Monday, April 13, 2015

John Gould’s Extinct & Endangered mammals of Australia written by Fred Ford

The ornithologist, John Gould was captivated by Australia’s fauna on his first visit in 1838.  A year later he returned to Australia to pursue his passion for birds but also to carry out scientific research on the unique fauna of Australia.  He made sketches and descriptions of all he saw (or did not see firsthand) and his wife, Elizabeth, was to make the coloured plates for the folios he was intending to produce for the thirsty market of Victorian England.  John Gilbert (remembered by Gilbert’s potoroo and Gilbert’s dunnart) was his collector of the species found in Victoria, Northern Territory and the Darling Downs of Queensland.  Gould never travelled to the interior so his information was based on dead specimens given to him by others.  Local aboriginal peoples added to the collection and in this way Gould was informed of the ways that aboriginal people interacted with the fauna, their hunting methods, and what was good to eat.  Gould painted and sketched parts of the Australian fauna; he was no taxonomist and only included 39 of 56 recognised mammals and 40 of 149 species of bats and rodents.  Gould’s specimens remain in the Natural History Museum in London and his sketches bring these to life.

Gould realised that he was privileged to be in Australia at that stage of settlement and that this Australia was on track to disappear.  Gould published his folios in 1863. If he had been 50 years later then he would be reporting a great loss of species.  (Indeed, it is to our shame that half the world’s fauna extinctions in the last 200 years have occurred in Australia.)  Twenty seven species are lost for ever and Gould had encountered 16 of these in 1839.  Fortunately Gould’s prediction that the koala was destined for extinction has not come true.  Sadly, rabbits and stock have stripped ground cover and allowed fragile soils to be washed away.  Poisoning of rabbits and trapping has impacted on bandicoot, bilby possum and bettong numbers and the decline in rabbit numbers has also allowed the increase in fox populations. 

In this wonderful book John Gould’s Extinct & Endangered mammals of Australia, Fred Ford has married Gould’s illustrations and his findings with all-too -depressing information on the current state of affairs.  He moves through the illustrations with whimsical information on the interactions in the kitchen between native fauna and the settler.  Rather than eating rabbits, early settlers tried curried bandicoot and the newspapers printed recipes for cooking wombat and wallabies.  Ford begins with the thylacine: Gould’s lively illustration is juxtaposed against that sad photo of the last thylacine in captivity, a mere 100 years after the first settlement of Hobart.  In Gould’s own words

“When the comparatively small island of Tasmania becomes more densely populated and its primitive forests are intersected by roads…the numbers of this singular animal will diminish…extermination will have its full sway…”

Ford plots the last 150 years of the demise of the native fauna and the state of play today: the small isolated pockets of southern brown bandicoot; the extinction of the tammar in mainland South Australia; the extinction of the Toolache, which Gould named as the grey wallaby, and described as

“One of the most fleet and agile members of its race. Its favourite places of resort are flats near the sea-shore…”

The lesser stick rat, described by Gould in 1853, was extinct before anyone could accurately describe this species.

As much as this book is about Gould, it tells our story too.  How fortunate he was to come to Australia when he did.  How much his writing and illustrations activate us to not let his predictions come true for the native fauna we have left today, albeit scattered and in need of protection.

I heartedly recommend this book, published by the National Library of Australia) to all who care about natural history and care enough to be proactive in protecting what precious fauna we have left.

(Reviewed by Linda Mangubhai)

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