The wild horses of Santa Teresa
Notes from a deep green conservative
I love horses. Their smell, their colour and shape, their uncanny ability to mirror human personalities, their usefulness.
One of my greatest memories as a youngster was riding with my brothers into the mountains and chasing wild cattle near where we lived. It was an incomparable adrenaline rush, and we were lucky to survive intact.
In hindsight it was also great privilege to venture into such a free and wild environment. Where I live now, in the Central Australian desert in a small Indigenous community, there is still that sense of space and wildness.
There are also brumby horses. They wander the streets searching for fresh feed, fight with the dogs and eat out of gardens. They are highly adept at annoying residents into watering them daily.
Further out bush they have not been so lucky. We had nearly 100 die in a dry waterhole this summer as they sought moisture during a week-long heatwave.
It happened all over the top end, and there was little anyone could do about it. Several locals had already exhausted themselves carrying water in fire-trailers out to remote troughs for the horses, but they were unable to keep up during the hottest weather.
Yet despite the drought, the surviving horses are healthy and their coats shiny. They are mainly descendants of tough Australian stockhorse breeds, a mixture of Thoroughbred and draft, Arab and Timor pony that the first cattlemen used to drive their big mobs up from South Australia.
Demand for remounts for the Indian Army, then the Boer War and WWI, ensured their ongoing commercial success. The legendary cattle owner Sir Sidney Kidman’s famous annual horse sale at Kapunda in South Australia in the early 1900’s attracted buyers from around the Commonwealth.
Driving large mobs of horses was a specialised skill. It must have been a stirring sight to see them catering along in the dust as the stockmen cracked their whips and wheeled them into the high wooden stockades for auction.
In 1909, just 30 years after the first cattlemen arrived in northern Australia, pastoralist and politician James Isdell reported to the WA government that more than half the native plant species in the Kimberley region had disappeared from the local landscape.
Cattle, like horses, thrived in Australia’s harsh outback. So did the camels and donkeys used for transport. In the north water buffaloes, and more recently, poison cane-toads, decimated local species. Not to mention cats, pigs and dogs that crossed with native dingoes.
Now there are deep divisions about how to resolve these critical issues of biodiversity in such a fragile environment.
Aboriginal people have a strong affinity with horses and see them as a natural part of the environment. Many older Aboriginal men still wear cowboy hats that once marked them as as some of the best stockmen in the world.
The horse represented a new form of freedom to a people who had always walked softly on the earth. To this day horses and cowboy culture is still embedded in the modern Aboriginal psyche in outback regions.
Horses, however, rarely eat one of the other great invasive species in Central Australia, buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris). A deep-rooted, drought-hardy perennial native of tropical Africa, it was introduced to central Australia in the 1960’s for dust control around Alice Springs airport, and soon as a new cattle feed.
An old Aboriginal friend recalled seeing a light plane flying over a remote stock camp throwing out what they thought was poisonous dust. It was, in fact, buffel seed.
Buffel’s success has since devastated many small native plants and animals, particularly by fire because it produces a hotter burn than most local species can survive.
Ironically it is cattle, which thrive on buffel grass but which themselves caused so much ecological destruction with their arrival, that are now considered one of the few viable means of controlling the grass.
Other complex ecological issues facing Aboriginal and European land managers in the outback is Aboriginal support for water buffalo for hunting as red meat in the iconic Kakadu region.
Ecologists argue that such large heavy beasts, introduced by Macassan fishermen before white settlement, along with wild mango and banana trees, are destroying pristine native environments.
Cattlemen, meanwhile, are primarily interested in species that support their vast herds, and hotly defend their right to shape the environment in the way they want.
Until quite recently it was often argued by white farmers that Aboriginal people never did anything productive with the land taken from them.
But contemporary authors like Bruce Pascoe (Dark Emu) and Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) have put paid to these myths. With solid research they have shown that Aboriginal people had a highly complex, and by western standards, sustainable interaction with the land.
These days, if you travel to remote parts of the country like the Far West Alice region which were never colonised, or on smaller estates like those surrounding Ltyentye Apurte (Santa Teresa) where cattle are no longer bred, one often notices a softness and richness to the country that is not evident in cattle country.
Yes, there are feral horses, donkeys and camels, but nature tends to keep their numbers in balance. Yet the greatest irony of this debate is that the descendants of the colonists who took the land from Aboriginal people are still largely calling the shots as to how it should be restored.
While most scientists involved in northern Australian biodiversity issues are well-meaning and open to Aboriginal ideas about land management, they also represents a deeply entrenched scientific, solutions-based approach. In recent past their zeal has sometimes bordered on ecological ethnic cleansing.
There are no easy solutions to the myriad of critical biodiversity issues in northern Australia, or for that matter, around the world.
Human pressure on the environment is so strong that the move to a carbon-free economy seems relatively straightforward compared to that of restoring a broad and organic ecological balance.
Perhaps Easter is a good time to think about the role we as humans play on this planet, and how we can make room for other species as we go about the daily business of survival.