Ecology Intermission 1

..a Cautionary Tale or two………..

(Ecology: How living things relate to each other and their environment)

Previously in Lust and Invasion, the importation of Crows from another Country for pest control purposes realised an explosion of Crows through to the Malaysian Peninsular interior where Crows had never existed. Disastrous consequences for the local ecology from this? In the Crows case, nothing significant. They would have arrived via Myanmar and Thailand, if not from Johor in the south through natural process of time anyway. Before Crows were in Kuala Lumpur, there really wasn’t much of Kuala Lumpur to scavenge. Kampungs and river traders existed quietly for many years. But with the discovery of Tin on the British scale, a Market niche opened up. KL turned rapidly into a burgeoning shanty town with the Crow population symbiotically growing with the human population. This symbiosis went completely unnoticed by the resident humans.

Colonising powers such as the British, from the 1700’s to beyond took their home knowledge and tried to transplant it into countries they coveted and conquered. They tried to grow food and graze animals like home and assumed the climate was the same as well. Big mistake! The Colonising humans themselves were a big threat to indigenous peoples and decimated many with their Coloniser diseases previously unknown to the unsuspecting locals. Captain Cook and that Colonising lurgy of the Flu and Tahiti come to mind.

The arrival of the British and their diseases in Australia killed more Aboriginals than guns ever did. The Colonisers fit exactly the definition of alien pest. Before the time of the British, Australia was a sparkling, isolated ecosystem jewel. Long term water based connections to the Indonesian archipelago and New Guinea existed at the top end, but basically Aus was a virgin to the rest of the World. Our Colonial masters managed to de-flower the Virgin and really stuff the jewelry resulting in damage to the Aussie ecosystem which to this day is still trying to recover and may never. Some of the not so finer examples of formally imported future pests and feral animals include: Fox (Hunting), Cane Toad (Science- biological control of Aussie native beetles in Sugar Cane crops), Cats (Pleasure), Rabbits (Pleasure), Camels (Work – great for inland and isolated transport), Horses (Work), Goats ( Food and because they look awesome!), Lantana in 1841 (pleasure, ornamental nursery plant), Boneseed around 1850 (ornamental plant and science as a binder of sand dunes). These nine environmental disasters just represent the tip of the avalanche of pests, especially agricultural pests that rained down on Australia over many years. Everyone of them resulted in native species decimation, plant and animal alike. The Jewel is gone forever. The accrued financial cost of tackling the nine pests above is now well over a $Billion and still climbing.

All Countries around the World have examples of well meaning, profit driven or accidental importation of animals, insects and plants that result in massive disturbance and change that can lead to distortion and death of local ecosystems both natural and urban.

Ask a New Zealander about the impact of the Australian Possum and they will grimace, get angry and turn their back on you (if you are an Aussie that is. Quite unfair on us as it was our European forefathers that did the dirty deed.) . Way back in 1837, an ‘Entrepreneur’ had a not so great idea to start Possum fur trade. The enterprise failed, but this was not the end of the story unfortunately for NZ. The Entrepreneur (Same one? I don’t know) made a comeback and in 1857/58 imported soft furry Possum to a fur trading success. Possum was happy in it’s new virgin wonderland and commenced eating its way through NZ and never really stopped. Many plants were and still are enjoyed, with its omnivore gourmet diet extending to the eggs and chicks of the famous native bird, the KOKAKO, renowned for the sound of it’s warbling. Estimates currently put the population at about 30 Million Possums. Many many native plants, birds eggs and chicks destroyed. Possums in NZ are also carriers of Bovine TB which has impacted on the high reputation NZ Beef Industry. Potential for losses to the Industry are in the 100’s of Millions. Possums have impacted the New Zealand ecology, landscape, economy and significantly.

Ask a Californian firefighter about the impact of Eucalyptus (Gum) trees (from Aus) and they will probably spit at you (as an Aussie). The disastrous Oakland fires of 1991 are testament to how with the introduction of an alien plant species, the whole fire regime of a native plant community can be changed forever. Tasmanian Blue Gum (with lots of highly flammable resin in its leaf) was imported in the 1800’s for hardwood plantation timber to feed the frenzied building of towns and infrastructure in and around the Californian Goldrush. These entrepreneurs thought they were onto a good thing, but quickly realised that these foreign trees took 40-60 years to start producing the good quality timber they needed. Business failed as they needed returns now, not later. Plantations went into neglect. The Blue Gums liked Californian soils and spread successfully to naturalise themselves into the Californian forest. These Blue Gums do an annual massive bark shed just before the hottest time of the year as part of their annual renewal. They also shed much of their leaf to conserve the trees energy needs for the upcoming dry season. This foreign tree bark and leaf layer never existed in the past. Fire fuel loads (combustible stuff on the forest floor like Blue Gum bark and dried leaf) massively increased over previous native tree fire fuel loads. As a consequence fires affected by the Blue Gum are far hotter, run quicker and are far more dangerous than before. The other misfortune of these hotter and faster fires, means the scorched ash earth is a perfect nursery for thousands of baby Blue Gums to hatch and grow. It is almost exponential the spread of Blue Gum after fires. Many more examples are found around the planet. The savage Portugal fires in 2017, would not have been so hot, so quick and so damaging if it wasn’t for another Aussie Gum tree which was used as plantation tree for paper pulp industry and was (still is)also an escapee into local woodlands. Again, there is massive cost to the quality of human, plant and animal communities. Again, the cost to our economies is out of this world.

Native freshwater fish and aquatic plants around the globe have been decimated through the simple act of dumping the contents of the exotic fish aquarium into the local lake or river. There is a predatory exotic Catfish (African) in Malaysian rivers that has flourished at the expense of local native catfish and smaller native fish. These African Catfish are bred for the purposes of Religious ceremony and part of that is to release them into nature. The Government now has education programs in place which encourages the use of native catfish in the rituals, but it is just too late to reverse the tide now. These river monsters are here to stay and similarly with the Mekong Red Tail catfish, being an aquarium escapee that are hoovering up many smaller native freshwater fish as well.

The simple mistakes we make out of ignorance, dodgy well meaning science and the desire for a quick Buck lead to massive impact on our local/native species with ecosystems changed forever. We lose our unique identity and flavours. Australia’s fabulous jewel ecosystem damaged beyond repair forever. Fish a Kuala Lumpur river these days and you would be lucky to pull out a native fish. Human communities bare the mental and physical scars of Wildfire impacts for many years when this deadly risk was previously low. Farmers spend mega-bucks preventing the spread of deathly diseases due to an imported cheap fur coat in the Possum. Costs of controlling and attempting to reverse these adverse effects is staggering to say the least. It requires effort of all, from the humble arranger of the religious ceremony, the aquarium and fish seller, the buyer of exotic pets and strange plants, the Entrepreneur with a fist full of Bucks to spend on a crazy scheme and the Scientist that just didn’t research enough. Us humans are very good at acting first and thinking later. The end result – a very messed up and in parts unrecognisable Planet.

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