Tuesday, December 1, 2020

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Home Issue 42 A touch of light: kangaroo clans

A touch of light: kangaroo clans

By MIKE GILLAM

All photos © Mike Gillam

Like a great many preschool children of 1950s Australia, my early interest in wild animals was primed by photographers and film-makers working in Africa and the USA. Invariably these offerings focused on iconic species, mostly very large, so big cats, elephants, rhinos and bears led the charge. Australian wildlife came a poor second but familiar kangaroos, dingoes, emus and koalas, while quite poorly understood, were treasured elements in our emerging sense of national identity.

Suburbia was enriched with shards of remnant bush so I was always exploring and bringing back various wonders such as red back spiders and the spectacular emperor gum caterpillars to show my parents. These beautiful moth larvae were huge, the size of an adult human index finger; exquisite duck egg blue on the dorsum and coloured spires decorated with celebratory sparklers. (Little did I know that years later my adult gaze would turn so emphatically to the arid heart of the continent with its sacred caterpillar totems.)

The blue caterpillar was admired but the large female red-back in my open palm was unceremoniously dispatched with a rapid downward stroke of a straw broom. As I wiped the spider smudge from my stinging palm my distraught mother explained the dangers of spiders in a voice that broached no argument. I was conflicted, feeling at once sorry for the soft velvety spider and more than a little shocked by the accuracy and ferocity of her blow. Fortunately, my childhood was not blighted by broom phobia and for a time programs such as David Attenborough’s Zoo Quest series, 1954-63, satisfied my interest in more dangerous wildlife.

Looking back, I do wonder if the absent lion, grizzly bear thing has mocked Australian masculinity from the beginning of colonisation.  Dangerous snakes can be pretty scary but they have the sense to remain mostly hidden and an experienced snake catcher can neutralise a brown snake in less than a minute, so not much of a contest there. Our sense of nationhood, a strenuously promoted image of bronzed bushmen living in the harsh outback, demanded a mammalian adversary, something with arms and legs and capable of a sustained struggle. A flesh eating predator would be ideal. Such a pity that Tasmanian devils aren’t as big as Rottweilers, now that would help us overcome our nation’s gladiator inferiority complex.

Desperate for a credible adversary we played up the threat posed by kangaroos; what a stretch for mild mannered herbivores. For all their imaginary powers, they differ little from oversized rodents except they have a pouch. When showmen put boxing gloves on traumatised and abused bucks for the purposes of crass entertainment, the investment of myth-making in kangaroos reached a new low.

The 1891 story of Jack, the fighting Kangaroo with Professor Lendermann” in the magazine Melbourne Punch is the earliest record I could find of this bizarre but popular enterprise. Many boxing kangaroo acts followed, some touring London and the US but the macropod stars, appearing in rowdy and hilarious demonstrations daily, typically had short ‘careers’.

A circus blend of bizarre, cruel and comedic, the boxing ‘roo act has lost popularity in recent decades but it’s still possible to view such contests on YouTube along with unscripted fights between dogs and kangaroos that are particularly distressing.

I daresay many paid challengers, or should I say ‘actors’, took a fall after a ‘roo tap, to the delight of the paying spectators. Because of their superior height male red kangaroos, suitably confused and separated from their mob, were favoured for this spectacle. Notwithstanding that a well aimed double-barrel kick from their powerful hind legs has some potential for causing harm, their gentle features and delicate slender wrists never did look convincing to this small child.

Seriously, the paralysis tick of north Queensland knocks the ‘roo out of the ‘dangerous’ corner any day but our nation has a natural aversion to identifiers that are well, embarrassingly small. This is a contest of the biggest swinging you know what!

Yes, I know we have aquatic threats such as crocs and great whites but on land most of the continent is incredibly, stupefyingly safe from predators. There is nothing ripping through the fragile skin of our tent, no real threat from an unseen presence prowling beyond the firelight. Nothing that wants to eat human flesh, although now there is a certain virus that’s having an impact more shocking than all our worst nightmares combined. Fear not, you can buy boxing kangaroo, non-medical, face masks online!

I’ve heard various stories, usually greatly exaggerated because we have this human need for the colourful, of large male reds shot in the guts and mortally wounded, besting men and dogs. As a young man I confronted one such red kangaroo on the side of the road where it was propped up on its huge balancing tail, unsteady on two shattered hind legs. I’ll never forget his pain crazed face and glazed eyes. This was one of the few moments in my life that I wished for a gun but settled for a tyre lever. I cursed the indifference of the driver who’d left him in a pool of dried blood for what must have been hours. With considerable effort I dragged the carcass well away from the roadside so that eagles would not meet the same fate. I estimate he exceeded 75 kg.

The euro, Macropus robustus, is generally stockier but no less gentle and fearful. I’ve spent more than a decade trying to document their private lives and like the film makers Jan Aldenhoven and Glen Carruthers who brought us their acclaimed 1992 Kangaroos – faces in the mob, I soon discovered the endearing individuality of every member in our local mob. I can hear cries of stop this anthropomorphising human, masquerading as a detached photographer. Fair enough.

They are simple animals that display patient affection for their demanding young and a love of winter sun, resting in the summer shade, drinking clean water and feasting on fresh herbage. Unsuccessfully I search for words to describe their spirit and settle on beguiling and innocent.

There it is, words fail me and I decide to let the photographs fill the gaps.

I have a lucid moment and remove from the shortlist the cutest images of females with their joeys and more importantly, those of large muscular males looking like prize fighters and finally one showing a young male living near the Olive Pink botanical gardens. The animal has a huge open gash around his torso from a wire snare that still cut whenever he moved. Town Council rangers made a serious effort to dart the animal and remove the wire noose but the euro died during the attempt.

I have great memories of watching euros play in the half light of dawn, of families sprawled in the shade taking it in turns to be alert and watchful. There’s one valley I know that functions as a maternity site and nearby the final resting place for the lingering few, those that have cheated the usual violent death that awaits the old and frail, the young and naive.

As privileged humans most of us will never comprehend their vulnerabilities, fear and pain as they are hunted by wild dogs or bow-hunters or people who can’t shoot straight or worse, those who use illegal wire snares. Euros fear predatory people and canines most of all. Initially the males stay around to help protect the vulnerable young from these and other threats such as wedge-tailed eagles but they disengage as the joeys become less dependent. The sub-adults continue to hang out with their mother for many months learning the ways of life in the rocky hills even as she nurses a new joey in the pouch.

Shade and water are macropod essentials, even more so for these climate change losers. They need deep shade to keep cool and on hot days they can be observed assiduously licking forearms and inner hind legs, anywhere they can reach surface veins and arteries with their tongues. The wet skin helps to lower their body temperature, an essential behaviour for macropods with relatively few sweat glands.

I’ve come to know them very well; over time I gave them names so I can keep track and because it encourages me to care more about their welfare. Mostly I call them Alpha 1,2, 3, Beta 1,2,3 for both males and females but there’s also ‘Curly’ on account of his torn up ears. He was an old favourite that played with the joeys unlike Alpha 2, a sex starved contender male who terrorised all during brief appearances when Alpha 1 was travelling. Shaky, as her name implies is a young female that trembles dramatically if I make inadvertent eye contact.

Most of the males have ear damage, nicks and splits while the females don’t. I suppose this implies that the males damage one another with their raking front feet when they’re engaged in ritual combat. Some of the ear damage however seems more likely attributable to dogs. There’s even one or two on the outskirts of town who have no ears, just ragged stumps. Certainly I’ve watched male euros take the heat and try to draw off the dogs while the females and joeys make good their escape, so dogs are probably a factor.

The euros returned to our area after we trapped the runamok dogs and the Town Council rangers made some traction educating and fining the owners. This was a vital step in working with the country.

Before our grazing herbivores returned, the hillside was choked with introduced buffel grass and the resulting wildfires were impacting severely on the sacred wild orange trees. The euros continue to thrive, in part because of the dense buffel grass and their ability to browse Acacias when times are really tough.

Euro males have especially well developed forearms that are used for pulling down Acacia branches and equally important for tearing up shrubs as part of the territorial marking process. They adore the flowers of Acacia victoriae while their smaller relative, the black flanked rock wallaby, goes to considerable effort to find possibly their favourite food, the gorgeous trumpet flowers of spear bush, Pandorea doratoxylon.

I face a few moral dilemmas taking photographs of our mob, primarily how to avoid building kangaroo/human trust when such trust might be fatally misplaced. That said, the euro populations inhabiting the rocky hills encircling the town, thrive and survive precisely because so many people do notice them and the difficulties of their everyday lives. For our most persecuted wildlife resident, local people provide reliable water, shady verandahs and supplementary food during the drought years.

Naturally I mostly use long lenses and I’ve found that crawling and slithering on the ground is the best way to hang out with the macropods and avoid alarming them. If I get too close to Alpha 1’s current girlfriend he might stand up and stare intently whereupon I slither away and we’re cool.

I’ve never felt threatened by any of the big males encountered over the past decade. Once or twice I was challenged by Alpha 2 and I simply stood up, made myself big, widely spaced gorilla arms, stamped my foot and cough barked once or twice until he backed off.

Young males frequently engage in ritualised combat, slapping at each other’s faces and attempting to kick their opponent in the belly, chest or groin. I’ve seen many of these bouts and never seen significant injury. In fact, young male joeys initiate these physical play fights with their tolerant mums who must endure months of practice until their offspring find an equally enthusiastic sparring partner.

More serious interactions occur when the dominant male discovers a subordinate competitor attempting to mate with a clan female. On a good day a hard stare from Alpha 1 is sufficient and the challenger flees. Sometimes a chase ensues until both males are quite exhausted or until the dominant male pins the loser to the ground, straddling him and using his superior weight to make a point.

My favourite female euro shows obvious pleasure when she sees me, typically standing tall, leaning back, thrusting her stomach forward and tilting her head back. She acknowledges me by pointing her chin in my direction and I find myself responding in kind. In truth I’m just as likely to adopt some of these macropod mannerisms when I’m interacting with my own species.

Within the town area of Alice Springs arrenge still browses the shrubline on sacred sites that celebrate and honour this sacred totem. To the north east, remnant populations of arrwe, the rock wallaby, still grace the boulder fields and scree slopes between the town and the Telegraph station reserve.

This endangered species has vanished from much of its former range, a likely victim of predation by cats and foxes combined with competitive grazing pressure from rabbits. Their marvellous persistence in Alice Springs has little to do with good management and should not be taken for granted.

Taking photographs of macropods creates an intimacy that’s hard to convey. I’d been watching for hours and out of nowhere a goshawk swoops through the river valley on a practice run to startle an old inattentive rock wallaby, a comical moment of overreach for this undersized raptor. The wallaby doesn’t even feign concern and the nonchalant goshawk continues on its way.

When I photograph willy wagtails and magpie larks searching for engorged ticks on the bodies of resting macropods I’m reminded of those early images of African tick birds performing a similar role on the backs of rhinos or wildebeest. Little did we know what was happening in our own backyards.

Momentarily backlit by the setting sun, a female euro, Alpha 2, roused herself and I took her portrait. It was the height of summer and she’d been sleeping in the shade for hours, relaxed in the knowledge that others in the clan were watching and more importantly, listening. I didn’t notice the spider web on her long eye-brow hairs until I reviewed the image on the computer screen. A few years later I take my favourite photograph of Beta 1 standing, fists clenched in adolescent uncertainty.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Magnificent pics as usual Mike.
    When living at Fowlers Gap (NW NSW) I had an old male euro using my carport as a regular resting place.
    His ears were shredded, as were many of the males, and there were no dingoes or wild dogs so I conclude that the male fighting gets pretty serious at times.

  2. Every time I see one of your pieces, I smile. Such is important during these unusual times. Many thanks, and keep up the fantastic work.

  3. Thank you, this is a fascinating perspective.
    A friend sent the link to us here, stranded in New York due to COVID.
    It was great to read something of the real Australia, eloquently and entertainingly written.
    For sure, this COVID is no fun at all and as you intimate, far worse than anything in the Australian outback.

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