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The Forum > Article Comments > Death of the ‘Big Things’ of Australia > Comments

Death of the ‘Big Things’ of Australia : Comments

By Chris Johnson, published 10/4/2007

The lesson of the past is that hunting of large slow-breeding animals, such as whales, dugongs and so on, has extinction as its common endpoint.

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Gawd! – yet another plea for the big end of town. As if we don’t get enough of that from our current Prime Minister and Treasurer.
But, there is some validity in this case. The big, brutish browsers just might have had some influence on the shrubbery where bushfires get a go-on: chewing, tearing, uprooting, eating and defecating much of the material which presently gives wildfire-opportunity from lightning strike or incendiary human.
A further but: they were just the blunt end of a finely-tuned ecological system. There has been some speculation that the human species would have had a tough go of it – perhaps never made it to their present ascendancy to plague-proportion bastardry - were it not for a set of humble insects , the dung beetles in Africa.
These humble beasties provided the recycling system for nutrients, and therefore upkeep of the grassy plains where our ancestors roamed after their own forebears descended from the trees.
Not to be outdone, Australia had its own dungbeetle fauna long before human appearance here. But, crap aint crap to dungbeetles, and the choosy sods died out rather than take to different (or no) tucker. We have since had to import appropriate dungbeetles to suit our imported cattle, sheep and horses; yet are too lousy to adequately foster their work of recycling nutrients and remediation of degraded grazing lands.
If there is to be a paeon of praise for the missing megafauna, then there should be a dirge for the displaced dung-beetle. And further - let’s hear it loud and clear: a fugue for the fungi, which make up more than 20 per cent of all earth’s biological mass. In Australia, we have ravaged the landscape by intemperate application of grazing and agriculture so that vast depletion of its fungi has taken place. Fungi needed to release nutrients such as phosphorus for the plants clothing the landscape and enhancing rural production.
Yes, let’s be cautious in monstering the big species. But, they are just the more obvious end of an ecological balance upon which humanity itself is dependen
Posted by colinsett, Wednesday, 11 April 2007 6:14:29 AM
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I agree with Tim Flannery and yourself Chris. The evidence seems overwhelming that the megafauna were rendered extinct by aboriginal hunting.

“…it seemed unbelievable that a sparse human population could have inflicted enough hunting to wipe out more than 50 species of large animals.”

Well, the population wouldn’t have been so sparse at the time because of the considerable extra resource afforded by the megafauna. The human population no doubt declined considerably after this resource had been exhausted.

This sort of population hump and decline occurred in New Zealand with the extinction of the moas. At the time European contact the Maoris were in a pretty bad way; overpopulated and with massive resource decline, and in major conflict with each other.

It really is just a basic ecological principle that populations increase when the going is good and then decline when their life-support systems diminish.

Arguably, many of the dreamtime stories and traditions of resource preservation that existed across Australia at the time of white contact would have arisen out of harsh experiences with declining resources thousands of years earlier, consequent declining populations and the conflict that would have gone with it.

“We also have the key to understanding how it was that hunting caused so many extinctions so quickly.”

But it probably wasn’t very quick at all, extending over hundreds if not thousands of years – vastly slower than the current wave of human-induced extinctions.

Posted by Ludwig, Thursday, 12 April 2007 2:49:12 PM
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I’m not so sure about the lessons that you say we should be learning from this.

Firstly, I don’t think Australian ecosystems are incomplete without the megafauna. They reached a new balance, with Aboriginal fire-stick farming. Once they were in balance they were arguably complete. Then they got way out of balance with the removal of this fire regime and the introduction of cattle and sheep and various weeds. But again, a new balance has been achieved in some places and is being approached in others.

I agree with Tim Lowe, author of Feral Future, that we need to accept the changes that are happening around us and allow the ‘new nature’ to develop.

Secondly, I don’t think the lesson is to stop hunting large game but rather, to do it sustainably. We can have an industry based on large fish such as tuna, if we do it properly. And dare I say it; we can have a sustainable whaling harvest as well (if you don’t care about killing magnificent long-lived intelligent creatures).

The lesson we should learn is that following the extinction of the megafauna, Aboriginal people lived sustainably. The Aboriginal experience and that of the Maoris, the Easter Islanders and many cultures and civilisations, send an overwhelming message that we need to do everything in our power to direct ourselves towards sustainability now, before we are forced into massive population decline, massive decline in quality of life and enormous conflict….and perhaps extinction.
Posted by Ludwig, Thursday, 12 April 2007 2:53:01 PM
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Chris it was great to meet you last night at your public lecture.

It has given me a fascinating new insight into extinctions in Australia.

A totally professional presentation. The best James Cook Uni presentation I have seen.

Posted by Ludwig, Friday, 20 April 2007 4:22:08 PM
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'a new balance, with Aboriginal fire-stick farming'

A new 'balance' or a long, slow decline?

I think the jury may still be out on that one.
Posted by Horus, Saturday, 21 April 2007 6:15:04 PM
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No certainly not a slow decline Horus. Definitely a new dynamic balance, which favoured some species and disadvantaged others.

‘Aboriginal ecology’ was highly vibrant, with a high biodiversity. Subsequently, the disappearance of Aboriginal fire regimes has led to a greater level of uniformity in the landscape and a reduction in biodiversity. Overall biodiversity may not have been significantly reduced, but it certainly has been on a medium-sized area basis (the size of an area that would have had a variety of patches at different stages in the fire cycle, but which is uniform today).

The great thing about the Aboriginal ecology was that it HAD reached a ‘dynamic balance’, with Aborigines living sustainably and in harmony with the natural system. They were just another species in those ecosystems. This balance existed for tens of thousands of years.

The spinoff was increased diversity in the landscape.

The negative side was the extinction of the megafauna by hunting, and probably many other species as result of the controlled use of fire before they developed this balance.

There is one indication that this balance wasn’t absolute. That is, that Aborigines were developing better hunting technologies and impacting more strongly on some parts of their environment as a result.

Chris Johnson hypothesises that the invention of the woomera, or spear-thrower may have been a very significant development, making hunting much easier, hence leading to Aboriginal population increase and an overall larger impact on certain prey species, and on predator competition species.

He says that this is what led to the extinction of the thylacine and devil on mainland Australian, and not the introduction of the dingo, as popularly believed. Aborigines apparently did not eat thylacine but did knock them off whenever they could, or at least when times were tough and prey species were in short supply.
Posted by Ludwig, Monday, 23 April 2007 10:19:26 AM
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