25 October. I am on the beach a few minutes after dawn. The clouds cover the rising sun, blocking out the orange sunrise of the previous days. They are brilliant, backlit across the horizon against the early-blue sky, each unique shape mottled in shades of grey and white and sunrise yellow. Such a wonder of nature.
I am following the long footprints of a kangaroo: the last one to walk this path. There is no other human as far as I can see. A pair of pied oystercatchers is patrolling the sand ahead of me. I think from their behaviour that they might have youngsters hidden higher up in the marram grass. In the forest to my right a pied currawong is calling, his distinctive ‘clang, clang’. A pair of superb wrens are foraging in low grey bush closer to me. My dog Roy is intently sniffing for evidence of kangaroos: half-blind, Roy is still a hunter. Like me, he is happiest on the beach.
We are leaving Kangaroo Island today, and I have been thinking about how Australians need to care for this special island.
In 1802, when Captain Matthew Flinders arrived here in his ship, HMS Investigator, filled with a hungry crew, they were delighted to find so many (almost tame) kangaroos which they promptly slaughtered. In honour of this feast, Flinders so named the island. Flinders was tasked by the British Admiralty to map the coastline of Australia. They could not have found a better navigator or cartographer.
21-22 March, 1802. Diary of Captain Matthew Flinders. ‘Several black lumps, like rocks, were pretended to have been seen in motion by some of the young gentlemen, which caused the force of their imaginations to be much admired; next morning, however, on going toward the shore, a number of dark-brown kangaroos were seen feeding upon a grass-plat by the side of the wood and our landing gave them no disturbance. I had with me a double-barrelled gun, fitted with a bayonet, and the gentlemen my companions had muskets. It would be difficult to guess how many kangaroos were seen; but I killed ten, and the rest of the party made up the number to thirty-one, taken on board in the course of the day; the least of them weighing sixty-nine, and the largest one hundred and twenty-five pounds. These kangaroos had much resemblance to the large species found in the forest lands of New South Wales, except that their colour was darker, and they were not wholly destitute of fat.’
The island remains special for its wildlife. Although the mainland’s original wildlife has suffered from the introduction of all sorts of ferals animals, Kangaroo Island seems to have escaped the invasion by a few of the worst: foxes and rabbits.
Rabbits were released on Kangaroo Island several times but they did not survive, thank goodness. Apparently, they fell prey to the local Rosenberg’s goannas who must have found the rabbit warrens a perfect feeding ground. Kangaroo Island is the last stronghold for these goannas. The absence of aboriginal people is the reason given for the goanna numbers on the island. Aboriginal people left the island about 2,000 years ago. Kangaroo Island was separated from the mainland over 10,000 years ago by the rising oceans – enough time for species to differentiate.
The lack of some of the worst feral animals that plague the mainland and the paucity of the island’s soils have combined to preserve a lot of the native vegetation and fauna.
However, there is one animal that is a major problem: the koala. Twelve disease-free koalas were moved to the island in the 1920s, in a conservation response to the decimation of the koalas for the fur trade. And the marsupials loved their new home, finding it quite perfect. They took to the manna gums and the blue gum forests with gusto. The numbers have exploded. Rare manna gums are now threatened. So now there is a serious problem in the National Parks and eucalyptus plantations: too many koalas. What to do?
The obvious answer was to cull koalas but there was such an outcry at the idea of shooting or euthanising these iconic marsupials, this option was shelved. Of course, tourists flock to Kangaroo Island to see koalas and to have their photographs taken with them. Instead, at great expense, authorities have sterilised many koalas and moved some off the island. Still too many remain and they breed annually.
During the devastating bushfires of January this year, (almost half of the island’s 4,400 sq kms was burnt) thousands of koalas were wiped out (some say as many as 25,000). The scale of the destruction by the fires is hard to imagine. You can get some idea from the before and after images in this ABC report of February 2020.
Many injured ones were rescued and the sight of these pathetic animals resulted in an outpouring of donations for their care. Maybe 25,000 remain. BUT Kangaroo Island would be better off without ANY koalas. Whereas, kangaroos can manage their reproductive rate (embryonic diapause) in reaction to times of scarcity, koalas cannot.
Bushland on Kangaroo Island will recover, so will the koalas and the problem will continue. The larger question of how to preserve the island from inappropriate development (such as golf courses that need copious amounts of water) and lifestyle developments (that carve up precious coastal blocks for fly-in owners) remains.
I could walk the beach on my own this sunrise – a privilege that I did not take for granted. Long may Kangaroo Island remain a island where life is lived at a slower pace: a place where artists gather, boutique wine-makers offer you wine tastings while you observe wild kangaroos and locals care for our native animals.