When the wilderness bites back

In the Grampians, wild kangaroos handfed by tourists have grabbed and kicked humans. In Corinella, a sick bull seal befriended by locals charged them when it was hungry or cross – no laughing matter, given that it weighed nearly a tonne. And the use of bloody carcasses to lure sharks for tourists in cages has been blamed for conditioning them to associate humans with food.

It is not just on Fraser Island, where dingoes who had lost their fear of humans this week mauled a child to death, where the line separating people and the wild is being blurred. But the tragedy highlights the contradiction between the desire to explore wilderness and the shock of reminders that “wild” can mean “ferocious”.

When the result is disaster, the longing to experience the natural state becomes a cry for help to the nanny state. The fantasy that Australians can deal with the bush is exposed as just that. On Fraser Island, rangers were called in to cull dingoes. Environmental consultant and biologist Tim Low says: “We want nature … on our terms. We want to be able to feed wildlife – but hey, if it hurts us, kill it.”

Low’s forthcoming book, The New Nature, argues that interactions between people and wildlife are already so common that there is no longer such a thing as genuine wilderness. “The whole concept that `True nature is out there in the wilderness, unsullied by human contact’ is now incredibly untrue and becoming less true every year.”
As people flock to the wilderness, and as formerly wild creatures find the trappings of city life make their own more comfortable, the question of how the species negotiate sharing the same space becomes more urgent.

Take fruit bats, says Low. Melburnians might be annoyed by their infestation of the Botanic Gardens, but they had better get used to the idea of urban colonies. Bats are now within walking distance of Jupiter’s Casino because they have found that suburban gardens provide a more reliable food supply than the wild. “These shifts are happening all over,” he says.

Even in some of Australia’s most remote areas, says CSIRO research scientist Dr David Saunders, dingoes have lost their native wariness of humans because they have been fed by tourists. Along the Gunbarrel Highway in the backblocks of Western Australia, dingoes fearlessly walk up to campers’ fires.

The cause of this artificially created fearlessness is the fact that some city-bred, TV-consuming humans have also had their wariness of wild animals blunted. This is because their only contact with them is from documentaries, says Patrick Medway, executive director of the Wildlife Preservation Society.

They take for granted the ability to see close-ups of animals, “including ones that are exceptionally dangerous”. Some expect the same in the wild: “We have lost our sense of danger; many people feed wildlife to bring them closer.”

He agrees that television has made tourists impatient and demanding, reluctant to wait for natural sightings in the wild: “On TV you see the flash of jaguar followed quickly by something else, even though the actual filming might have taken thousands of hours. Now, when you take people into the bush, they want instant gratification.”

But people should not contribute to making wildlife dependent on human hand-outs or unafraid of human contact, says Ron Waters, acting manager of flora and fauna compliance and utilisation with Victoria’s Department of Natural Resources and Environment.

“You don’t want to make animals so unafraid of people that they think they can just do what they like around them. That principle applies right across the board,” he says.

It is bad for both parties to any encounter, he says. Animals’ diets are distorted and their habits changed when tourists feed them. Chucking chicken bones to try to get a better look at a tree goanna, for example, could result in a nasty bite: “They have septic teeth because they eat carrion.”
Where does all this leave the Crocodile Dundee-type fantasies of rugged bush know-how that have become such a large strand of the national myth? Looking rather empty.

Perhaps they always have been; the pioneer stereotype of the noble bushman was created in the first place to ease anxieties that the convict stain made Australians somehow inferior, according to Professor John Rickard, of the National Centre for Australian Studies at Monash University. The idea was that in the encounter with a harsh environment, “the Anglo-Saxon type in Australia had actually been improved”.

The myth continues to shape the national psyche: “Some people with no (bush skills) still see themselves as almost congenitally wonderful in the outback,” says John Bryson, author of the book Evil Angels. “We’re an urban people, but that doesn’t stop us identifying as outback people.”

Bryson says white Australians have not wanted to face the fact that dingoes can be lethal: “Firstly because they’re ours, and we like to like them, and they are very beautiful, graceful creatures.” (Misplaced nationalism).

There has also been a sense that they are mysterious animals: “Part of it is its ability just to appear like the Kadaitcha (an Aboriginal spirit); the number of times in the bush that you will suddenly see a dingo there, regarding you, and he’s appeared without you getting any sense of him travelling there.” (Romanticism).

And finally, he says, white attitudes have been colored by the Anglo-Celtic love of dogs. (Projections of the Old World on to the New).

But wider questions about tourism and the wild remain. How real is a wilderness experience that involves hordes of tourists? Take the dolphins in Port Phillip Bay: how exposed to human swimmers do they have to be before they can no longer be considered wild?

How do we stop loving nature to death?

First published in The Age.