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Kangaroos – The 100 Days Project: Day 31 [70]

Conservation, etc.

In the hidden valley in which we live – that is, I call it the Hidden Valley, though there is nothing very hidden about it at all – holly is a problem. Indeed the local council has determined holly to be a weed, a pest, along with agapanthus, blackberry, and numerous other exotic plants introduced by the early white settlers. And the council poisoners – who have described themselves to me, very emphatically, as conservationists (it’s even painted on the side of their truck…) ­– have numerous times, as they’ve sprayed a not-to-be-named weed-killer on the ivy and broom and blackberry that have come to dominate the copse at the bottom of the dead-end road beside us, asked me to eradicate it (and the ivy, and the blackberry, and the broom) from the property. I don’t really have to – the ‘rescued’ sheep (also unwanted exotics in the area) who live with us tend to take care of much of that, being lovers of broom, blackberries and blackberry leaves. But, to come back to the holly – and to say nothing of the creatures, native and exotic (the birds, the tiny, endangered lizards) that the Council’s famous weed-killer (widely dubbed ‘Agent Orange Two’) also kills – I was, on a misty afternoon last Christmas, taken aback, indeed magically enthralled, by the huge colony of spiders – natives, no doubt – that one particular holly-plant (the sheep must have missed it) was sustaining, so much so that it seemed, almost, festooned with artificial snow. Where would this – surely an ecosystem of its own! – fit in the council poisoner’s ecosystem? But what ecosystem would exclude it?


In principle I have, for a very long time, been in sympathy with conservation movements – for decades would have been happy to call myself a conservationist – but all is not easy in their relations with animal rights. You could almost say that there’s a schism between them, a split or division occasioned by the former’s continual insistence upon culling or eradication of the exotic and/or supernumerous, at the heart of which is the deeply troublesome and paradoxical insistence that particular, human-animal-determined classes of non-human animals pay for the damage that human animals have done, and that the greatest cause of ecological damage and imbalance – the animal the restriction of which would make the greatest sense in terms of ecological repair – remains untouchable, to all intents and purposes out of the equation. This is not to say that reparation, redress, avoidance or minimalisation of further damage, attempts to balance the currently so-unbalanced system, are not very desirable things, but more and more, while it continues to ignore some of the great questions it raises, ‘conservation’ risks coming to look like an aesthetic rather than a defensible ethic, a sideshow to distract us from the main event, the main crime, the reality, that the management of the ecosystem is in the hands of the top-order predator par excellence.


I am hardly the first to point such matters out. Indeed, one could say that there is – or has occurred – a schism in conservation itself, turning upon precisely this victimisation and scapegoating of non-human animals, and that from it has emerged the concept of ‘compassionate’ conservation. The conservation of which I speak in this piece – still the largest proportion of the conservation movement, and the source of most common understandings of conservation – is largely but not entirely, that from which ‘compassionate’ conservation has separated itself.


Am I really calling, in my reference to ‘the greatest cause of ecological damage and imbalance’, for a mass culling of humans? Of course not. Advantageous as that may be for the non-human ‘environment’, it would hardly be consistent (for example) with the principles of compassionate conservation. Humans may have become (long ago) the top-order predators, but, predators or not, they are still animals amongst animals. I am, however, advocating some attention to the shaky foundations, unexamined assumptions, and paradoxes upon which certain current understandings of ‘conservation’ rest.


What is it, for example, that we are conserving, or seeking to preserve or restore the balance of? What are its dimensions? How do we measure it? What are its borders, its edges? How do we define and locate them? Isn’t every macro-ecosystem made up of micro-ecosystems? Can we be sure that the assumptions we make about one (the macro-system, say) – and the rules we base upon those assumptions – are appropriate to the others (the microsystems)? Do they have to be? And upon what point do we focus, to attain the model we wish, supposedly, to return a damaged/imbalanced ecosystem to? A point before human intrusion and damage? A point before settler/invader human intrusion and damage? A point before the introduction of ‘exotic’ species? 1770? 1788?


In 1788, it has been estimated (1), the kangaroo population of Australia was somewhere between one hundred and two hundred million, a big gap, I admit, but imagine it. And now the estimated kangaroo population seems to fluctuate between fifty or sixty million in a very good (i.e. kangaroo-friendly) year and twenty-five or thirty million in an average one. If the pre-1788, two hundred million figure is correct (let’s hypothesise) then the western presence in Australia has virtually quartered the kangaroo population (in Tasmania it has quite literally decimated it). And yet we are told – conservationists tell us – that the kangaroo is ‘in plague proportions’, at a quarter of its pre-1788 numbers, and that we should cull (/kill), relentlessly. Through its annual ‘harvest’ quotas, the Australian government is currently (figures for 2014-16) encouraging the killing of between seven and eight million kangaroos per year. And of course the kangaroo here is just one species amongst many dozens we could be talking of. Once, they say, there was a koala in, and a bandicoot beneath, every tree. Now you’d be lucky to find one in every state. So clearly it’s not 1788 that conservationists are seeking to return us to. When, then, is it, and why and how has that choice been made? And how on earth can we justify killing as our principal/default strategy?


(1) John Auty, 'Red Plague Grey Plague: the Kangaroo Myths and Legends', in Kangaroos: Myths and Realities, eds Maryland Wilson and David B. Croft (Melbourne: Australian Wildlife Protection Council, 2005), p.62

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