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Byron Shire
December 4, 2023

Slaughtering ourselves out of a future

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Red kangaroos.

Mary Gardner

‘Engage people of all ages, races and classes in the restoration of diversity in culturally managed landscapes.’ – Gary Paul Nabhan

The important pandemic news rushes around me like quicksilver. Meanwhile, from all the four directions, there also comes the slow news about places, their various natures and cultures. These persistent issues are many sorrowful generations in the making. Their futures are still precarious, depending on innovations in social and ecological justice. In this way, iconic buffalo, wisent, and large kangaroo species, together with varied human cultures, are all connected.

Think of the mighty North American Buffalo Nation! Once, the peoples numbered in tens of millions and the herbivores some 60 million. The herds ranged from Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico, from the Atlantic seaboard to the Pacific Northwest. The many tribes relied on the wild animals.

Wilful destruction

By 1900, so many tribal populations were decimated. They were ruined not only by disease and military persecution but also the wilful slaughter and waste of buffalo. Only 600 wild beasts remained.

But by 2016, over 600 First Nations governments are active in Canada, while 574 tribes in the United States are considered ‘recognised’ by the Federal government. Political recognition is hard-won.

In the USA, fifty-nine tribes banded together as the Buffalo Council. They work to rebuild herds of free-ranging buffalo on their lands and under their management. In 2019, a First Nations and Tribes Buffalo Treaty was signed, allowing animals to be delivered across the Canadian/USA border.

By autumn 2020, the Rosebud Lakota will receive their foundation herd. This makes forty-nine tribes of the Council managing some buffalo, which now total some 30,000 animals in the USA. In Canada, the Muscowpetung just received delivery of their first buffalo, raising that national total to 12,000 animals. Could this be the revival of the Buffalo Nation?

Over in Europe, the wild bison is known as wisent. They first featured in Palaeolithic art such as Spain’s Altamira cave paintings. For millennia, they roamed from the UK across Europe and through Russia. Aristotle described them in the fourth century BC. For many centuries, European literature described wisent hunting.

But wisent herds dwindled, and by 1795 were found wild only in the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. As that Commonwealth was partitioned, they gradually retreated into the forests of Białowieża. After World War I, nine remained there. Fifty were in European zoos.

In spite of continued wars and adverse politics, different peoples remembered the wisent and conservation stepped up. By 2019, wisent numbered 7,500 animals. Some two thirds are free ranging in reserves across seventeen countries.

Such rewilding vitalises culture and peace, history, as well as ecology. By 2022, a small herd will also be released in the UK, near Canterbury. Might communal hunts of large European wild game ever happen again? Or will herds only be the sole preserve of political strongmen?

All shaded areas are the main area or ‘zone’ in Australia where kangaroos are commercially harvested. Relatively small numbers are harvested outside this zone, including the Northern Territory, northern South Australia, far western Queensland and occasionally Victoria (www.environment.gov.au/node/16675).

In Australia, eastern and western greys, common wallaroo and red kangaroos are large and well known. A recent combined aerial count revealed some 46 million across the continent. Their official conservation status is ‘Least Concern’ although some researchers vehemently disagree. By contrast, the other fifty species are smaller, often overlooked and listed as endangered.

According to ecologist Karl Vernes, commercial harvest quotas are set by governments at 15 per cent, although barely one per cent are reported killed. The Australian Wildlife Management Society notes the experience on the ground is more complicated. In places where the full quota is taken, that population, compared to unharvested ones in reserves, fall by 30–40 per cent. The Society also reports that advocates of more killing are graziers of cows, sheep, and goats who often label the animals pests.

But Aboriginal peoples have another perspective. Consider the Anangu peoples, groups of the Western Desert. They have come through the ravages of dispossession and ecological degradation. Since 2009, they hold the pastoral lease at Angas Downs, 320,500 hectares. Their cultural and ecological work is based on Kuka Kanyini, ‘looking after game animals’. They use fire and tend waterholes to manage for the large kangaroo. They work with scientists to create what they call ‘two ways knowledge’.

Researchers Thomsen and Davies call for more active Aboriginal participation in the commercial management and harvest of kangaroo. Their cultural knowledge and concerns are currently missing. Here, where the wild animals still are, can such a socially just, place-based food tradition also rise? Might it be the rescue of peoples now and in the future?

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