It’s here! The 2016 Draft Wild Horse Management Plan

The long-awaited Draft Wild Horse Management Plan produced by the NSW Parks & Wildlife Service was released in early May. The document is open for public comment until August 19,  and I urge any readers who have strong feelings about this issue to make a submission.

In brief, the Draft Plan advocates for a reduction of brumby numbers from an estimated 6,000 horses to 600, using a range of methods, and being undertaken over a period of twenty years. Once the population has stabilised at this sustainable number, other, non-lethal approaches will be implemented, including fertility control, and ongoing passive trapping. The Draft Plan has been met with disbelief by brumby advocates. The most highly-reported opinions have been of those outraged by the proposal, while those in support have not been as visible in the popular media. Further, any accurate reportage of the core elements of the Draft Plan is frequently lost amid the outcry.

One example of this, sent to me by a blog reader, is the July issue of the Australian Women’s Weekly. The magazine’s cover features the tagline “Our heritage – The fight to stop a brumby massacre”, and the article, titled “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies”, continues in much the same vein. Overall, I find it doubtful that the author of this piece had even read the Draft Plan when she wrote the article. It refers to environmentalists disparagingly as “greenies” [1], repeatedly gives the impression that fertility control has been completely discounted under the Draft Plan (it hasn’t), and reports the opinion of a brumby advocate who “looks overseas to Europe, where horses are being reintroduced to many wildlife areas to protect biodiversity and replenish natural spaces. Surely … the Snowy Mountains brumbies must have similar value.”[2] The repetition of this woolly thinking is incredibly frustrating, for, as discussed previously on this blog, there can be no comparison between habitats that have evolved alongside hooved mammals, and those (like Australia’s) which have not.

Elsewhere we see the reportage of a very select reading of the evidence – brumby advocate Madison Young, for example, is cited  as being “furious that shooting on sight [site] has been rated by the scientists’ group as more humane than transporting to rehoming.” [3] This appears to be a misreading of the 2015 report of the Humaneness Assessment Panel, which was assembled on behalf of the Independent Technical Reference Group, which makes the point that being shot on site is a more humane option (for the 82% of brumbies who do not find a home) than being trucked interstate to slaughterhouses. Of course it is wonderful for the 18% of brumbies that are transported out to rescue groups and rehomed. But, as has been discussed elsewhere, this is certainly not the fate of the majority of horses removed from the park.

Of course misinformation such as that seen in the Women’s Weekly story is rife in such debates. Consider another “fact”, appearing in the Daily Mail Australia‘s coverage of the Draft Management Plan: “The brumby arrived in Australia on the First Fleet. Only seven survived the harrowing journey.” [4] I honestly don’t even know where to start with everything that is incorrect within that statement! But when you consider the source cited is savethebrumby.org, you begin to see which voices are being heard most loudly in these debates.

This level of misinformation in the (pro-brumby) opinions that are so frequently cited by the media is disappointingly reminiscent of climate change deniers. It would be a shame if such strategies of obfuscation lead to a similar state of paralysed inactivity, while the world (and Kosciuszko National Park!) hurtles towards a state of inevitable destruction.

REFERENCES:

[1] Beverley Hadgraft, “The battle to save Snowy’s Brumbies,” Australian Women’s Weekly July 2016, p. 31.

[2] ibid, p. 34.

[3] ibid.

[4] Hannah Moore, “Almost 6,000 wild brumbies living in the Snowy Mountains to be killed under controversial NSW scheme to save Mount Kosciuszko National Park,” Daily Mail Australia, accessed 2 May 2016.

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Unbranded

Last week I attended a screening of the Banff Mountain Film Festival (touring edition) here in Canberra, specifically to see the documentary “Unbranded” (thanks to my cousin once again for the tip-off !). This film touches on several American icons, including the mustang (equivalent of our brumby), the cowboy, and the Wild West, and it won the People’s Choice Award in this showcase of outdoorsy and adventure films.

The edit shown was an abridged version of the whole documentary, and only ran for 46 minutes, though the film in its entirety  runs for an additional hour. Unfortunately access to a complete cut of the film is currently unavailable in Australia, so I base my judgments solely on the parts of it I’ve seen.

Now, it has to be said upfront that this film deals with an American context, and for several reasons (which I will explore shortly) the mustang in America and the brumby in Australia are two entirely different beasts – both literally and figuratively! Watching the trailer on YouTube, I was frustrated at the thought that brumby advocates here in Australia might try to use this film as yet another argument for adopting the U.S. model of feral horse management. In fact very little of that “mustang narrative” featured in the version of the film that was screened as part of the BMFF. Instead, it was much more of a “boys’ own” adventure-type film, focusing heavily on the journey of these four young men, rather than the plight of the mustang.

So while this inhibits my ability to critique the film in terms of its portrayal of America’s feral horse populations, it still provides a useful entry point to consider the differences between the situation of the mustang, and that of the brumby. In the United States, the mustang was declared a protected species (along with the burro) during the 1970s. Though descended from the horses of 16th century Spanish colonisers, these feral horses were seen as “living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West … [Mustangs] are to be considered in the area where presently found, as an integral part of the natural system of the public lands.” [1]

While many brumby advocates would like to see the implementation of similar policy in Australia, with brumbies considered as part of the ecosystem (particularly in the Snowy Mountains), there is a huge geo-evolutionary difference between the continents of Australia and North America. In fact, the horse evolved in the grasslands of North America millions of years ago, and continued to have a presence there until the end of the last Ice Age around 10,000 years ago. This long period of co-existence means that the North American continent truly did evolve alongside the horse, an argument that, though often mistakenly applied to the Australian High Country, simply does not hold true here.

Another interesting difference between the Australian and American contexts is that the main opponents of the feral horses in the U.S. are ranchers, who see these equine populations as competition for the resources of public grazing lands. Conversely, in Australia, where many grazing licences were revoked in order to establish National Parks (eg in the central plateau of Tasmania, the Blue Mountains in NSW, and around Mt Kosciusko), the graziers affected are now among the core supporters of the brumby. It would be interesting to know what the attitudes of the Australian graziers of the past, who did have to compete with feral horse populations for access to public lands, would think of the present situation.

Of course there are also environmental concerns regarding the impact of herds of mustangs in the U.S. Where the presence of natural predators (such as mountain lions, wolves, and bears) remains, populations may be maintained in a healthy balance, though where these predators are absent, or in optimal conditions, populations can explode. This also occurs here in Australia, though without the presence of any natural predators to curb population growth, expansion is virtually unlimited. In spite of much smaller numbers of feral horses than in Australia, the U.S. is currently struggling to effectively manage these populations. As well as free-ranging populations, tens of thousands of horses are held in government facilities. To kill them is a felony offense.

The notion of following in the U.S.’s footsteps and proclaiming the brumby a National Treasure is absurd. Australia lacks comparable eco-systems and our evolutionary history is completely different. Further, the problems being faced in the U.S. now represent a compounding of the issues currently faced by Australia. While I personally don’t like that the majority of brumbies removed from NSW National Parks end up at the abattoir, and believe they should be culled on site to minimise the stress and trauma to the animals, imagine if this were to be made completely illegal. The mind boggles!

In short, while there are definite similarities between the regard in which the mustang is held in North America, and the brumby in Australia, and parallels in the management issues each nation is facing, the environmental and political situations of each continent is so different as to render the sort of sweeping comparisons frequently made between the two by brumby advocates meaningless.

REFERENCE:

[1] The Wild Free-Roaming Horse and Burro Act (1971), accessed 25 May 2016 http://www.all-creatures.org/alert/alert-20110920.pdf

Nature vs culture

When I was in Year 11 I was on the debating team, and the question set for our intra-school final was “Pants are better than skirts.”  Not wanting to stoop to a battle-of-the-sexes-themed debate, our side, for the negative, chose to approach the question literally, and examined it as an issue of fashion and comfort. The opposing team, on the other hand, decided to interpret the question as “men are better than women”. So the debate played out quite farcically, with both sides trying to rebut each other’s arguments, while fundamentally contesting completely different topics. How can anyone win* such a debate?

This blog has examined the issue of brumbies in Australia, and what is generally known as “the brumby debate”, several times, with my last post only the most recent example. The issue as it currently stands dates back to the Guy Fawkes River cull of 2000, and the situation, particularly in NSW, has been more or less at an impasse since that time. What is increasingly clear is that this is not a simple discussion about pest management, but one of cultural heritage, and, because of this, it is impossible to come to a clear resolution.

The two sides of the debate (to characterise them loosely as such – I am aware that people have differing motivations for their personal stance on the issue) are not two sides of the same coin, so to speak. What is essentially being debated is apples vs oranges. One approach views the clear environmental and ecological degradation wrought by the brumbies as a cut-and-dried case, to which the logical solution is their removal. And while those taking the opposing position offer some attempt at countering this viewpoint by debating exact numbers, methodologies, and impacts, the core of their argument is about something completely different – it is about heritage. Both these perspectives exist on completely different ideological footing, and, quite simply, it is impossible to win a debate that is being argued at cross purposes.

Simon Cubit has referred to this as a “tournament of value”,[1] where competing groups, committed to differing constructions of “truth”, vie to be acknowledged as the singular authority.  In the current context, we might look at this as a contest between nature (the ecological worth of wilderness) and culture (the brumby as heritage).

In the first instance, as Cubit and others argue, nature is a cultural construct,[2] rendering the environmental values ascribed to National Parks as, if not negated, then at least problematic. While the validation of purportedly natural landscapes is enshrined through processes such as UNESCO World Heritage listing, such landscapes are themselves constructed within cultural frameworks. [3] Ideas about the natural and the cultural cannot be considered in isolation from each other. Laurajane Smith draws our attention to the questionable use of the word “natural”, in particular when describing the Australian landscape. She points out that landscapes here perceived and interpreted as being “natural” are in fact the result of between 40,000-60,000 years of active management by Aboriginal people.[4]

On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. If we look at the dichotomy between natural and cultural heritage, we find that in many ways it is an artificially constructed one. As David Lowenthal argues, the two share many similarities in their treatment, and are frequently managed by the same instruments and institutions, for example the World Heritage Convention.[5] In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts effectively cancels the other out.

Which is fine in theory, but in practice the debates relating to brumbies are predicated upon the assumption that there is a difference between nature and culture, with the former typically characterised as being largely untouched by humanity, and the latter generally understood to be a product of human design and intention. If we accept this, then certain other assumptions must necessarily follow. For example, both nature and culture must be positioned within the same value system, leading to the prioritising of one in favour of the other if the two are in opposition, which they frequently are – the current example being a case in point. Lowenthal highlights that when these two values are in conflict, it is the cultural that will most likely be defended, for “[h]owever deeply we may love nature, most of us identify more easily with human relics and rise more readily to their defence.”[6]

This is the crux of the matter. It explains why sound evidence demonstrating the destruction that brumbies create is not enough; why arguments relating to the intrinsic value of Australia’s alpine ecosystems are not enough; why a debate fought on facts alone is not enough. To quote ecologists Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “simply appealing to institutionalised ecological knowledge will not resolve the debate by itself, because, in many ways, feral horse management is contingent upon ethical, political and cultural issues, not just scientific ones”. [7]

And what lies at the very heart of this issue? It is the regard that Australians have for the horse. And what lies at the heart of that? Well, that’s something I’m hoping that my research might go some way to answering.

 

*I don’t actually remember which side won. Which probably means it wasn’t mine!

REFERENCES:

[1] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[2] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395; Smith, Uses of Heritage, 166-67; David Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” International Journal of Heritage Studies 11 (2005): 81-92.

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage, (Oxon: Routledge, 2006),  166-67.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 168.

[5] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 82.

[6] Lowenthal, “Nature and Cultural Heritage,” 86.

[7] Dale Nimmo and Kelly Miller, “Ecological and Human Dimensions of Management of Feral Horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 413.

A million wild horses

Brumbies were the cover stars, and feature story, in the Jan/Feb issue of Australian Geographic (and many thanks to my cousin for tipping me off to that fact!). The piece begins with a good news story from an Aboriginal community in Central Australia, where training for the Certificate II in rural operations (in which horses play an integral role) has reignited interest in education, and offers hope of employment opportunities for community members. [1]

While the article does by and large present an even-handed account of the brumby debate, we still find that oft-repeated assertion that ‘horses are deeply embedded in [Australia’s] psyche’ [2], without any further exploration of why that might be (the obligatory mentions of The Silver Brumby and Banjo Paterson aside).

We do, however, learn that Australia’s wild/feral (pick your adjective of choice; the article acknowledges the dichotomy, but sticks with ‘wild’) horse population is now estimated to be ‘at least’ one million animals! [3] This is a significant increase from previous figures I’ve encountered, where numbers were postulated at around the 400,000 mark.[4] If those figures were correct when the research was published in 2007, then this population increase is nothing short of remarkable. Yet given that brumbies are able to increase their population by up to 20% in a good year, [5] and given that there have been no real bad years in the past decade, this figure is actually not surprising.

Central Australia apparently has a healthy brumby population, and several Aboriginal communities  are now looking at ways to exploit this resource, including mustering horses for sale. [6] The versatility of the brumby as a breed is emphasised in the article, and Erica Jessup, founder of the Guy Fawkes Heritage Horse Association, is quoted as saying that owning a brumby has ‘become very fashionable.'[7] But can you rehome a million of them?

There is a limit to how many horses Australians can adopt. Especially when brumbies are not the only horses seeking second chances. In a piece of blue-sky thinking produced by the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation in 2001, it was argued that all racehorses exiting the racing industry could successfully be rehomed, and that the demand for off the track thoroughbreds ‘will most likely increase over time as people shift from using other breeds and instead use thoroughbreds.'[8] There are also standardbreds (trotters and pacers) looking for homes after racing.

A horse is not as easy to rehome as cat or dog (and there are  thousands of those looking for ‘forever’ homes across our nation’s pounds and animal shelters). A horse requires very specific, and expensive, care, including specialised feeding, dentistry, and hoof care. If something goes wrong, a horse needs attention from a qualified veterinarian. It requires a large amount of space to live comfortably. Finally, a horse’s owner or handler requires specialist skills to care for that animal correctly. It’s not as simple as feeding it twice a day and leaving it in your backyard while you’re at school or work. For this reason, well-meaning people looking to re-home brumbies or ex-racers who do not have the skills to care for these animals ultimately do them a grave disservice.

In the case of the brumby, if population control is required (and the Australian Geographic piece acknowledges that it does), then lethal control methods (ie shooting or otherwise euthanasing) are the most humane and effective solution. Today, the majority of brumbies caught by passive trapping (the current crowd-pleasing ‘control’ method of choice) are not rehomed, but end up being trucked hundreds or thousands of kilometres, and meeting an unpleasant fate at an abattoir.

To insist that horses not be shot in national parks, but then to do nothing when the approved method of managing brumby populations, implemented due to people’s squeamishness at the idea of wild horses being shot, means that these same horses must go through the trauma of being captured, wrested from the only homes they’ve known, and finally butchered at a knackery, ultimately reeks of animal cruelty.

REFERENCES:

[1] Burdon, Amanda. 2016. “Where the Wild Horses Are.” Australian Geographic January/February 2016: 76.

[2] ibid

[3] ibid

[4] Nimmo, Dale Graeme, and Kelly K. Miller. 2007. “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review.” Wildlife Research 34: 409.

[5] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 76.

[6] ibid

[7] Burdon, “Wild Horses,” 83

[8] Geelen, Renee. “The Internet Age of Misinformation.” Racing and Breeding (117): 54.  http://breedingracing.realviewdigital.com/?iid=102110#folio=54

The brumby as heritage

Firstly, an apology for throwing my posting schedule to the wind – I’ve been on holidays! But I hope you will forgive a hard-working PhD student a well-earned break, and now we can happily pick up where we left off! In this post I’m returning to the topic of the brumby, which we have looked at several times already on the blog.

In May this year, the Australian Brumby Alliance (ABA) published a post on their website outlining the key principles of the Burra Charter,[1] a framework that outlines best practice management of Australia’s heritage. While the Burra Charter is most frequently cited with reference to built (or tangible) heritage, the ABA feels that “it supports our values, for example, where cultural values conflict, the Charter requires that Co-existence of cultural values should always be recognised, respected and encouraged. It is not one culture above another; both have equal value and need to be in balance.”[2]

As Laurajane Smith has argued, heritage is not simply about the past. It refers to a process of meaning-making and engagement that is manufactured in the present, as well.[3] According to Smith, ‘heritage’ is not the sites or the buildings that are commonly associated with the term, but the meanings we ascribe to them.[4] The ABA’s citation of the Burra Charter, a foundational document governing Australia’s cultural heritage, offers an opportunity to consider the brumby in the context of ‘heritage’, and to shape a broader discussion of the horse in this role.

The ABA’s invocation of the Burra Charter may be somewhat simplistic, however it illustrates what Simon Cubit has referred to as a ‘tournament of value.’[5] In this context, the environmental concerns of those opposed to brumbies in National Parks in Australia are set against the claim that horses (particularly brumbies) embody significant cultural heritage values of Australia. These claims bear closer examination. In the first instance, as Cubit argues, nature is a cultural construct,[6] and therefore the environmental values usually ascribed to National Parks could be, if not negated, then at least problematised. On the other hand, if nature is a cultural construct, then heritage is certainly so. In light of this, we might consider that the culturally constructed nature of each of these concepts might cancel the other out.

However, to further consider the contentions of brumby advocate groups such as the ABA, we must ask in what context the horse is to be considered as heritage. Is it every horse? Is it only wild horses? How did the association between brumbies (or horses generally) and Australian heritage begin? While the horse as a species unquestionably provided Australia with advantage and benefit in the process of colonisation and settlement, it was not the wild horse populations that rendered these services, nor even necessarily their ancestors, given that feral horses were being considered a pest as early as the 1860s.[7] Therefore, the claim that brumbies are part of Australia’s heritage seems factually questionable.

In the case of wild horses specifically, the conjuring power of the brumby as an animal of romance and myth could be argued to originate with A. B. ‘Banjo’ Patterson’s poem ‘The Man from Snowy River’, in which a nameless man, on trusty steed, rounds up a herd of wild horses. Though the poem itself might not have been distinguishable from similar verses of the time, its continued repetition and ongoing visibility renders it now part of our heritage, particularly in the sense that Smith conceptualises the term. That is, the ongoing engagement with the poem, and its dissemination across several genres – film, festivals, even the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics – renders us familiar with its tropes. It has come to be recognised as ‘heritage’ through the processes that shape such discourses – frequent repetition and continued visibility. Thus the Man from Snowy River has become part of Australia’s cultural iconography, and the brumbies with which he is forever associated (though they were never referred to as such in Paterson’s poem) are now also described as part of our heritage.

This is a fascinating discussion, and there is certainly much more to be explored on the topic, of which this is only a starting point.

REFERENCES:

[1] Australian Brumby Alliance, “The Burra Charter”, posted May 12 2015, accessed August 25 2015 http://australianbrumbyalliance.org.au/the-burra-charter/

[2] ABA, “Burra Charter.”

[3] Laurajane Smith, Uses of Heritage (Oxon: Routledge, 2006), 1.

[4] Smith, Uses of Heritage, 3.

[5] Simon Cubit, “Tournaments of Value: Horses, Wilderness, and the Tasmanian Central Plateau,” Environmental History 6 (2003): 396.

[6] Cubit, “Tournaments of Value”, 395.

[7] Dale Graeme Nimmo and Kelly K. Miller, “Ecological and human dimensions of management of feral horses in Australia: a review,” Wildlife Research 34 (2007): 408.

The Man from Cox’s River

A while ago someone mentioned the documentary ‘The Man From Cox’s River’ to me, and suggested I see it, given my particular interest in the horse in Australia. The film gets overwhelmingly positive reviews from viewers, and to be honest I was expecting something a bit parochial, trading off the whole Man From Snowy River thing, which most punters are quite happy to swallow hook, line, and sinker.

To my surprise, the documentary is much more nuanced, and focuses largely on the relationship between two of the human protagonists, Luke Carlon and Chris Banffy, rather than attempting to sell yet more brumby mythology. Luke Carlon is depicted as the quintessential Aussie bushman, having grown up in the heart of the Blue Mountains wilderness, and as comfortable on the back of a horse as he is on the ground. Chris Banffy has also grown up in the area, but his love of the country has taken him into a different profession, working for the NSW Parks and Wildlife Service.

The documentary begins with members of the Carlon family discussing their ousting from the Burragorang wilderness, which was once Crown Land used by graziers in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and from the 1960s by the Carlon family for their trail riding business, until its value as a wilderness site and significant catchment area finally ended public access. This was during the 1990s, and at the time, ‘Matriarch’ Norma Carlon tells us, there was a high degree of animosity between the Carlon family and the Parks and Wildlife Service, but by the time of the documentary, “feelings had cooled down a fair bit.”

The documentary centres on Banffy contracting Carlon, and several of his family and friends, to remove a mob of brumbies from the Lake Burragorang wilderness, in a project being funded by the Sydney Catchment Authority. Lake Burragorang is actually the flooded Burragorang Valley, which was dammed in the 1950s as part of the Warragamba Dam project. It provides Sydney with around 70% of its drinking water, and the brumbies present a problem, as there is evidence that they carry the cryptosporidium parasite.

Interestingly, the environmental issues presented here are not the same as those facing the Snowy Mountains region, for example. This is both the documentary’s strength, and its weakness. Its strength, because it then becomes an engaging local story. Its weakness, because it conveniently sidesteps a highly topical issue, essentially absolving itself of addressing the bigger picture of environmental degredation posed by brumbies throughout Australia’s wilderness.

I worry that many people might miss the point, made by Carlon himself, that “in some areas where there’s thousands of horses, you gotta do something about it”, and instead see this film as evidence that trapping and removal is a viable solution to shooting brumbies. Never mind that the cost of removing these horses is revealed in the film as being between $11,000 and $13,000 per horse! The fact that the real danger to environments posed by brumbies elsewhere is not addressed at all is evident in a Q&A with the documentary’s producers, where the interviewer, having seen the film already, asks exactly why brumbies are such an issue?

For me, it is NPWS Ranger Chris Banffy who proves the most engaging and insightful subject. I think his assessment that “People have very strong cultural connections to horses, and I actually don’t. You know, I’m very wary of those attachments that people have to horses, and how that alters their thinking” is spot-on. He also very openly and honestly reveals his reservations about the documentary itself, wondering how the events will later be edited, and what sort of story they will be used to tell. Kudos to the producers for including it!

The sheer remoteness of the location means that removing the brumbies is a challenging process, and even trapping them is preceded by months of free-feeding, to lure them to the yards. All the hay and infrastructure must be brought in by helicopter, an expensive process. Once the brumbies are trapped they must be broken to lead, and led the 4km out of the valley, to a second set of yards where they are loaded onto trucks and shipped out. What happens after this we are not shown, which was disappointing, as I think the next stage of the brumbies’ journey is potentially even more interesting. But again, this documentary is less about the horses, and more about the men, and their approach to the land and its management.

As a self-confessed horse lover I found the roping and breaking part quite confronting. When Luke says “The way we’re handling the horses here might seem a bit brutal and a bit rough” he’s not wrong. For Luke, the need is “to get them quiet enough quickly so that we can get them out of the valley here, and go to a safer home, because the alternative, if we didn’t, they’ll be shot.” But the brumbies will not go quietly, and seeing the fear in their responses, listening to them gasping as the ropes bite into their windpipes, restricting their breathing, their legs tied together, makes me wonder if maybe being shot while still free might not be a better alternative. However, when this appears to be a very real possibility for one recalcitrant mare, I am deeply grateful for the lengths the men go to to ensure this does not happen.

I did enjoy this documentary. I think it was reasonably even-handed in its portrayal of both sides of the arguments regarding conservation and land management, but I was also frustrated by the fact that it doesn’t add anything to the broader brumby debate, which extends far beyond the boundaries of the Blue Mountains National Park. However, for its representation of a local story, it does very well indeed.

Culling koalas

Last week I came across this article about a koala cull in Cape Otway, in Victoria. According to the article, almost 700 koalas were culled during 2013 and 2014, in a bid to deal with over-population in the region. ‘Interesting’, I thought. ‘I wonder what the public response will be?’

Well, in short, there has been very little public response in the intervening days. One of the only* online news article with comments appeared in the Geelong Advertiser. Of the 11 comments that were left there last week, only one person mentioned the ‘iconic’ status of the koalas. In fact there was no mention of any sort of cultural attachment to koalas in any of the news articles, until the International Fund for Animal Welfare commented on the issue, referring to the koala as ‘our national icon’ [1].

I find this particularly interesting, given the public outcry whenever the possibility of a brumby cull is mentioned, particularly in NSW and Victoria. These debates are constantly peppered with references to the brumby’s iconic status, and its important place in our national heritage. And yet the koala, an animal native to the east coast of Australia, is culled, despite being listed as vulnerable in NSW, the ACT and Queensland, and no one seems to care.

My issue is not that the cull happened. By all accounts it was necessary from a welfare point of view, with the koalas descended from a previously relocated population, and further relocation was deemed unfeasible [2]. Nor was it carried out in a brutal fashion. The animals were reportedly sedated before being euthanised [3], which is the same method in which the family pet would be put down by a vet, certainly not cruel.

The issue I have is that the over-population and subsequent culling of koalas in a small region doesn’t raise a tenth of the ire as the proposed culling of brumbies, which are an introduced species. Yet brumbies are in a very similar situation to the Otway koalas, suffering from over-population in the Snowy Mountains region, and, as reported last spring, apparently starving. Perhaps this is because conservationists and brumby advocates continue to dispute the actual number of brumbies? Well, according to The Australian Koala Foundation, the same goes for the Cape Otway koalas [4]. So maybe the lack of outcry is because the koalas were euthanised, rather than shot? Well, in 2008 there was no complaint made at the shooting and complete eradication of rabbits in Sydney’s Centennial Park, another ‘secret’ operation.

What emerges here is that the discourse around brumby management is different to that of any other animal, whether native or feral. The constant reference to the brumby’s iconic status, and it’s national heritage, have seemingly elevated it from the realm of ‘animal’, and conferred upon it an almost untouchable symbolic status. What remains to be seen is how the issue will play out, and what the ecological cost will be.

*The Australian also did a piece on this topic, with comments, however this cannot be accessed by everyone, as it pops up as ‘subscriber only content’. Suffice to say debate in the Comments field was typified by anti-‘Greenie’ sentiment. Of the 32 comments posted as of today, no mention was made of national heritage or iconic status.

REFERENCES:

[1] ‘Koala Cull Highlights a Bigger Problem’, International Fund for Animal Welfare web page (Australia) 5 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.ifaw.org/australia/news/koala-cull-highlights-bigger-problem

[2] ‘Hundreds of starving Cape Otway Koalas killed in ‘secret culls’,’ The Age website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 march 2015 http://www.theage.com.au/victoria/hundreds-of-starving-cape-otway-koalas-killed-in-secret-culls-20150304-13un49.html

[3] ‘Starving koalas secretly culled at Cape Otway, ‘overpopulation issues’ blamed for ill health,’ ABC website, 4 March 2015, accessed 4 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/starving-koalas-secretly-culled-at-cape-otway/6278768

[4] ‘Almost 700 Victorian koalas killed in secret cull,’ ABC News website, 4 March 2015, accessed 11 March 2015 http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-03-04/almost-700-victorian-koalas-killed-in-secret-cull/6280158