endlessly reinforcing privilege among a tiny few? Is it pie-in-the-sky to expect our leaders to engage honestly and intelligently with experts and harness their learning to develop the best practices to benefit society? Is that unreasonable? Is anyone really so dull that they’re content to entertain the prospect of living in a barren post-mining landscape, drained of its mineral wealth, ravaged by climate change and depauperate of its unique fauna?

Anyone with rudimentary arithmetic skills (or the faintest shred of human decency) can tell you that our current refugee and immigration system is a millstone around the nation’s neck that serves entirely political, rather than practical or humanitarian, ends. Aside from being completely ineffective, it is costly; and cruel. Why are we so intent on displaying this barbarous side of our nature to the world? If we simply stop imprisoning and brutalising the most vulnerable people on Earth, we’ll save a truckload of cash and we can all feel better; win/win.

Next, tax the church. I’m not religious myself but I don’t mind if other people are. We shouldn’t care what people believe – we should care about what they do. Religious institutions rank among some of the wealthiest businesses on the planet, they offer a “service” which is faulty at best and plainly fraudulent at worst and religious observance has been dropping steadily for decades. Their continuing tax-exempt status is a farce which demeans and burdens us all. The first counterclaim to this proposition is usually to point out the variety of charitable and social services that various religious organisations provide which would otherwise need to be picked up by the government. But this is easily dismissed by a simple calculation of the amount of extra tax revenue we’d have to lavish on those services if religious tax exemption were revoked. The religious are always happy to point out the moral and charitable aspects of the organisations they support while sweeping their large catalogue of misdeeds under the carpet. If they’re genuinely keen on helping their fellow humans, they should be stepping forward to welcome taxable status with open arms and ululations of divine joy. They should be happy to do their bit and we should afford them the opportunity to do so.

To these measures you could add: rational defence spending based on realistic strategic assessments rather than hyper-politicised scare campaigns; a rebuilt corporate tax system to stop large businesses heading offshore with billions of dollars owed to Australian tax-payers; social welfare payments that equal a living wage; an end to the negative gearing nonsense; an increased minimum wage and a rebuilt personal income tax system which taxes wealth rather than income.

Implementing even a couple of those measures would have the nation so flush with cash that finding the paltry $10 million per year estimated to be sufficient to prevent the extinction of ALL Australian bird species, would be a matter for petty cash.

Our leaders have all benefitted from our (previously) free education system. They have grown up among the riches of our (seriously imperilled) natural heritage. Many of them have parents who were (welcomed as) refugees and some of them are immigrants themselves. They should be ensuring the same freedoms are available for generations to come, not dismantling each of them systematically.

I don’t even know what any of this has to do with parrots anymore. I guess I’ve had a creeping feeling for a long time that throughout the span of my life the government has been steadily extricating itself from responsibility for the environment. The Earth is just one giant ecosystem and one upon whose function we, and our economy, rely upon for our continued existence. Increasingly, conservation, and the broad base of scientific endeavour that underpins it, is left to not-for-profit NGOs: Birdlife Australia, Landcare, Australian Wildlife Conservancy, Zoos Victoria, Bush Heritage Australia, Greening Australia and countless others. Our national parks have had their funding and staffing progressively slashed to the extent that some reserves are virtually un-managed and many others run on a skeleton crew of rangers who function more as groundskeepers and maintenance crews than natural resource managers or wildlife ecologists.

There’s an election coming and I just hope that the shark which Australian democracy jumped some time ago can be returned to the open sea without fear of culling and we can forget the entire ghastly episode.

Sometimes you jump the shark... sometimes the shark jumps you.

Make your vote count. I can’t, and shouldn’t, tell you who to vote for and neither should anybody else, but I implore you to look hard and make your vote do something surprising and good. Buck the beige status quo. Look for people with less to gain financially from remaining in power. Look for people who don’t offer simple answers to complex problems. Look for people who admit uncertainty. Look for people with character and a background that takes in adversity as well as privilege. Vote for someone who’ll fund science, the arts and maybe even support a Great Forest National Park (protecting at least one of our faunal emblems would be a good start wouldn’t it?) Vote for someone, ANYONE, with a background in science, rather than the endless stream of bankers and lawyers we seem so fond of hoisting to high office. Such people are likely to do a better job of governing than the conga-line of wealthy old men with the laughably obvious commercial interest in public office that we are repeatedly lumped with.

But back to parrots...

A fellow parrot-lover, and a much better thinker and writer than me, Douglas Adams, summed up the travesty of our overuse and destruction of the Earth’s resources when he addressed the University of California, Santa Barbara only a month before his death in 2001. The full talk is highly recommended and can be found here but, in part, Douglas said:

“… there is a kind of terrible irony that at the point that we are best able to understand, and appreciate, and value the richness of life around us, we are destroying it at a higher rate than it has ever been destroyed before. And we are losing species after species after species, day after day, just because we’re burning the stuff down for firewood. And this is a kind of terrible indictment of our understanding.”

Orange-bellied Parrots on their wintering grounds in coastal Melbourne**. It's a very distant picture but I'm just glad to know they're out there.

Extinction, like death, is a crucial and inescapable component of life on Earth. Things will continue to go extinct, and not all extinctions will be caused by human malfeasance. But, if a parrot is going to go extinct on our watch, it should be because an annual trans-Bass Strait migration is an unsustainable evolutionary strategy, not because… jobs.

 

*In the interests of accuracy: OBP sightings on the mainland are, very sensibly, not publicised. So there may have been some outlying reports that I’m unaware of. We can only hope. This is an illustrative anecdote.

**I'm grateful to Steve Davidson for showing me some Orange-bellied Parrots on a cold and dreary day, about a year ago this month. Hopefully the gang's recruitment starts to improve and gains in size in coming years.