Wildlife ecologist Craig C. Downer tells of his odyssey in defence of Australia’s Brumbies, and adds an urgent plea to halt plans to cull them by shooting.
From late September through early November of 2014, I came to the fabulous continent “down under” to meet its hardy Brumbies, or wild horses. Guided by some amazing Australians, both those who defended and those who managed these compelling animals, I entered wide-eyed into several regions across this vast and ancient land.
I had just become a member of the Ecological Society of Australia (ESA) and was very pleased to participate in its week-long, annual conference in Alice Springs. Here I presented a poster concerning the positive contributions Brumbies make to ecosystems and argued in their defence.
My six-week adventure turned me on to just how rigorous Australia is and to how admirable any species’ survival also is, in this character-building place. I found the Outback’s Aborigine native wisdom intriguing and the rugged Snowy River horsemen vibrant and engaging. Also, the biologists who are dedicating their lives to learning about and preserving the great variety of life forms here presented me with valuable insights and important challenges. And my group the wild Brumby defenders were as positively impressive as any. They seemed very soulful yet strongly connected to Mother Earth. As in an ecosystem with its various species, each group was answering its own special calling, defending what its own history and experience had prepared it for. About each one, there was something respectably unique and, for this very reason, indispensably related.
In coming to Australia, I felt I also had a special calling, a reason for belonging in this place and time. For certain my coming was a response to the horses themselves, as I possess a special affinity for these extraordinary presences.
Seems like yesterday that I was growing up with my fine “mustanger” companion, a tall, deep-chestnut stallion named Poco with a white star on his forehead. We shared many great adventures in the impressive mountains and vast deserts of Nevada and California, discovering enchanting places and encountering their very astounding inhabitants, each a special presence in its own right with a unique story to convey and an indispensable role to play. Poco and his kin the wild horses (which he always greeted with irrepressible enthusiasm) taught me so much and had a major hand in shaping my life from a tender age forward. These characters instilled in me a profound feeling for life’s true meaning including the importance of its natural freedom and of each living kind’s and individual’s inseverable relation to each and every other. In un-premeditated fashion, I learned the holy meaning of “Mitakuye Oyasin,” which is Lakota for: “We are all related.” This refers not just to fellow people but to all life – all beings! I profoundly sensed it was Poco’s prayer, and it became my prayer, and together we sang it strongly as we wandered far and wide, as free as the wind blows, yet with an uncanny direction we also sensed and shared.
Thanks to this start, as I grew older, I continued to seek my way toward what I deemed to be greater truth and justice, not just for myself and my kind, but for the horses and the whole natural life community with whom I identified. All this “Great Mystery,” as the Indians call life, deserves much more respect in today’s society; while not forgetting our importance as humans, we should take none of the other species for granted. And our human value is greatly defined by our relation to the Great Rest of Life.
There were certain premonitions that confirmed my acceptance of an invitation to come to Australia and become involved in Brumby defence. Suffice it to say: These were amazing!
During my career as an ecologist, I have grown acutely aware of what is happening to Earth’s shared life community. And my speciality has become the mammalian order Perissodactyla, which includes the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families. This ancient order arose shortly after the demise of the Dinosaurs caused by a giant meteorite that struck the Earth about 65 million years ago, wiping out a large percentage of the planet’s living creatures. This group of herbivores have played a major role for many millions of years in various continents and still do in many places today, yet their position is now quite precarious. In fact, they are an endangered order with 13 of 17 extant species classified as Threatened or Endangered on the Red Data List of the IUCN Species Survival Commission, to which I belong. I offer a PowerPoint on these redoubtable animals along with a moving speech: “The World’s Endangered Species Today Present a Crisis of Conscience for Humanity.”
In short, I’ve done my homework and am ready to defend the horses and all Perissodactyla. Though disappearing, they are truly valuable and most needed in regard to restoring the Whole of Life, and no species is better poised to do this than the modern-day horse (Equus caballus). They are restorers of balance in ecosystems, complementing ruminants and replenishing overgrazed soils, turning them into “living sponges” that equitably release life-giving water throughout the year. They are amazing gardeners who sow a great variety of seeds far and wide and provide them with fertile beds to enable their successful germination through their humus-enriching droppings. It must be understood that Perissodactyls possess a different digestive system from ruminants, which include most herbivores raised or encouraged by humans: cattle, sheep and goats for consumption; deer and other cervids for hunters, etc. The ruminants, usually cloven-hoofed, possess a multi-stomach, cud-chewing process that more thoroughly extracts nutrients from their forage. Ruminant droppings offer much less nutrient value to soils and to food chains and webs than do the droppings of the horses (tapirs, rhinos, and others including elephants).
Simply stated, in the world of nature, horses are top-notch humus creators and intact seed dispersers. They are valuable gardeners in their natural habitat. They practice patchiness of grazing that leaves islands to set seed and they heal the wounds of erosion and toxic pollution and in many other ways restore the biodiversity and with it life’s resilience that too often an inconsiderate humanity has taken away. The horses do all this – if so allowed. Though they do not have the same deep evolutionary roots in Australia as do the marsupial mammals such as kangaroos, their roots are quite deep on Earth and they have compatibly lived alongside marsupials in South America and elsewhere for millions of years. They can harmoniously adapt and co-exist with more deeply native Australian fauna and flora. We people just have to give them the chance to show us how it’s done, rather than negatively prejudging them.
During this era of Global Warming, it’s crucially important to recognize the critical life-saving value of Brumbies in mitigating and even preventing catastrophic wildfires. And I need not remind you of how devastating these have recently been. The post-gastric digestive system of horses permits them to survive on drier, coarser vegetation without over-taxing their metabolism and their great mobility permits them to reach steep, rocky and remote places where fires often start but where they can eliminate excessive vegetation. Precisely this dry vegetation provides the tinder that makes possible destructive wildfires that a heating atmosphere is exacerbating. Many of Australia’s human-altered ecosystems need the horses as natural gardeners to heal and become balanced and functional again. Imported deer have had a major detrimental impact on Australia’s parklands and on the country’s native species, especially the marsupials.
As concerns those parks and reserves where officials and conservationists work to preserve the original, pre-European species and their habitats, I recommend various ways of excluding the Brumbies while permitting other species to enter and exit. I have observed how effective the triangular-shaped, 6’-high, log-and-pole fences (such as are employed in the Pryor Mountain Wild Horse Range in Montana) keep horses out of certain areas. These could be used in certain areas of the Australian Alps and would not be hard to erect and maintain. Native Eucalyptus, or Gum, trees would seem perfect for these. Also, means of “positive enforcement” could encourage the Brumbies to stay in certain areas where they find their needs met. And ways of “adverse conditioning” that are not too harsh yet still effective could keep Brumbies away from pristine nature reserves or human habitations. Surely many Brumby supporters would happily implement these measures to preserve pre-European nature sanctuaries as well as naturally living Brumbies in adjacent areas. As a wildlife ecologist who has extensively studied wild horses and mountain tapirs, I would welcome the opportunity to help realize this life-respecting, all-stakeholders-honoring, up-to-date and non-violent plan.
Today, we must ponder the serious dangers posed by Global Climate Change. This has been caused by an accumulation of heat-trapping gases and the destruction of naturally balanced ecosystems. This matter of life or death challenges us all; we mustn’t remain petty-minded and hung-up on destructive habits and traditions. We must question how we live and its effects on the Great Rest of Life and not fail to respond to the great challenge before us. For to fail would betray the Greater Family of Life to which we belong and that which supports and sustains us.
No such betrayal could be more serious than for humans to throw the noble horse “under the bus”. These animals have done so much for us: Isn’t it high time we do something truly good for them? Like letting them truly be themselves, live freely and naturally and count on a sufficient natural home wherein to realize their special place and role. This is to be a restorer and a healer of life on Earth and relates both to life’s physical and spiritual dimensions. In bringing ourselves to honor horses’ restoring and unifying role in relation to the Great Rest of Life, we humans would overcome what most damages our own kind today: Our selfishness!
I hope you will ponder my message. It has welled up from deep within and represents both what I think and feel and lessons learned from a whole lifetime. And while it certainly involves my appreciation of those highly evolved and benign presences called horses, it relates to a caring vision for All of Life and for what remains in store for our beautifully alive planet. Call me a harbinger, for I do believe there will come a time when mutual understanding, harmony, peace, freedom and even joy will be more purely and fully realized and this Earth shall become a real Garden of Eden, a true and welcoming, even loving home wherein all beings shall be wonderfully fulfilled and in ways we have just begun to imagine.
A plan to save the Brumbies and save Australia
I urge adoption of the following actions/policies in order to save the wonderful Brumbies and to save the Australia that has come to be, with all its diverse yet ever related entities. The solution lies in discovering how to harmonize Australia’s present elements, places, species, individuals and so forth. And we must recognize that each Brumby possesses a life and an individuality, just as we each do, and that, however we appear to be different, in essence, we are the same and ever related.
- Immediately prohibit the shooting of Brumbies in Alpine, Bogong, Barmah and Kosciuzko National Parks.
- Abandon plans to remove all Brumbies. Instead, manage for genetically viable, ecologically integrated and long-term sustainable populations that are allowed to self-stabilize their numbers through the conscientious implementation of a Reserve Design approach to their conservation and that of the ecosystem they inhabit.
- Begin right away with an independent census of all Brumbies living in the above-named parks. In all of these parks except Barmah, vast habitats were recently scorched by catastrophic wildfires, now increasing due to Global Warming. Millions of plants and animals perished, many excruciatingly in the flames and including many Brumbies. Yet there has been no census of the Brumbies after these terrible fires. Most probably there has been a major decrease in the Brumby population in and around these parks. There needs to be a serious re-evaluation of this situation, including the Brumbies’ major role in fire mitigation/prevention especially by reducing fuel load and also in restoring burned areas.
- An independent, objective study should be conducted concerning the effects of the removal of Brumbies from the ecosystem. Horses have major beneficial contributions. If they are suddenly removed, many species, including natives that have adapted to the presence of horses, could suffer. And the critical role that Brumbies play in wildfire mitigation and even prevention must not be ignored, especially today, nor their role in the restoration of burned areas.
- Independent professional studies should differentiate impacts to the ecosystem that are caused by the various species present, including deer, pigs, rabbits, foxes, wild dogs, domestic cattle and sheep and Brumbies, among other species brought in by Europeans since 1788 and the First Fleet of colonizers. My assessment indicates that Brumbies are being unfairly targeted for blame while many of the other species are being ignored or let off lightly as to their impacts, even though these are major. Also, we should beware of lumping species together without recognizing their separate niches, roles, effects and impacts. In this connection, the positive ecological benefits of Brumbies should be honored when plainly proven. In other words, observations, factual in-field measurements, methodologies employed, photographs/videos and other means of analysis should not be interpreted in a deliberately biased manner, filtered and distorted so as to discredit the Brumbies. It is critically important that a truly objective team of qualified investigators be brought in, perhaps from outside Australia.
- Brumbies should be considered holistically, as integral components of many of the ecosystems they inhabit, not arbitrarily treated as misfits, especially when facts reveal they benefit plants and animals, soils and aquifers, and the community of life as a whole. Such proven benefits should not be blindly ignored, and the possibility that they actually benefit deeply rooted Australian native species should not be arbitrarily dismissed. The potential for a new balance of species in Australia that is more in tune with current conditions and historic circumstances should be given serious consideration. This important work The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation gives further justification.
- Strong social and cultural values associated with Brumbies as treasured presences and a living heritage should not be belittled or ignored. To ignore the integral part these horses have played in the lives of so many people, both today and for many generations past, as well as their own intrinsic worth as unique sentient beings, would be callous and insensitive. An ecologically benign, mutualistic symbiosis between and among people, Australian flora and fauna and the Brumbies can be achieved given our openness to this possibility. This mutualism is both practical and related to our experienced quality of life that involves a hard-to-pin-down and fence-in ethos that has grown from many generations of living and interacting by Australians of all kinds. This is a special culture linked to nature. Though seemingly set apart, it is related to all the rest of the world. And its very subtlety makes life worth living for those deep into it.
- A broader consultation by Parks Victoria and other National Parks and Wildlife officials, conservationists, academics, elected representatives and others involved should take place with local communities and Brumby-advocating organizations and individuals concerning conservation management plans.
- Deserved recognition of the current “Victoria Heritage Brumby Act” petition and the values and populations it represents should be given. Ignoring popular choice concerning the Brumbies could lead to serious rancor and social unrest as concerns this important quality-of-life and cultural identification issue.
- If trapping and removal of some portion of the Brumbies is decided to be justified in certain areas, this should not occur during the breeding and foaling seasons for humane reasons.
- Increased support for rehoming of Brumbies over extended periods for persons willing to rehome, as indicated on interest forms, should be the adopted policy. No inflexible quota numbers should impede this process, e.g. the minimum of five horses to be adopted in New South Wales decreases many opportunities for rehoming.
- Serious consideration of constructing Log-and-Pole, triangular-shaped fences that exclude horses from certain more pristine natural habitat should be given. This works well in other areas of the world and still allows other animals to pass through.
A pioneer-descended Nevadan, as a boy Craig Downer fell in love with the natural world, oft while riding his best friend Poco. This passion led him to pursue a career in wildlife ecology and to earn an A.B. in Biology with specialization in Ecology from the University of California-Berkeley, an M.S. from the University of Nevada-Reno, and to attain Ph.D. candidature at Durham University in Britain. His studies and observations of wild horses led him to work with Wild Horse Annie in insisting that the true intent of the Wild Free-Roaming Horses and Burros Act be implemented throughout America. He served as a Peace Corps wildlife ecologist in Colombia and is the first biologist to have successfully captured, radio-collared and tracked the endangered Mountain, or Andean, Tapir as part of his doctorate studies, His organization, the Andean Tapir Fund, continues to successfully defend and protect this dwindling species, along with its diminishing cloud forest and paramo habitats. The Andean Tapir Fund has now adopted within its mandate “preserving and restoring all of the Perissodactyls in and together with their natural habitats including all species within the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families.” Craig is a member of the IUCN Species Survival Commission and his organization works to save all members of the Horse, Tapir and Rhino families (Order Perissodactyla) in their natural habitats. Visit Craig’s website.