Kangaroos - The 100 Days Project: Day 12 [89]

            Extinction:

A Voice from the Vault

Once, they say, the skies over parts of the eastern United States were overcast for days, not from the clouds but from the mass migrations of passenger pigeons. The last passenger pigeon, named Martha, died in the Cincinnati Zoo on September 1st 1914. A few decades before no one would have thought such a thing possible, but it happened. By the same token I imagine many would think me crazy for holding out the possibility that, in little more than twenty or thirty years, kangaroos will be extinct, or at least have vanished from the wild, be seen only in zoos. But, especially now that they have become such playthings of government and industry, I do fear it, much as I hope, earnestly, to be proved wrong. The passenger pigeon, the dodo, the providence petrel: the path to extinction, it seems to me, often goes through the house of ‘plenitude’.

In 1965 Virginia Kraft, an American journalist and game hunter wrote, for Sports Illustrated, an account of a recent expedition into the Australian outback in the hope of ‘bagging’ one of the huge, seven-foot-high kangaroos she had long been hearing about. She was deeply disappointed. Carefully planned as the expedition was, and extensively as she travelled in western Queensland and New South Wales, she encountered hardly any kangaroos at all, and those few she did manage to lay eyes upon were far smaller than she’d been hoping for.

It is an exceptional piece. I find hunting in any form quite abhorrent, but in this case cannot deny that it seems to have allowed Kraft a remarkable window onto the paradoxes and willed blindnesses that then marked, and still mark, Australia’s attitude to its wildlife, and kangaroos in particular, and that she had the intelligence to perceive and record them. In only her second paragraph she remarks Australia’s delinquency concerning its native creatures. ‘It is … shocking,’ she writes, ‘that a nation so single-mindedly dedicated to the sporting life is also so singularly amoral about its wildlife’:

Far West NSW, photo credit: Teya Brooks Pribac

In the less than 200 years since Captain James Cook sailed into Botany Bay and claimed Australia in the name of George III, more than 30 species of native birds and animals, among them some of the oldest and most interesting in the world, have been either annihilated or so nearly eliminated that they have rarely been seen on the continent for decades.

She then goes on to give accounts of recent mass-slaughters of wedge-tailed eagles, green sea-turtles, and, from only a few decades earlier, the vast massacres of emus (‘some 20,000…at a crack’) and koalas (‘annual kills hit two million in the ’20s. By 1927 the little bear had disappeared entirely from South Australia and almost entirely from New South Wales and Victoria’). ‘[But] the most spectacular Australian crime against wildlife,’ she writes,  ‘the one for which all Australians will be judged most harshly by present and future generations, is the mass murder of its kangaroos. This is not solely an Australian tragedy, but one that reaches far beyond national boundaries.’

Far West NSW, photo credit: Teya Brooks Pribac

‘How did this all come about?’, she asks. ‘What prompts a people, considered among the most highly civilized in the world, to ruthlessly slaughter a national symbol? And why now, in the year 1965, after an incredible history of survival, should the kangaroo suddenly find itself unable to meet this most serious challenge of its 20 million years on earth?’:

The answers are surprisingly simple. Antagonism between ranchers and roos began almost the moment the first sheep were brought into Australia. It did not take the ranchers long to decide that every meal a kangaroo ate was one less for their stock, and they lost little sleep choosing sides. As far back as 1871 graziers, as they are called, began using rifles to keep kangaroo populations in check. Whenever grass or water were short or range competition was excessive, they were justified in doing so. Even with such control measures, kangaroos continued to survive comfortably for almost 100 years.

‘Then four things happened in the 1960s that changed everything’ – kangaroo fur, owing to new tanning and dyeing methods, soared in popularity internationally, as did kangaroo leather; and the canning of ’roo flesh as pet food became at last a viable – indeed very successful – industry, and Australia experienced one of the most severe droughts in its recent history. ‘As the last burned, brown grass dug dying roots into the parched earth, hope for the kangaroo withered too.’

Kraft travels initially to Bourke, expecting all the way to be seeing kangaroos but finding none. From Bourke she is driven well over a hundred miles farther westward, onto a huge, remote property where, at the ‘west bore’, she at last sees a couple of ’roos, too sad and too paltry, in her reckoning, to gun down, though that doesn’t stop the shooter she has come with. He shoots one through the thigh, the most acceptable place for the skin trade. They walk over. The roo is floundering about, unable to hop away. The shooter then picks up a rock, bashes it several times in the head. The cruelty sickens her.

What baffles her are the numbers. Everywhere she goes, and she does keep traveling, she hears that the ’roos are in pest proportions. She cannot see them, cannot find them, and nor, very readily, can those who nonetheless insist on their plenitude. Okay, she is there in a time of drought and that might reduce their numbers by a quarter, even a half, but even in the emptiest landscape people speak eerily as if they were overwhelmed by kangaroos. ‘The Australians’, she writes, ‘have been given a brainwashing on the subject of kangaroo damage that makes the unthink experts behind the Iron Curtain seem like apprentices’:

‘A kind of mass hysteria seems to grip large sections of the community at the mention of kangaroos,’ said an eminent wildlife biologist. ‘A complaint by graziers in the Wilcannia district can be followed by a host of complaints from all over New South Wales, and in places where only small populations of kangaroos exist and are rather uncommon.’

‘The fact that each female may only produce one young annually,’ added another biologist, ‘leads one to find reports of “population explosions” as untenable.’

But enough. Those interested in reading more of Kraft’s impressive and still timely piece can find it here

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ARCOHAB Inc.

PO Box 396

Katoomba NSW 2780

arcohab@gmail.com