KEEPING OUR WILDLIFE WILD Euan Fothergill

On a recent trip I witnessed an unfortunate incident where a kookaburra swooped down from a nearby tree and grabbed a good portion of the camper’s dinner, the rest was then inedible. It’s not an isolated incident; this sort of thing goes on in a good portion of campgrounds across Australia, from thieving emus to begging possums. The animals around our campsites are no longer wild.

Most of our animals are naturally cautious and fundamentally afraid of us (a notable exception is a hungry saltwater crocodile). Away from campsites it’s often very hard to spot wildlife and get close to it. So what’s the reason for the difference in behaviour? It is my suggestion the main reason is that people are actively feeding the animals or leaving food waste in places accessible to wildlife. When we do this they learn not fear us, or at least they learn that when we are around we are good for an easy feed. There are several problems that arise from this interaction.

The obvious problem is that the animals become aggressive - demanding, begging or thieving food from us. Occasionally there are stories of large male kangaroos attacking humans. There are several members who can attest to rat and possum raids at huts. It’s usual to see animals hanging around the campsite hoping for a hand out, or waiting for us to depart then to scavenge for tidbits idly tossed aside. I remember a campsite in the Grampians having a possum with a young one on its back getting so close I gave it a (mild) smack to send it on its way. What is the young one learning? I think it’s pathetic to see our wildlife behaving so unnaturally.

When we feed animals we are impacting on their natural behaviour. They can become lazy and even dependent. There is a martin in southern USA that has lost it’s ability to make nests because humans have been encouraging them to nest in home made rookeries in people’s back yards. That’s fine, so long as people continue being interested in making and maintaining thousands of nests. What happens when ……?

The currawongs in the Blue Mountains used to spend winter in the lowlands that are now Sydney. People in the city took to feeding them. Now they no longer need to go back to the mountains in summer. They have become dependent, teaching their young how to get food from humans. In several generations they are likely to have forgotten how to feed in the mountains. What happens when .…..?

When we impact on an animal’s behaviour we often alter its ability to survive. The currawong population in Sydney has exploded. There is a bird called the channel billed cuckoo, living in Queensland. It flies down to Sydney to lay its eggs in the currawong’s nests and then returns to Queensland. The cuckoo population is now on the rise. When one population is on the rise it is often at the expense of others less able to compete. More channel billed cuckoos feeding in Queensland at the expense of what?

Usually when we feed the animals we feed them our leftovers. Our food usually contains preservatives and all manner of chemicals alien to an animal’s natural diet. This can cause major problems for the animals sometimes killing them.

One of the credos of a good bush walker is to have minimal impact on the bush as we move through it. When we feed the wild life we are impacting upon the animals and possibly the whole ecology of the area. So take your food leftovers and waste home, wash-up well away from water. If you want to get a close encounter fix visit Healesville or one of the other sanctuaries. I prefer my wildlife wild, not tame aggressive or sick, how about you?