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Blue-tongue
A true-blue battler

Dingo
Unfairly judged?

Koala control
What to do about the "koala plague" on Kangaroo Island

The Kangaroo industry
Should we eat skippy?

Feral cat
Apex predator in Australia. Confined to urban areas in America.

Tasmanian Devil
The solution to mainland extinctions?

Tasmanian Tiger
A sad tale

Rabbits
Perhaps not so adapted to Australia

Wombat
Keg of muscle


 

 

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Darling River in Flood

Dealing with Environmental Problems in Australia

Science or an expression of culture?

Science is often conceived as a discipline where logic and rationality governs over culture, morality and emotion. In regards to environmental science in Australia; however, management policies would suggest that it is culture, morality and emotion that governs over logic. For example, in 2012, physicist John Reid commented on his time with environmental scientists where he noted a tendency to kill certain animals without any real logical reason or consideration about whether it would lead to desirable outcomes. In his own words,

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions."

The desirability or otherwise of such programs is not a scientific question -- it is a value judgement, one about which an informed layman has just as much right to an opinion as a scientist or other expert."

Just as cultural judgments have prevailed over scientific judgments in regards to deciding whether certain animals should be killed, they have also previaled when deciding what it actually means to protect the environment. Should humans see themselves as part of an ecosystem, or wardens over it? Is a golf course that is home to kangaroos, frogs, and turtles as worthy of protection as a eucalypt forest that has few animals by comparison? Is the dingo a native Australian animal that needs to be respected for its place in the ecosystem, but a dingoX a feral that needs to be shot or poisoned? If a dingoX is to be killed, is it to help the dog maintain its place in the Australian ecosystem be removing less adaptive genes or is it because genetic purity is more interesting for humans? In an ecosystem that has had humans shaping it for 50,000 years, what is wilderness?

How such questions are answered has a huge influence on the dynamic of the ecosystem that is created when policies are created to "protect" the environment and even what the "environment" actually is.

Unfortunately, the questions are being answered in a way that is resulting in a significant decline in biodiversity, which is also putting many Australian animals at risk of extinction. In 2010, Australia had 1750 species on the threatened list. 59 mammals were at risk of immediate extinction and 18 mammals had gone extinct in the last 100 years. In contradiction with popular belief, the areas most disconnected from urban activities had the highest rates of extinction. For example, at the 136 sites across northern Australia that had been repeatedly surveyed since 2001, the mammal populations had dropped by an average of 75 per cent. The number of sites classified as ''empty'' of mammal activity rose from 13 per cent in 1996 to 55 per cent in 2009. (3)

The areas experiencing a decline in mammal activity included the world heritage listed Kakadu National Park. Over the last two decades, there has been a 71 percent decline in the total number of animals in the park and almost half the area of the national park no longer had any native mammals at all. It must be stressed that, within the National Park, the native animals have not been threatened by farming, have not been threatened by mining, have not been threatened by urban development and have not been threatened by human “neglect.” To the contrary, the park has been constantly subjected to feral species control programs which aim to eliminate the threats to native animals. Furthermore, each year over half of the park gets burnt in accordance with a contemporary scientific belief that Australian ecosystems need human initiated fire management policies to rejuvinate themselves. That "protection" has been killing the park at rate vastly exceeding anything done by farmers over the previous two centuries.

Arguably, the problem with the control programs is that each time a shock is inflicted on the food web by the elimination of a species, the ecosystem is pushed into chaos, which naturally advantages the fast-breeding introduced species that can fill voids faster than the slow-breeding natives. For example, where rabbit numbers are high, they constitute almost 100% of the diets of cats and foxes. When rabbit numbers rapidly plummet due to poisoning regimes, controlled burns, or scientists releasing viruses, the rabbit predators (such as cats and foxes) are most destructive. With the rapid removal of rabbits, an ecosystem finds itself with a high number of predators but very little prey. Although the native prey are more difficult to catch than a rabbit, the high numbers of predators ensure they have little chance of survival. Ironically, as fox and cat numbers are reduced by the lack of prey, recovering rabbit populations find themselves in an ecosystem with low numbers of cats and foxes and one that their competitors have been hunted to extinction. Ironically, by trying to kill off rabbits in the short run, scientists help them in the long run. Likewise, by trying to save native animals by killing ferals, many of them have been made more endangered.

While native fauna is struggling in reserves and in areas where there is little urban development, it is thriving in Tasmania where low density farming communities are spread throughout the state. Aside from the thylacine, Tasmania has not lost a single marsupial since colonisation. Native fauna is also thriving on Kangaroo Island, where there is also a good mix of residential and agricultural development. It is also thriving in capital cities like Canberra, Sydney and Melbourne. Productive gardens with a water feature provide a haven for reptiles, birds and small mammals. Admittedly, some gardens also have a stalking cat, but other gardens have a resident dog that keeps the cats away. In addition to the gardens, city golf courses provide good plains of grass for kangaroos as well as dams for turtles, frogs and fish. Even our small creeks collecting stormwater runoff have value, with many platypuses being attracted to the abundant supply of worms and yabbies in them.

The ideology of locking up “wilderness” and then killing the ferals to protect it is best described as the ideology of a prison warden. It is an ideology that doesn’t see humans as part of the ecosystem, but does their role to be the judge, jury and executioner over it. Ironically, the prison warden culture sometimes portrays itself as a custodian of Aboriginal environmental approaches. In truth, the two cultures are poles apart. Firstly, Aboriginal cultures saw themselves as part of the ecosystem, not masters over it. Secondly, they didn’t have a concept of ferals and natives. For example, some cultures elevated the dingo as a creation spirit like the Rainbow Serpent, not a recent arrival from South East Asia. Likewise, when the cat appeared, it was just seen as another food source and component of the ecosystem, not a feral to be killed.

To understand how a prison warden approach to science developed, it is important to consider the cultural, monetary and psychological factors that have shaped how scientists define the environment and and their role in it.

Cultural

The management of the Australian environment is highly cultural and anchored in social identity. In short, scientists are using culturally constructed value judgments when deciding if an animal should be killed. As argued by Reid 2012:

"It was always seen as desirable to remove or cull the introduced species. We also need to ask whether it was possible to do so, how it should be done, whether it could have unintended consequences and what it would cost? I don't think anyone really asked those questions."

The desirability or otherwise of such programs is not a scientific question -- it is a value judgement, one about which an informed layman has just as much right to an opinion as a scientist or other expert."

The target of these eradication policies seems to be to create a kind of Garden of Eden that predates the corruption of modern society. Some of the thinking can be seen in the words of Dr A. J. Brown, from Griffith Law School:

"Today, for environment groups and land management agencies, wilderness is a land use classification which relates specifically to growing respect for the non-commercial, non-industrial, non-colonial values of those landscapes that have been least disturbed since 1788. Most recently, the Commonwealth Government discussion paper on wilderness protection defined a wilderness as:

"... an area that is, or can be restored to be, a sufficient size to enable the long-term protection of its natural systems and biological diversity; substantially undisturbed by colonial and modern technological society; and remote at its core from points of mechanised access and other evidence of colonial and modern technological society. " (2)

In truth, the Australian ecosystems of 1788 were as much human creations as golf courses are today. Defining them as wilderness relegates Aboriginal people into a sub-human category that the likes of Dr Brown do not feel that they share. The tendency to see Aborigines as part of the Australian ecosystem, rather than part of the human race, can perhaps be seen as a cultural legacy of Aborigines being categorised in some state government Flora and Fauna Acts until 1967.

If Aborigines were thought of as human, then wilderness could be defined as any state that the ecosystem was in over the last 60,000 years. This change in thinking would have implications for efforts to re-populate animals like the Tasmanian devil or koalas in mainland ecosystems where they lived 500 or so years ago, but did not exist at the time of European colonisation.

 Koalas were in fact re-populated on Kangaroo Island in the 1930s, but some scientists have deemed this action to be an example of environmental vandalism and have proposed undoing it. According to David Paton, an environmental scientist from the University of Adelaide, there was a hierarchy of animals rights on Kangaroo Island, and the koalas' rights were close to the bottom. In his own words:

"You are going to cause major problems for other species -- other species that are endemic to the island. Those things have a right, a greater right, to be here than koalas.

As well as being seen in the classification of wilderness and the ranking of animal rights, culture and identity is seen in the classification of ferals to be eradicated and non-ferals to be protected. This is particularly controversial in relation to the dingo and even more controversial when the dog is a mix of dingo and other breeds. Some people, such as dingo expert Laurie Corbett, have proposed taking the whole ecosystem's response to the animal into account when deciding if an animal is native or not. In his own words:

“So what constitutes a native animal? It is simply one that lives in Australia and has ecological and/or cultural impact, regardless of taxa, birth site, race, language, length of time in Australia etc. Accordingly, the Dingo most certainly is a native Australian.”

Critics, such as biologist Tim Low, have disputed the classification on semantic grounds. Low has expressed his concern that Corbett's classification system makes the words "feral" and "native" obsolete. In his own sarcastic rebuttal:

“by Corbett’s definition…the word sheds its meaning. Native rabbits, native goats, native toads, native trout, native camphor laurels and native prickly pear. O brave new world!”

Certainly Corbett’s definition would make defining a feral species much harder, but in doing so, the health of an ecosystem would more likely be judged on whether it is biodiverse and whether each component seems assured of survival. On the other hand, Low’s definition judges an ecosystem’s health by the number of ferals. Even though an ecosystem may be diverse, balanced and adaptable to change, scientists using Low's definition will kill ferals simply because history says they are ferals. In short, Corbett's definition is scientific because it advocates considering the ecosystem's health. Low's is cultural because it advocates reading history books and killing flora and fauna on the basis of those history books.

 

Monetary

Environmental science is a popular subject to study in Australian universities but there are very few jobs for environmental graduates. In non-industrial areas, the biggest source of employment is in public funding for the control of species (both feral and non-feral), and monitoring the success of the control programs. As a result, scientists have often favoured methods of control that will enable them to continue to be funded in the future. In the words of Reid 2012,

"There are issues about the way in which scientists continue to produce environmental "threats" which have proven so useful in maintaining projects funding"

First, scientists cull or control a species, such as dingoes, which causes another species, such as kangaroos, to get out of balance. They then ask for funding to cull kangaroos as well. The culling of kangaroos has been very problematic because often it is the big males who have the strongest genes that are shot. In a natural ecosystem, it is the old, the weak, the young or the diseased which are taken by predators. This helps keep the gene pool strong. Likewise, they ask for funding to poison foxes and cats. Rabbits then become a problem so they ask for funding to poison rabbits. The culling has no chance of long-term success because it can’t overcome the vacuum effect, and more just move in. Meanwhile, the ecosystems food webs are constantly being shocked.

Just as monetary agendas have governed attempts to control native animals, so have attempts to control non-natives. Perhaps the best example of this is the various methods to control cats and rabbits on Macquarie Island, a 34km by 5km island halfway between Australia and Antarctica. Cats and rabbits were introduced in 1860s to provide food if sailors were shipwrecked.  Overtime, the two species formed a balance with each other.

That balance was interrupted in the 1950s when the myxomatosis virus was introduced to control rabbits. Each time a virus outbreak decimated rabbit populations, the cats started hunting native birds. In the 1990s, scientists gained $500,000 in funding to eliminate a population of only around 500 cats that had been on the island for almost a century and a half. When the final cat was removed in 2000, rabbit numbers were somewhere between 4,000 and 20,000. Within 6 years, the population had reached 130,000 and Macquarie Island's vegetation was being eaten to extinction.

 

(Left. Macquarie Island before the removal of cats. Right, after the removal.)

 

In 2011, $26,000,000 was spent trying to remedy the disaster. The first stage of the plan involved releasing another virus, the rabbit calicivirus, which had an average kill rate of around 90%. The second stage involved using helicopters to drop 307 tonnes of baits for the rabbits that survived the virus. This was around 3 tonnes of bait for every square kilometre. The third stage involved hunters and dogs searching the island for the next seven years with burrow bombs, and poisons to kill any rats or rabbits that survived the virus and baits.

The virus and baits were released in July 2011. By December 2011, hunters had caught a further 13 rabbits that had survived the virus and baits. One of these rabbits was a female that had bred. In February 2012, it was reported in the Australian newspaper that perhaps 10 rabbits were still on the island, but they were difficult to find in the recovering vegetation. Because rabbit eradication attempts have previously failed on most islands, the survival of rabbits was anticipated and it was expected that governments of the future would continue to make funds available to keep numbers under control.

On Macquarie Island, scientists conceded that the collateral damage of their recent rabbit control programs included a significant number of the local bird population that either ate the baits or the poisoned bodies of the dead rabbits. When the same control programs are inflicted on the mainland, collateral damage also includes the quolls, birds and goannas that eat rabbits. Even when the predators are not poisoned by the bodies, they are deprived of a food source. Collateral damage then expands to include the various marsupials that would not have been hunted by large populations of starving cats, foxes, eagles, quolls and goannas if rabbits were still around.

On an island, there is a small hope that the feral can be eliminated and thus justify the massive collateral damage caused. On the mainland, the feral can not be eliminated because more will always migrate in. Funding is therefore the sole motivation for the control program. The cost is the environment.

Psychological

Australian environmental scientists have shown an ability to shut down any emotional sympathy towards animals that they have decided have no moral right to exist in the Australian bush. In total, the cruelty inflicted on wild animals in Australia vastly exceeds that of Chinese dog farmers than skin the dogs alive or Japanese that harpoon whales in the southern ocean. On Macquarie Island, scientists went to war against furry little animals and such was their desire to reduce their numbers by any means possible, they were prepared to kill thousands of birds in the process. When people are prepared to cause so much death, it is difficult to believe that they have any love for animals.

All over Australia, animals are dying cruel and slow deaths as a result of scientists releasing genocide viruses, burning the landscape, dropping millions of tonnes of baits, or shooting. By killing the animals, the scientists perhaps feel a sense of power and probably gain a sense of pleasure much like a Nazi guard gained pleasure from killing Jews in World War 2 or that some Queensland residents feel by smashing cane toads with golf clubs.

Even native animals have been caught up in the destruction. After cutting their teeth on killing ferals, scientists have moved onto non-ferals as their next target. For example, biologist Tim Low argued that Australia will only be a mature nation when killing native animals is accepted as a worthy conservation strategy. In his own words:

"Our challenge today is to become more ecologically astute, to recognise that native species can be pests too, that will sometimes need controlling (killing). Australia will have matured as a nation when we can calmly debate the merits of shooting koalas, for conservation's sake."

Some scientists argue that Australia will be a mature nation when Australians can calmly hold up a gun, point it at a healthy koala and pull the trigger. Arguably, it is not an approach that encourages wildlife appreciation, nor is it scientific. Culling often results in the strongest members of a species being shot, which in turn leads to a weakening of the gene pool.

It is probably the satisfication in killing that prevents food webs from being considered when deciding whether killing will actually have any benefit.The scientist sees the animal and has such a strong emotional desire to kill it that he or she can’t comprehend the consequences of his or her actions. In what seemed like common sense, after the initial disaster on Macquarie Island, Arko Lucieer from the University of Tasmania, actually acknowledged that all species are part of a food web and there are impacts when they are removed. In his own words:

"Our findings show that it’s important for scientists to study the whole ecosystem before doing eradication programs...There haven’t been a lot of programs that take the entire system into account. You need to go into scenario mode: ‘If we kill this animal, what other consequences are there going to be?"

The most distressing aspect of the destruction is that there are alternatives that don't require such cruelty. Rabbits were introduced to Kangaroo Island but they were eaten to extinction by the rosenberg goanna. The goanna does not exist in high concentrations on the mainland due to the ripping of rabbit warrens that it shelters in, predation from foxes, and human initiated burning regimes that destroy its habitat. Goannas are also likely to suffer from myxomatosis outbreaks decimating rabbit populations and they may eat poisons left for foxes. In short, goannas are killed off by scientists trying to kill rabbits and foxes.

Just as a natural predator has solved a problem on Kangaroo Island, so too has it solved a problem in Tasmania. Because of the Tasmanian devil sniffing out its dens and eating their young, all red foxes introduced to Tasmania over the last 200 years have died out.

Professor Chris Johnson, from James Cook University, is one of the new generation of scientists that believe biodiversity can be enhanced with an ideology of addition rather than eradication. Johnson has argued in favour of reintroducing dingos, quolls and the devils to the various mainland ecosystems that humans have eradicated them from. Professor Johnson has stressed that native predator communities need to be rebuilt as they have the ability to remain in balance with native prey. As native predators replace the feral predators, or reduce their numbers, native prey is able to rebound.

Professor Johnson has some interesting research backing up his proposal. He has found that in places where dingoes are rare or absent, and foxes and cats are abundant, 50 per cent of ground-living mammals have vanished. Where dingoes remain abundant, the rate of local disappearance is 10 per cent or less.

Johnson's ideology is a step away from the prison warden ideology that governs mainstream environmental science. It is an ideology that tries to make the ecosystem capable of finding a balance with itself without the need for humans to act like a Nazi guard of a concentration camp.

 

1)http://www.hreoc.gov.au/social_justice/nt_report/ntreport07/chapter12.html

2)http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1992/31.html

3)http://www.smh.com.au/environment/conservation/20-years-left-mammals-plunge-into-extinction-20100901-14nmz.html

 

Environmental Issues

Environmental problems
The cultural basis of defining environmental problems

Indigenous environmentalism
Differences between Indigenous and non-indigenous land management

Sustainability
The dark side of sustainable environmental policies

Native pets
Why no pet wombats?

Bush fire prevention
To go native or exotic?