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Nature’s time

Life on land

“Current global response to extinctions insufficient; Transformative changes needed to restore and protect nature. The most comprehensive assessment of its kind tells us that 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction”. United Nations, Paris, 6 May 2019

Peter Hylands

May 21, 2023

This story provides a series of vignettes about the natural world and at different points of time. We travel from British Guiana in the 1950s to England, Germany, Malaysia and Australia on a journey through time and place and species.


“Another fascinating creature that used to come to the fruit trees was the Douroucouli. The curious little monkeys, with long tails, delicate, almost squirrel like bodies and enormous owl like eyes, are the only nocturnal species of monkey in the world. They arrived in small troupes of seven or eight and, though they made no noise as they jumped into the fruit trees, you could tell they were there by the long and complicated conversation they held when they fed. They had the biggest range of noises I have ever heard from a monkey, or for that matter from any animal of similar size” Gerald Durrell, British Guiana, 1950

When we were young

We probably drove the cleaners in the Natural History Museum in South Kensington up the wall, with our noses and little smudgy fingers pressed up against the glass as we explored the contents of endless cases and displays. No doubt leaving our smudges behind us. There were shells and insects, fossils and dioramas from prehistoric worlds. What a wonderful world of nature that was for a young child, we wanted to understand it all.

Spectacled Flying-fox

“There were prodigious numbers”. John Gould: Fitzroy Island,1849

Yet again, our dear friend the Spectacled Flying-fox appears high on our radar. Some back of the envelope calculations and a bit of historical research tells us that the population of the Spectacled Flying-fox in its Australian habitat has plummeted from around six million in 1860 to 35,000 in 2019 (Lawrence Pope). Annual population declines in the species are deeply concerning. 

Note: the species also lives in PNG where it faces similar problems, particularly habitat loss from clear fell logging of the rainforest.

Exaggeration or not the early literature draws a very different picture to what it looks like now.

“The northern districts are very hard to ‘work’ properly, the country is so wild and the information so hard to come by. But for the mango season, when the foxes are in the millions, the beasts seem to lead a nomadic life in search of food”. Francis Ratcliffe, Cairns, 1929

The Spectacled Flying-fox is associated with rainforest and is a very important pollinator of rainforest plants. The species distribution in Australia is restricted to the tropical east coast of Queensland and to the north of Cardwell. Vast scale clearing of rainforest habitat in North Queensland over the last century, aggressive killing campaigns by farmers (electrocution and shooting), and now climate change, have devastated Spectacled Flying-fox populations. That devastation is now a major problem for the rainforest that remains.

It will never end until they are all gone

“In February 2019 the Australian government upgraded the conservation status of the Spectacled Flying-fox from vulnerable to endangered”

A March 1998 census (a count in its camps in North Queensland) put the population at 153,000 with an estimate of a possible error of 30,500 (plus or minus). Population estimates from 1985 put the population at 820,000.

“It has to be remembered that the population of Spectacled Flying-foxes (Pteropus conspicillatus) is now around 35,000, down from 800,000 in the late 1980s. The species lost one-third of its population in the heatwave of January 2019. One or two more very hot summers and they will be extinct. Numbers of this species will be shot by “mistake” on Queensland orchards while shooting (of Flying Foxes) continues to be legal. It is nearly impossible to determine species in the low light conditions and dark of shooting in an orchard”.  Lawrence Pope
“Days numbered for CBD Flying Foxes - Flying Foxes roosted outside the Cairns City Library will be temporarily scared off on Monday — but a permanent relocation is on the way”. Cairns Post March 2019

Malaysia: Unnatural histories

It is the 1970s, those early journeys across Malaysia with friends and colleagues were still fraught with danger, there were soldiers and road blocks to navigate. There were still forest places although the plantations had done their work. These were the days before extensive palm oil plantations.

Kuala Lumpur too, like Singapore, still had its rows of old shops and houses, breezy and cool, with no signs of air-conditioning at all. 

So we visited the kampongs, sat under shady trees, eating star fruit, papaya and durian with friends, there were boat trips along the Malaysian coastline, watching monkeys playing on forest shore. There were endless dinners, restaurants and hawker stalls. This would all have been a decade or so after Gerry Durrell’s visit to Malaya as it was then, following his journey to Australia and New Zealand.

“Once the whole forest is up and about, then the last but by no means least of the animals makes its appearance, the Elephant. Throughout the hot day they have been musing and swaying in some cool recess of the forest, but now they rouse themselves and drift to their feeding grounds like great grey shadows, their bodies moving through the undergrowth so gently that the only sound you can hear is the faintest whisper of leaves, as though caused by a tiny breeze”.

The animals of the Malay Peninsula have always been wondrous. However we feared for them even then. Longman had established a publishing business in Malaya and Singapore in the period following the Second World War (Charles Higham). Longman Malaysia had been diligent in publishing a series of books on Malaysian Natural History, including a four volume series on the Tree flora of Malaysia, Malayan animal life, Common Malaysian Beetles, W A Fleming’s Butterflies of West Malaysia and Singapore (a copy of which I still have) and a series of nature handbooks including M W F Tweedie’s very useful books on mammals and birdlife. The latter lost by the upheavals of our nature wars in Australia.

Sumatran Rhino, Photo courtesy WWF

I talk about Malaysia here because it was just a few days ago (at the time of writing) that the last surviving male Sumatran Rhino in Malaysia died, leaving behind just one female in Malaysia. Just as much of the Malaysian forest is gone there will never again be a rustle in the undergrowth made by these engaging animals. A few animals remain in Indonesia, the greatest threat facing the species today is the fragmented nature of their populations and the continuing destruction of their habitat.

Peter Hylands, Melbourne, June 2019

Berkshire and Oxfordshire

In 1814 the Bearded Tit and Marsh Harrier were still common birds in the marshes near Newbury, and presumably could be found here until the middle of the century. Well before the turn of the century they had gone.

The first appreciable loss of the marsh habitat occurred when the Berks and Hants extension railway was built between Reading and Hungerford in 1847. The route of the railway, along the lie of the marshes, needed a large number of embankments; yet extensive areas of reeds remained and reed-cutting persisted well into the 20th century. When reed-cutting died out, burning continued. Sometimes the burning was deliberate, but often it was accidental, when the reed debris was ignited by sparks from passing steam engines in the spring.

This habitat was also important for the breeding of the Reed Warbler and other marshland species, such as the Sedge and Grasshopper Warblers and Reed Buntings. The extraction of gravel, which reached a peak in the years after the Second World War, has undoubtedly enhanced the area. The Great Crested Grebe and Little Ringed Plover have bred at half a dozen sites between Reading and Newbury.

M C Radford M.D. 1966


The horse began its evolutionary journey as an animal about the size of a fox terrier and a height at the shoulder of about eleven inches. This was back in the Eocene period about 70 million years ago. Eohippus had four toes on each forefoot and three toes on the hind feet and appeared to be adapted to living on soft marshy ground.

By the Oligocene period, 45 million years ago, horses had evolved to a shoulder height of around two feet. This was Miohippus with its three toed feet, the mid toe the largest. By 10 million years ago and in the Pliocene, horses had doubled in height yet again, this time to four feet high at the shoulder. This time the feet had one large toe, which formed a hoof on each foot. This was an adaptation for running on hard ground, the side toes further reduced.

Equus enters the record in North America about one million years ago at the beginning of the Pleistocene. The modern horse is to spread around the world’s continents, with two exceptions, Australia and Antarctica.

From water to land

“The smoothness with which this and other transitions were accomplished was made possible by the fact that in possessing certain structures capable of changed functions, the fishes, whose descendants made the transition (to amphibians) happened to be pre-adapted to the new medium in which they found themselves. Evolution proceeded as a gradual change by a series of improvisations which were serviceable, were favoured, preserved, and improved upon by natural selection”.

Natural History Museum, South Kensington, 1959

Bleak prospects

“In 2019, there is no such thing as an environmental approval for a coal mine, the two are mutually exclusive” Peter Hylands


“It was early in 1861 that the long and familiar chain of fossil discoveries was interrupted by a quite new find, the imprint of an undoubted feather of a bird. There could be no doubt at all as to the reality of this isolated specimen, 68 mm long, with a vane 11 mm wide and with rachis, barbs and barbules clearly shown. The fossil was found on one slab and there was an impression of it on the counterpart. The main slab went to the Academy of Sciences in Munich while the impression went to the Natural History Museum in Berlin, both specimens are still preserved in these institutions.
Quite soon after the discovery of this feather, also in1861, at Langenaltheimer Haart, near Pappenheim, Bavaria, in the Ottmann Quarry, a skeleton was discovered, also on a split slab, which to all intents was a reptile, but with clearly marked imprint of feathers attached to the forearm, and of a long reptilian tail with many vertebrae, each of the vertebrae having a pair of short feathers”.

Natural History Museum, South Kensington, 1958

Not for us

“Last year I rang the office of the Victorian Ombudsman to ask them how I should proceed with making a complaint about the Victorian Government and its treatment of Kangaroos, matters of governance etc. I immediately received an email rejecting my complaint (a complaint which I had not made). The officer did not give his name, so then I complained about the way I was treated by them, anonymously and not listening to what I had asked them. They then launched an investigation into themselves and of course were exonerated by themselves”. 

Peter Hylands, Melbourne, June 2019

Since 2019, the Victorian Ombudsman (staff) have been far more helpful, so things have moved on.

Did the Kangaroo kill the lizard?

This question is a bit like did the Badger kill the Hedgehog? Kangaroos and Badgers seem to have a similar problem. They are blamed for things that were done by others (and the others are of course us).

"What I can tell you is that we had both Kangaroos (and Wallabies) and various reptile species, including legless lizards on our wildlife property in central Victoria over a significant period of time. The Kangaroo mob was returned to reasonable levels (there were almost no Kangaroos previously because they were aggressively pursued and shot - we are talking forest country not agricultural lands) and as the years went by, our fierce protection of nature had the impact of increasing numbers of reptiles, amphibians, birds and marsupials". Peter Hylands

We had a significant area of grassland (historically cleared forest near the house). The legless lizards occupied the same places as the Kangaroos, there were a lot of skinks and various snake species, mostly browns, many around the buildings where we created habitats for them. There were a large number of amphibians (frog species and toadlets). The amphibians declined during the millennium drought and never really returned in numbers that we managed to establish in the previous decades – so drought, not Macropods caused their decline.

The lizards started to go because there was a lot of development - housing estates on adjoining properties and as these were developed and because of irresponsible owners of cats and dogs, it meant our property suddenly had an influx of cats (at the time the local government tried to justify the situation and did nothing while pretending they would). So there were bits of reptiles, birds, Phascogales, Sugar Gliders and a range of species scattered all over the property. The destruction was both rapid and devastating. Not Kangaroos, but people and their irresponsible behaviour in allowing their cats and dogs to roam.

After threats and extensive vandalism on our very beautiful early gold rush buildings - we got it from the yobs, the cops, local and state government - in the end the same guys smashing up the place asked the council to put a road through the property (which was surrounded by state park), the Victorian Government Department of Environment (which cared nothing for the animals) thought this road was a good idea - we got driven out by more threats and the road (which was never built) in 2011 after nearly four decades of conservation work (read Wind in the Willows and imagine it without the happy ending).

"That is how the lizards got wiped out - and probably the Kangaroos as well - along with most of everything else".

The cost to us was vast and the destruction pointless and of course the Kangaroo did not kill the lizard.

Peter Hylands, Melbourne, June 2019

United Nations, Paris, 6 May 2019: Nature’s dangerous decline

I want to pick out two brief statements here from the recent work conducted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

Our plea to all Australian governments is to act and change what have very clearly been extremely self-destructive behaviours that are not in the public interest. We also see very rapid decline of the natural world in Indigenous managed lands in Australia, much of which is caused by external effects, beyond the control of Indigenous peoples living in these remote places.

The introduction to Australia of the cane toad, fox and cat are among those external threats to Indigenous lands, climate change is clearly another. Our own investments in the nature of Australia, which have been significant, have all now been destroyed by malicious and vindictive conduct with precisely no attempts to properly account for what was done. We need to see some very significant changes to behaviour, which in our view is becoming increasingly unlikely. Now to the UN:

Current global response to extinctions insufficient; Transformative changes needed to restore and protect nature. The hope is that opposition from vested interests can be overcome for the public good. The most comprehensive assessment of its kind tells us that 1,000,000 species are threatened with extinction.
Nature managed by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities is under increasing pressure but is generally declining less rapidly than in other lands – although 72 per cent of local indicators developed and used by Indigenous Peoples and Local Communities show the deterioration of nature that underpins local livelihoods.