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The natural world

Life on land

“Locked as we are in our world of the present, it is a challenge for us to appreciate the flow of evolutionary processes that shaped the world we inhabit” Richard Leakey

Peter and Andrea Hylands

June 4, 2023

Charles Darwin made the point that the Cambrian explosion of life looked dramatic because the ancestors of those organisms had yet to be discovered. Darwin was of course correct, and sadly so in Australia, most have little understanding of what our landscapes looked like just fifty years ago and what kinds of biodiversity existed there, because so much of the natural world has been lost in that time. In many places in the world it is now the explosion of the missing that shapes our reality.

Crossing the Rift

We are in the Rift Valley. The Elephants are dying, not only from poaching, but from climate change and the drought that is created by the dangerous changes to our weather systems. That was a few years ago, in September 2014 I receive an email from the Creative cowboy films’ Maasai scholar, Francis Nkodidio Ole Sakuda, the droughts in Kenya were back and recently back once more.  

It had been very dry. The hippos are also getting restless forcing their huge bulk sideways and upwards through the water that remains in the river below us. Their grunts grow louder.

Time to go, the black clouds have started to roll over us. The Baboons run up the opposite riverbank, gathering up their young as they run. A dozen Guineafowl, one behind another, run along the banks edge, silhouetted now, legs working furiously and heads down. In a great confluence of understanding we all know what is to come.

There are no bridges here, so a rising river means a long wait until the river recedes again. We are not the only ones in a hurry. A group of Maasai with more than one hundred cattle are also on the road, soon we are in the middle of the herd. We move gently along with the animals.

Then we are through, accelerator down we speed and bump our way towards the new camp. Then it happens, the lightening and the rain. A sudden torrent fills the air to turn the African dust to mud, the rains have come at last. I have a sense of joy, for so long in dry places where the rains have failed. Now the rain will provide the growth of plant life essential to the survival of the animals of the Rift Valley.

It had all happened within moments. Our problem now, was getting across those rapidly rising rivers. The rain was so hard that it was impossible to see the track, now lost in the flooding rain. We had three rivers to cross to get back to the camp, we arrived at the last river just in time, a few moments later would have meant spending several days here, then we were through. 

This was to be a night of luxury away from the tent. Soon we were sitting at the bar, whiskey in hand, watching the rain pouring from the roof and filling the river next to us.

The animals were happy that night. When the rains come a remarkable change takes place. What was dust coloured landscape yesterday, now covered in a tinge of green, the first growth of the wet.

In 1989 President Daniel arap Moi, recognising the catastrophic journey towards extinction that much of Kenya’s wildlife was making, appointed Richard Leakey as the Director of the Wildlife Conservation and Management Department. He was to resign in 1994 as a result of 'government interference'. His work had been personally costly, losing both legs below the knee in a light plane crash.

His fight for nature however was not to end there.

“During my five years as director of the Kenyan Wildlife Service I was preoccupied with Elephants. This was not for aesthetic or academic reasons but for the gruesomely compelling reality that they were hurtling to extinction. Deprived increasingly of their once endless range because of inexorable growth of human settlements, and slaughtered in cold blood for their ivory, the Elephant population in Africa had been halved in the decade that led to my appointment as director in April 1989. Unchecked, these twin forces of destruction were on course to dispatch the Elephant to evolutionary oblivion by the turn of the century. Beginning the new millennium with the blood of so glorious a species on our hands would have been sickening testimony to human irresponsibility and greed. This appeared not to matter at all to some; but it mattered to me”.

Bad lands

There are so many parallels here between Kenya and Australia when it comes to exploitation of both species and land. Of the two, the scope and scale of this damage is far more aggressive on the Australian Continent at this time. While Africa receives global attention for these things because of Africa’s BIG 5, the Elephant, Lion, Rhinoceros, Leopard and Cape Buffalo, Australia, flying under the radar, receives far less attention than it deserves, the world believing that all is well. In Australia there has been precisely no leadership from senior politicians on these matters for a very long time, more often precisely the opposite. 

Gippsland, Victoria, a state in Australia

In Australia its increasingly rare flora is bulldozed, poisoned, burnt in changing and often poorly thought through fire regimes, through deforestation, destroyed by climate change and competition from introduced species and trampled by the increasingly heavy burden of cattle, goats and sheep in landscapes which are marginal for industrial scale animal production to say the least. There is also a vast array of feral animals.

Deforestation state: Not to be trusted

The story in November 2019. The Victorian Government announced that native forest logging would be phased out in Victoria by 2030 and logging of old growth forests would cease immediately with a new plan to transition Victoria’s timber industry.

In November 2022 the ABC’s investigations came to this conclusion.

“The government map unveiled in 2019 modelled approximately 90,0000 hectares as “rare and precious old growth” and subject to protection — but that was only the start of the story. Within days, the Andrews government had introduced a procedure that would allow the state’s logging company VicForests to make the final determination as to whether a logging area really contained old-growth forest, and whether these zones should be protected”.
“The ancient forests of far East Gippsland, Victoria, are home to rare rainforest found nowhere else on Earth, along with endangered owls, potoroos and gliding possums. But vast tracts of these spectacular relics, windows into Gondwana, are earmarked for logging by VicForests. Unless logging is stopped, untouched old-growth forest will be ripped down”. Environmental Justice Australia
“Chris Schuringa, a conservationist who obtained some of the freedom of information documents when she worked for GECO, says between the documents, the changes in the definition of “old growth” and the problems with the verification procedure, it is clear the government is not serious about protecting old-growth forests”. ABC November 2022

Step back a few years, the Victorian Government’s Timber Release Plan, in which there were 412 coupes covering 17,640 hectares, consisting mainly of the 1939 Mountain Ash bushfire regrowth, were proposed for clear felling to 2016. That was out of some 38,000 hectares available. This suggests that cutting rates would exhaust the 1939 regrowth forests in 15 years or so (2030).

Giving the greater context, the Guardian in Australia reported that a further 3 million hectares of Australian forest were likely to be lost in the next 15 years describing the country as a global deforestation hotspot. The only word that describes this behaviour is catastrophic and we can say that this level of forest destruction is an international disgrace. In the process of destroying the forests, bulldozing and burning millions of animals, across the Australian continent each year.

Back in Victoria, where forestry practices have been surrounded by a series of scandals, tens of thousands of hectares of MountainAsh Forests were burnt in the 2009 and again in 2019 /20 bushfires but even this did not slow the rate of clear felling.

“Logging started this week in a patch of untouched forests in Swifts Creek on Gunnai Kurnai Country, despite the Andrews government promising to protect all old growth forests in November 2019. Greater Gliders and Yellow-bellied Gliders have also been found in the area, the forests are an island in a sea of fire-impacted forests, and a critical refuge for threatened species”. GECO, February 2022

The ABC examined about 90 logging plans – called Forest Operation Coupe Plans – produced by VicForests, mostly for East Gippsland, an area famed for its old growth forests.

"Among those logging plans were 21 that proposed logging in areas that were marked on that government map as “not available” for logging because they were thought to be old growth”. November 2022

Recent events have taken us to this point, now there is so little old growth forest left, that there is a promise to end the logging of native forests in Victoria by the end of 2023.

“Native forest logging in Victoria will end in December, six years earlier than previously planned, after the state government decided severe bushfires and legal campaigns had made it economically and environmentally unviable”.

NOTE: Community forestry operations subject to Forest Produce Licences, which are outside the1.8 million hectares of public land currently subject to the timber harvesting allocation order, are not subject to the decision to end native forest logging. The majority of these licences end mid-2024 and the Victorian Government is still deciding what to do with them.

We will wait and see what happens.

Crossing the Flores Sea

Now on to Komodo, Here we have walked in shady forests and open hill country, Rinca too. It is like discovering a lost world, best to keep your eyes open though, these Indonesian Islands are the home of the world’s largest lizard, the Komodo Dragon Varanus komodoensis.

Away from the shelter of Flores Island the wind from the North East brings us large waves that roll the small boat. Now out in the Flores Sea, Indonesia is intensely beautiful, sometimes we say was beautiful, but here it still is, the heavy monsoon clouds hang above us.

The air is sea fresh and clean. The small volcanic islands, all monsoon green on steep slopes, with their little row of stilt houses hugging the shore. The occasional tree, a squiggle silhouette above shoreline.

During the last Ice Age this was mountainous land, the tops and plateaus of the highest places now islands. Occasionally we can just make out the very top of a now submerged hill, its rocks protruding above the waves as the white foam circles the remnant land. It is important to understand these waters.

The clouds darken the seascape, then there is a brighter light that changes the sea from a dark blue green to a lighter and brighter sea, wave tops reflecting white spray as they roll around us. It is now late afternoon and we are still some distance from Komodo Island.

The now darkness illuminated by the boat’s lights as they reflect off sea surface undulating in the now calming water, above, the deep black monsoon clouds conceal the sky, the moon and stars. It is in the pitch black that we sight another set of lights. Before us are the lights of Komodo Village. Slowly now, then anchor down we settle in for a night on the boat, a Bintang or two and the usual stunningly good Indonesian food. Tomorrow, we visit the Dragons.

And so to Douglas Adams:

“I suddenly felt terribly old as I watched a Mudskipper hopping along with what now seemed to me like a wonderful sense of hopeless, boundless, naïve optimism. It had such a terribly, terribly, terribly long way to go. I hoped that if its descendant was sitting here on this beach in 350 million years’ time with a camera around its neck, it would feel that the journey would have been worth it. I hoped that it might have a clearer understanding of itself in relation to the world it lived in. I hoped that it wouldn’t be reduced to turning other creatures into horror circus shows in order to try to ensure them their survival. I hoped that if someone tried to feed the remote descendant of a goat to the remote descendant of a dragon for the sake of little more than a shudder of entertainment, that it would feel it was wrong. I hoped it would not be too chicken to say so”.

The fragility of Kangaroos

“The cameras started to whirr, as if on cue, the baby was born. It dropped out onto Pamela’s tail and lay there, a pinky-white glistening blob no longer than the final joint of my little finger. Although I knew what to expect, the whole performance was one of the most miraculous and incredible things that I had ever seen in all the years that I have been watching animals. The baby was in all intents and purposes, an embryo – it had in fact been born after a gestation period of only 33 days; it was blind and its hind legs, neatly crossed over each other, were powerless, yet in this condition it had been expelled into the world. As if this was not enough of a handicap it now had to climb up through the fur on Pamela’s stomach until it found the entrance of the pouch. This was really the equivalent of a blind man, with both legs broken, crawling through thick forest to the top of Everest, for the baby got absolutely no assistance from Pamela at all”.

Kangaroos: Victoria and New South Wales, 2017-18

Of the 16 species of Macropod that existed in Victoria, seven are now extinct, at least three more are on the edge of extinction. In 2017 alone, 2966 permits (ATCWs) were issued in Victoria to kill 190,240 Kangaroos and Wallabies across five species; Eastern Grey Kangaroo, Western Grey Kangaroo,Red Kangaroo, Red Necked Wallaby and Black Wallaby.

In 2017 and in the case of the Red Kangaroo, permits were issued to kill more animals than the species’ entire population in the state. Range and geography matters for the survival of species, this appears not to be understood as the range of species continues to contract.

In New South Wales in 2018, an all-out war was conducted against Kangaroos by its government, under the pretext of extreme drought conditions.

“This animal was still alive when discovered, it was then humanely euthanised. The animal was shot in the face, the high probability is it was shot by a 'weekend shooting party'. This story of extreme cruelty is repeated over and over again. Many of these animals have a living joey in their pouch. Sometimes the bullets pass through the pouch”.

Kangaroos in the state are being killed by the commercial industry for pet food and skins, by landholders and by shooting parties for what appears to be entertainment. Young are not counted in the slaughter, which includes the use of bows and arrows.

“In the case of this Kangaroo, the arrow extends through the neck protruding through the neck just below the back of the head, it must have been shot with the arrow as it was trying to escape. If not attended to, the animal will suffer for days or weeks before it dies”.

A grim death and degrading end: Commercial Kangaroo shooter in action in NSW

In New South Wales there has been an alarming decline in the number of Kangaroos when government figures are analysed. In mid 2002, the monthly carcass-loading-rate was as high as 160,000 Kangaroos, and even though several new shooting zones have been added since that time covering a vast area of the state, by mid 2016 the monthly carcass-loading-rate had fallen to around 12,000.

Shooters are not constrained in any way by the quota which is meant to represent 'the maximum sustainable quota' – they can shoot as many as they can find, so this decrease in 'take' is a clear indication that Kangaroos are becoming increasingly harder to source and poses questions about the long-term commercial viability of the industry. The reason for this is that the population estimates produced by the state are nonsense and as a result the annual quotas are far too high.

“The 2018 killing rate, everyone seems to be killing them, must have the result of significantly impacting Kangaroo populations across the state to a point where recovery of populations to earlier levels is unlikely. Hence the increasing pressure on the South East of New South Wales and Victoria to expand their trade in wildlife”.

Each state and territory is similar and we need to remember this exploitation of a gentle and demeaned group of animals is one of the cruellest and large scale slaughters on Earth.

Quotes in this story include Richard Leakey (with Roger Lewin) The sixth extinction; Douglas Adams (and Mark Carwardine) Last chance to see, Environmental Justice Australia and the ABC. On Kangaroos, Gerald Durrell Two in the bush and Peter Hylands,  our thanks to Professor Steve Garlick and a special thank you to Steve for his dedication to Australian wildlife including Kangaroo welfare issues.