The Times Are A Changin’

Three hooded dotterels or hooded plovers (Thinornis cucullatus). Lights Beach, Denmark, Western... by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Three hooded dotterels or hooded plovers (Thinornis cucullatus). Lights Beach, Denmark, Western Australia

 

This week I read two articles that really made me stop and think not only about the looming climate crisis but  my photography and what purpose it serves.

 

 

East Cove by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
East Cove, Brunny Island.

 

Whether you believe in climate change or not, as Bob Dylan once sang “The Times Are A Changin’”. The first article I’ll reference was by the celebrated Australian author Richard Flanagan and he speaks of the joy he receives from observing birds around his home on Brunny Island in Tasmania. He also expresses the sorrow that the birds bring because of their diminishing numbers. For one reason or another bird populations are declining rapidly  and it’s not just in Tasmania, it is a global phenomena. In Perth, the capital of the state in which I live, the Swan Estuary is a highly important nesting and breeding site for migratory birds such as plovers, sandpipers, knots, stints, and curlews that travel from Siberia and North Asia. In the 1980’s it was estimated that 36 species and more than two million birds came to Australia each summer. The number of migrating waders on the Swan Estuary was around the ten thousand mark, but, by 2000 there were fewer than five hundred. The causes for this alarming decline are many and include feral foxes and cats preying on the birds, domestic dogs being walked through nesting sites, prawning parties , people digging on the mudflats for fishing bait. Here in York we had a sizeable colony of Rainbow Bee Eaters that migrate here from New Guinea and the tropical north of Australia to avoid the wet season there. They dig their burrows in banks above the Avon River and breed. Last summer the Shire of York Council put in gravel roads along the riverside to allow access for emergency vehicles. In the process of doing that they bulldozed the nesting sites killing the adults and the young they were rearing and then permanently destroyed the site by covering the area with rocks to make a retaining wall. It wasn’t malicious, it was pure ignorance as the council has no environmental protection policy and had not done any form of survey into the wildlife along the river. They were very apologetic when informed but the damage has been done. There should be a thriving colony of Rainbow Bee Eaters digging burrows and and rearing young at this time of year – I’ve just seen one solitary bird.

 

Rainbow Bee-eaters by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Rainbow Bee Eater, Merops ornatus. Avon Walk Trail, York, Western Australia.

 

The second article was also about Australia’s declining bird population and it talked about the phenomena  of ‘extinction of experience’ which is a phrase first coined by Robert M Pyle. Extinction experience has negative implications for people’s health and well being. The article referenced a research paper that basically says that if people are having less and less opportunities to interact with nature that will create an antipathy towards the natural world and consequently they will cease to care about it. So to get people to be more aware of environmental issues they must be encouraged to reconnect with nature. One of the reasons why I wrote my walking guide, and I articulate this in the introduction, is that I hope that the people who use it will develop a love for and an understanding of the environment.

 

Yenyenning Lakes by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Dead trees ring Lake Yenyenning

 

So what’s all this got to do with photography? Simple really. One of the main ways that I interact with the environment is through photography. It doesn’t matter whether it is close ups of plants, photos of birds or other wild animals or landscapes. It all equates to being out in the environment and experiencing it in a first hand way. Bushwalking, cycling, dog walking all do this as well and I feel so much better for it.

 

Denmark Nornalup Heritage Trail and Munda Bidi Trail by Paul Amyes on 500px.com
Denmark Nornalup Heritage Trail and Munda Bidi Trail loop ride. Denmark, Western Australia.

 

I started this post referencing Bob Dylan and I’d like to end with Cat Stevens or Yusuf Islam as he is now known. In his hit song “Morning Has Broken” the lyricist Eleanor Farjeon talks of the joy of walking through the Sussex village of Alfriston on a fresh morning. She talks of the joys of seeing the dawn, hearing blackbirds singing and experiencing the dew on the grass. Yesterday as I walked the dog along the river we were greeted by a territorial goshawk sitting on the branch of a dead tree. As we passed it swooped us while making plaintive calls. It was a totally sublime experience. Go out. Take pictures, walk, cycle, play. Enjoy the environment and revel in its beauty.

 

Thylacine Sighted In Richmond

I went to the touristy olde world town of Richmond a little while ago and saw a Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine. It had been turned into a garden ornament – “gnomified” if you like, just like the Buddha has been.

Tasmanian Tiger, aka the thylacine, spotted in a front garden in Tasmania’s historic town of Richmond.

Tasmanians have a very complicated relationship with the Tassie Tiger. Images of the thylacine can be seen everywhere, it’s on beer labels, the state coat of arms, the coat of arms for Launceston, the logo for Tourism Tasmania. In fact it is everywhere. You might, therefore, come to the conclusion that it is a much-loved animal. In a way it is, but the truth is it wasn’t.

The Tasmanian Tiger roams in Salamanca, Hobart, Tasmania.

The Thylacine was a shy reclusive animal, the last of its kind – a carnivorous marsupial that was an apex predator and whose relatives went back into the mists of the mammalian era some 5 to 23 million years ago (the Miocene). Computer modelling has shown that the thylacine was not a very strong animal and would have been incapable of handling anything larger than 5Kg and it is now widely believed that they were ambush predators who preyed on small animals such as bandicoots and possums. When the first aboriginal people crossed to the Australian Continent via a land bridge some 40,000 years they brought with them the first dogs, the descendants of what we now call the dingo. The dog was simply a much better and more adaptable predator than the thylacine and by the time British colonisation started they were already extinct on the mainland. When the first settlers in Tasmania saw the thylacine they named it the Tasmanian Tiger or Tasmanian Wolf. There was an apocryphal tale appealing to Victorian gothic drama that can be traced back to just one source that the Thylacine was a blood drinker which preyed on sheep and poultry. That sealed its fate and a bounty was placed upon it and it was hunted vigorously.

A particularly moth eaten stuffed thylacine, or Tasmanian Tiger, in the Tasmanian state museum.

The bounty of £1 for a dead adult and 10 shillings for a dead pup meant that by the 1920’s it was rare to see a thylacine in the wild. In 1930 a farmer by the name of Wilf Batty shot the last wild one. This was bad enough but the tale takes a more tragic turn. In 1933 the Hobart Zoo acquired a thylacine, which was later referred to as Benjamin, which lived there for three years. Inevitably the animal died not of old age but because it was locked out of its shelter on a very cold Tasmanian night. In effect killed by neglect. The last of a species going back millions of years killed because somebody couldn’t be bothered to make sure it was sheltered safely for the night.  So after 133 years of settlement, thirty years after a conservation movement was founded seeking its protection and just 59 days after the Tasmanian government signed a conservation order to protect it the last thylacine had died. Optimistically it remained on the endangered list until the 1980’s , but with no confirmed sightings for 50 years it was declared officially extinct.Every now and again there is some crack pot scheme to clone it from DNA harvested from remains in museums, or some millionaire will put a reward for the capture of a live one, but the reality is that the thylacine is long gone because of an indifference to its plight.

In the mid 1990’s a biologist by the name of Nick Mooney gave an interview to the Hobart Mercury newspaper. Mooney was concerned that the attention the thylacine was getting was diverting the attention away from Tasmania’s other iconic animal – the Tasmanian Devil. He argued that the Devil should be researched and protected. Many people thought that he was barmy as there were more Devils in Tasmania then than at the time of first settlement and farmers were claiming that they were at plague proportions and were a threat to livestock. Fast forward twenty years and the devil is now on the verge of extinction from a combination of devil facial tumour (a transmissible cancer), habitat destruction, traffic fatalities and environmental pollution caused by high levels of flame retardant chemicals found in consumer electronics. These chemicals are banned and were phased out in the 1980’s but their effects are still being felt and it is thought that they play a part in devil facial tumour disease. Because devil populations are declining the gene pool is also diminishing this had laid the Devils very vulnerable to  disease.

The devil is an iconic symbol of Tasmania and many organisations, groups and products associated with the state use the animal in their logos. It is seen as an important attractor of tourists to Tasmania.

Today Tasmanians mourn the passing of the thylacine even though there are very few people who are left alive that actually saw one. All that remains are a few preserved specimens in museums, some black and white photos and some grainy film footage. Tourist operators say that the extinction of the devil will severely impact their industry and slowly people are starting to wake up to the fact that the devil is likely to go the same way if something is not done. There has been some research on the on devil facial tumour disease which is fantastic. So is devil saved? Well some scientists believe that the only way for the devil to survive is to quarantine healthy devils in captivity and let the wild population die out. Even if the wild population could survive the current Tasmanian state and Australian Federal governments are working to open up Tasmania’s national parks and world heritage areas to commercial logging. The federal government is also not prepared to fund research into Devil Facial Tumour Disease. So at present your best chance of seeing a Tasmanian devil is either at a zoo, animal sanctuary or dead beside a road. In another twenty years all we could be left with is some video footage and some memories. I would urge every Australian and prospective visitor to Tasmania to write to:

Matthew Groom the Tasmanian minister for the environment

and

Greg Hunt the federal minister for the environment

asking that more funding should be given to ensure the survival of the devil and to ask them not to open the Tasmanian national parks to logging.

 

They’re not the most loveable of creatures but the world would be a worse place without them.