In Jabiru, just before the wet season made tempers rise, there were complaints. Not of the crocodiles – those fearsome creatures who snack on the occasional tourist, nor the flies and mosquito hordes that harass incessantly, nor the ninety-nine percent humidity in ninety degree heat. No, the talk at the Gagudju Crocodile Holiday Inn, where we were staying in Kakadu National Park in Australia’s Northern Territory, was of the new dog-catcher. It seemed there were too many feral dogs in the town, that there were incidents of fighting and biting, so that, as a local newspaper pointed out with a photograph of a dog in the baby seat of a shopping cart, pet pooches must be protected.
What people were not expecting, said the waitress at our table at the hotel, was the dog catcher’s enthusiasm for the job. The waitress paused as she held the plated steaks on her arm, adjusting her hip as she laid them before us one by one.
“He stops people walking their dogs in the street and demands to see their license,” she said. “He prowls around a house. He’s teasing, you know, enticing the owner’s dog to bark. Then he knocks on the door and asks for the dog’s papers. If you can’t produce them immediately, you’re in for a fine.”
Our tour guide, Sab Lord, added, “He means well. Just a bit zealous.” Sab laid his battered bush hat beside him on a chair, eyeing the food appreciatively as it was placed in front of him. His eyes twinkled in his kind, weathered face. We thought we might be in for one of his tall stories, but he went on, matter-of-factly, “The shire council ruled that there should be no more than two dogs per person in the township. Owners have to register their animals – neutered.”
“Why?” we asked. With all the dangerous animals in the Territory, including crocodiles, water buffaloes and wild boar, it seemed a little ludicrous to try to manage the pet population.
“Well, that’s the point. The dingoes have been competing with all the feral domestic dogs for food. Packs of dogs have been stalking the smaller ones. In fact, there’s a dingo hiding in a vacant carport that killed a fluffy puppy. They haven’t been able to catch him.”
We tucked into our steaks and salads and our excellent bottle of wine, bemused by the notion of a dog catcher on steroids. Later, in our comfortable room in the crocodile-shaped hotel, the peaceful racket of a warm Australian bush night serenaded us through the air conditioning; birds squabbling over a night-time perch, the melodic trilling of the invasive cane toad.
These warty-skinned, ugly amphibians were introduced into northern Australia as a solution to another environmental problem – the cane beetles that infested the sugar cane plantations of Queensland. Since their arrival in the nineteen -thirties the toads in turn infested the warmer regions of Australia, traveling faster and faster each generation, laying thousands of eggs. Cane toads are toxic, poisoning any attempted predator. They are part of a chain causing the disappearance of entire species of creatures native to Australia, a chain that caused the dog catcher to enforce the law so vigorously.
As we lay on the patterned bedspread, cocooned from the dangers outside, we felt pampered as the tourists we were, enjoying the experience yet separated by an invisible wall from the people who lived here. Protecting native animals by controlling pets seemed inane to us, akin to pushing mud uphill. But then, we knew little about Kakadu National Park, knew next to nothing of the serious political controversies that roil it. My husband and I are Australians, but long separated from our country by our working lives in the United States. But even if we had lived in Australia all our lives, our city backgrounds, from Melbourne, over twenty three hundred miles south, would have kept this unique world far from our experience.
We recalled our day on Yellow Water. Sab had taken us out with other tourists to watch the crocodiles eat. While passengers sat safely behind the windowed sides of the boat, crew members climbed on deck to hold meat on poles ten feet or so out from the boat and as high. All of a sudden, as if from nowhere, an enormous dinosaur-like creature leapt from the water, catching the meat with unerring accuracy, then flopped back with a tremendous splash.
The marshy shore shimmered, white, orange, green, as long-legged jabirus poked their equally long beaks in the reeds at the river’s edge, perilously close to the underwater danger nearby. Were they not afraid? We watched a big black croc slither through the river. The water was warm as a bathtub, brown as strong milky tea. Old Man Croc was watching his females. They were green and smaller than he, which means they were younger. There were no other males around. The old croc would attack them if they came too near. We saw some of the young males elsewhere on the tepid river. Their snouts just protruding above the surface, their maimed limbs were hidden by the water.
“The young crocs don’t die, even if they’ve lost limbs in battle,” Sab explained, “because their broken skin exudes an antiseptic that prevents infection.” This singular evolutionary advantage is possibly why these fierce creatures have survived over millennia.
The crocs’ domestic habits, on the other hand, have a familiar ring to them. The old croc’s females are so much younger. Maybe the old crocodile chases his girls off when they become less attractive to him. Or maybe the senior females, fed up with his attentions to twenty younger wives, just leave him, meandering off to another river to take up with Old Croc’s rivals.
“Crocodiles have brains the size of a walnut,” Sab said. But who needs brains when you have extraordinary vision, especially at dawn and dusk, superb hearing, and sensors in little bumps all over your scaly hide which can detect pressure, including the water ripples that indicate prey is near? And prey is anything that moves.
Ripples of movement dazzle the eye everywhere here; living creatures dart and fly, crawl, run, or root, growing chlorophyll canopies under the sun. The previous wet season had flooded the estuaries and tidal flats, the lowlands and floodplains. Now, in October, towards the end of the dry season that started in June, the land was savanna-like, forested in swathes of green, and rivers ran full of silty water. Hills and occasional rock formations tower over the landscape in places, and on the plain enormous ant hills look almost like man-made buildings. Besides the crocs lurking in the rivers, barramundi fish abound in them, too, and the landscape teems with mammals, birds, fish and insects, and over two thousand species of plants. Kakadu is alive with flocks of cockatoos and the orange-legged jabiru, and herds of Indonesian buffalo, wild horses, and boar, not to speak of the wolf-like dingo. There are domestic cats gone feral, too. They’ve grown huge on a diet of small native mammals which they threaten with extinction. The cats are non-native, and so wreak havoc, along with the cane toads, killing the dugongs, bandicoots, flying foxes, black-footed tree- rats, and the nocturnal marsupial the northern quoll, which looks like a cross between a rat and a cat. That leaves the dingoes and roaming domestic dogs ( with whom they interbreed)without enough food, so feral canines prey on puppies. That’s why there’s no running in the park for Fido. Here, in the bush, he is as hampered as a hamster.
Yet, less than a century ago, animals and humans, mutual predators as they were, lived in balance. The relentless extinction of animals here did not begin with European settlement, but the rate has accelerated from accommodation with the natural world to a desperate attempt to close the barn door after the horse has bolted.
Kakadu, an area about the size of Massachusetts, is closer to Indonesia than to the southern Australian states. In fact, the Macassan people of Java came to the Top End to fish for trepang, or sea cucumber, which they traded to China for hundreds of years before white settlement.
The term “white settlement” is something of a misnomer in Kakadu,for there were very few white people in the region at all until the nineteen seventies and eighties. (It was not, in fact, called “Kakadu” until the park was declared.) The climate was too difficult for pastoralists, but the activities of missionaries and miners disturbed the Aboriginal population, causing distress and disease, till their numbers declined dramatically. Yet it was no trackless wilderness. In fact there were tracks everywhere, tracks of animals and people, invisible to invaders, but a network of information, literally stubbed in the landscape by countless feet. The Aboriginal people, the Traditional Owners, have lived here for perhaps fifty thousand years. The Bininj Mungguy people (incorporating several clan groups) believe they have been in Kakadu since the world began. Given this time frame, it is only a blink of an eye since their world was turned upside down.
In 1979, the Federal Government designated much of the 7,646 square mile area a national park. The park is under the joint management of the Traditional Owners and the Federal Government in Canberra, almost twenty five hundred miles away to the south. And when Canberra is involved, good intentions sometimes have unexpected consequences, one of which, according to the locals, is a penchant for wrapping the most mundane of activities in yards of red tape.
Within the National Park there are many areas open for public access, for a fee, but commercial and private tours, some camping and bushwalking, research, commercial filming, access to several important sites including some gorges and escarpment areas must be officially permitted. It may seem ironic that this wild life haven is so hedged in rules. But given the trashing of most natural places on earth, all plastic-bagged and strewn with candy wrappers, fire-scarred by careless camp-fires, with animals hunted to extinction, it does make sense. Kakadu is listed and managed as a World Heritage site because of its unique physical environment and present day art and archeological sites which represent the ongoing cultural development of people who have the longest continuous human occupation on the planet.
It struck me that the question of the century is how to create an accommodation between the natural world and its traditional and current guardians and industry, agriculture and tourism. How to do that is still an unsolved question. But there was something else here, we sensed, a fragility that went deeper, a fault line in our own species’ sense of meaning.
In the very place where policies are in place to protect the environment, the earth is being depleted. For there is uranium here as well, vast mineral riches, and how much of it can and should be exploited is an uneasy subject here.
Our tour guide, Sab (Thomas Sebastian) Lord, happens to be my second cousin. His father, John Lord, came into to this country in the nineteen sixties. When John and his bride, Pauline, arrived here from New South Wales at their four hundred square mile leasehold in 1960, it was only after snaking their over-laden truck through a narrow track in the bush, and digging the bogged vehicle out of almost every creek crossing. They arrived at a “ fallen down tin shed,” – the only building on the property – and decided to drive further on. Eventually, with the aid of Aborigines, they found a place to camp by a spring. Pandanus palms bordered the creek and the woods around glittered with flitting birds, including the gorgeous Gouldian finch, feathered in red, purple, yellow and green. Here, John and Pauline began the slow process of building a house, garden, pool, a tennis court made from anthill soil mixed with cement, an air-strip, and eventually an abattoir to process buffalo meat. Six months pregnant with Sab when they first arrived, Pauline cooked on camp ovens and hauled water from the spring. The couple slept in a shack covered with corrugated iron. When Pauline discovered wild pigs in the pantry, she shot them. At first their only communication with the outside was by two-way radio and journeys by plane were more feasible than road travel, since the thirty mile journey from the main road took three hours on a good day. A week before her due date, Pauline was flown three hundred miles to Darwin to await her baby’s birth. Sab, the first white child in the area, grew up in this fabulous environment, with Aboriginal people as his companions, and from them he learned, in the local language, about every plant and bush, the tracks of every animal, how to hunt “bush tucker,” and where the crocodiles dart from the river to grab at a leg walking down the road, or where a waterfall means it is safe to swim. He and his brother were schooled at home until they were teenagers. During the Wet, when roads and river crossings were flooded from November to May, the family was completely isolated.
By 1969, the Lords had built a two story house wreathed in bougainvillea, with a garden prolific with pineapple, pawpaw, sugar cane, and vegetables, and were self-sufficient in goats’ milk, eggs, fish, and meat. They derived income from occasional tourists, from hunting crocodile for their skins, and from buffalo. John moved on from hunting buffalo by the dangerous method of roping them around the horns from a platform in front of a Land Rover to tranquilizing them by dart, then to an attempt to domesticate them. The buffalo were slaughtered in his abbatoir, then transported in chilled trucks to Darwin for use in sausages and pet food.
In his autobiography, John spoke of his vision that the north of Australia could be made into another Eden by the diversion of the Georgina, the Diamantina and the Coppers Creek rivers to the interior, thus making the center of the country much wetter and cooler and potentially, he thought, feeding millions through agriculture.
But perhaps it was already Eden-like before the first white person set foot here. What John Lord did could only have been accomplished in the twentieth century, but his ideas harked back to earlier times. In 1979 the family lost their house to eminent domain when Kakadu National Park was created. John Lord retired to Sydney, but Sab could not leave his home, the beautiful north.Today, Sab runs a guided tour business, Lords of Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris, with his wife, Ann Maree.
Uranium was discovered in Kakadu in 1953 and for the next decade much of the ore was bought by British and American governments for the development of atomic weapons. If the Aborigines knew of the potential fate of their ancestral earth, their objections were overruled. But the nineteen seventies were a period of change for civil rights, and Aboriginal people campaigned to have their lands returned to them. In stages, the Australian Federal Government acquired title to the tracts of land that had been taken over the years by private, non-Aboriginal settlers. The land was returned to Traditional Owners under the newly established Aboriginal Land Rights Act (Northern Territory) and most of it was leased to the Commonwealth to become the joint managed Kakadu National Park.
Three areas were excised from the National Park due to the presence of significant uranium deposits. While this land was granted to Traditional Owners as Aboriginal Land, the legal right to veto mining projects which the new laws provided was explicitly removed in the case of Ranger uranium mine and mining commenced there in 1981 against the clear opposition of the Mirarr Traditional Owners.
The Ranger Mine needed a service town, and so the township of Jabiru was established. Jabiru now has an airport, visitors’ center, golf course, a school, a few shops, a public swimming pool, and the Holiday Inn, at which we were eating our dinner.
Energy Resources Australia (ERA) a publicly traded company, owns the Ranger Mine, which exports ten percent of the world’s uranium. The company employs white and Aboriginal people and also pays fees, rent and royalties to the Federal Government which is then paid back to the Aboriginal people under the terms of the Aboriginal Land Rights Act (NT) of 1976. However, the controversy has not ended. In 1996 ERA announced its intention to mine the Jabiluka uranium deposit, twenty kilometres north of Ranger. This was strongly resisted by the Mirarr Traditional Owners and their thousands of supporters. Because of the potential impact of uranium mining, UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee sent a scientific mission in 1998 to consider whether the park should be listed as World Heritage In Danger. The mission recommended against the development of Jabiluka and the World Heritage Committee maintains a strong interest in the interplay between uranium mining and Kakadu National Park.
John Lord, like many of his generation, was very pro-mining. He’d moved up north from New South Wales because he saw the Top End as the last Australian frontier, ripe for development. He was heartbroken when his station, Munmalary, was destroyed after it was incorporated into the Park. It was located near – a four-hour drive from – Nourlangie Rock, now a popular tourist destination. Near Nourlangie is a wooded area named Koongarra. The French nuclear company Areva held exploration rights to Koongarra, where uranium deposits are estimated to be worth billions of dollars.
Nourlangie contains cave art that is thousands of years old. Koongarra has further significance. Towering above it is an escarpment known as Burrunggui, and climbing its rust-colored rocks, the visitor eventually comes to a plateau with a view for miles over the plains. From here one can see another escarpment, the border of Arnhem Land, a reserve that is owned entirely by the Traditional People. Its other side faces the creation ancestor, Lightning Dreaming. In an example of how Aboriginal legend can reflect a version of scientific truth, it’s now hypothesized by some scientists that life may have been sparked on earth through the action of lightning. According to the dreaming, Namarrgon, the Lightning Man, emerges every October to usher in the Wet with thunder and lightning, the harbinger of rejuvenating rain.
Like Jabiru, Koongarra had been excluded from Kakadu National Park to allow mineral exploration. But a local clan, the Djok people, fought to prevent mining in the area. In June 2011, the UNESCO World Heritage Committee voted to reincorporate Koongarra into Kakadu and a formal vote in Parliament in March 2013 sealed it into Australian law.
Djok Senior Traditional Owner Jeffrey Lee, explained that he and his people had given up billions in potential revenue from uranium mining in order to preserve their cultural heritage. Lee said his father and grandfather wanted mining in the area, but he had seen the devastation it had caused and this confirmed his commitment to protecting his land.
Part of the environmental impact of uranium mining is not just the scarred earth, but the danger created through the extraction process. Ore is excavated, crushed, agglomerated and treated with chemicals, and the uranium concentrate leached out. This yellowcake is transported by truck to Darwin, then shipped to the USA, Britain, Japan and Europe. That cargo is dangerous enough, but its making has already leaked radioactive waste. Tailings, crushed rock from the extraction process, cause radioactive water to seep into rock fissures when monsoonal rains soak the Top End. More than two hundred leaks from the Ranger Mine had reportedly contaminated water upstream of aboriginal settlements and protected wetlands before ERA announced in September 2013 that it would bring state of the art water management to the mine.
Public outcry against uranium mining has continued since 1996. Under the leadership of Mirarr Senior Traditional Owner Yvonne Margarula, five thousand activists from all over the country traveled north in 1998 to block the construction of a mine at Jabiluka by ERA. Following the arrest of hundreds of the protestors, multiple legal challenges, appeals to international for a including the World Heritage Committee, the campaign succeeded. After a long legal and emotional battle, ERA began filling in the mine entrance at Jabiluka. No uranium has ever been mined from that site.
In 2011, Yvonne Margarula wrote to Ban Ki Moon, the Secretary-General of the United Nations, explaining that for thousands of years the Aboriginal people feared the spirit Djang lay underneath the land at DjidbiDjidbi, adjacent to Ranger mine. If Djang were disturbed, the Mirarr people worried, the spirit would cause havoc throughout the world. Her people believed, Margarula said in her 2011 letter, that Ranger uranium was used in the Fukushima Nuclear Plant which failed in the Japanese tsunami and earthquake. This fact was confirmed by the Australian Government.
In August 2013, after lobbying by Mirarr for fifteen years, the federal government formally ceded over twelve thousand acres of land surrounding the town of Jabiru – though not the township itself – to the Traditional Owners. The Mirarr immediately leased that land into Kakadu National Park, protecting it from development. Negotiations continue with regard to the township itself.
The unease which uranium mining unearths manifests itself, maybe, in the uber-efficiency of the dog-catcher of Jabiru. It is ironic that today in Jabiru, the fresh-faced copper spent his time hounding papers for hounds, while the mine that created the town, a source of national wealth, is also a supplier of deadly material. Australia’s international agreements insist its uranium be used for peaceful purposes, but the fact is that uranium is an ingredient for nuclear bombs.
In this place, the power of the past is palpable, even if the earth that holds everything together is literally undermined. A dystopian future is easy to imagine. The death of civilization as we know it, by the unleashing of an unpredictable power. Aboriginal people are warning us. They have experienced it first hand.
And so the dog catcher goes about his business, trying his best to tame the fear. “Just trying to keep a bit of order around here,” as the waitress said to us that night in Jabiru, her eyes on a raucous group at a table in the corner, already the worse for drink at seven o’ clock in the evening.
Wild dogs are too wily for the crocodile and both are more ruthless than humans. That’s hard for us to accept. We humans seem to need to control the environment by whatever means, to prove to ourselves we can, when we cannot. Now the local government invokes rules to reduce the terror. Perhaps, left to nature, feral dogs, and their cousins the dingoes, would provide a match for each other. It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the Territory. That is, it was, until the Dog Catcher of Jabiru came along.
Margaret Spence moved from Australia to the United States at the age of twenty-three. She’s lived in the frigid East Coast, the blazing Southwest, and temperate Northern California, and in each place has tried to create a garden that reminds her of her father’s prolific yard, where perma-culture principles were employed before anyone gave them a name. She’s published articles in The Christian Science Monitor, Americana, The Exceptional Parent, The Boston Herald magazine, and was Australian Honorary Consul in Boston for ten years. She is working on a novel, whose theme centers on the conflict between development and the natural world. A version of The Dog Catcher of Jabiru won the 2013 Soul-Making Keats Literary Award, “Intercultural Essay,” section.
References and Sources
1.Sab Lord, conversations while on Lord’s of Kakadu and Arnhemland Safaris Three day private tour of Kakadu and Arnhem Land, 2011. http://www.lords-safaris.com
2.Norty Bits, “Small Dogs Get On Their Bicycles To Avoid Dingo Attacks in Jabiru”, Current Affairs in Jabiru from the local supermarket and my general travels,blog post 7 October 2011. http://www.nortybits.me
3. Van Dam RA, Walden DJ and Begg GW 2002?
A preliminary risk assessment of cane toads in Kakadu National Park (PDF – 2,380 KB), Scientist Report 164, Supervising Scientist, Darwin, NT.
4. “Crocodile Skin Confers Delicate Touch Sense” Scientific American podcast November 27, 2012, on a study published in The Journal of Experimental Biology. [Duncan B. Leitch and Kenneth C. Catania, Structure, innervation and response properties of integumentary sensory organs in crocodilians] http://www.scientificamerican.com/podcast/episode.cfm?id=crocodile-skin-confers-delicate-tou-12-11-27
5.Mim Jambrecina, Kakadu National Park Operations and Tourism Branch, Parks Australia, editor,2010. Kakadu National Park Landscape Symposium Series 2007-2009, Symposium 5: Feral Animal Management, 3-4 December 2008.
Australian Government Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities Supervising Scientist, 188.8.131.52/ssd/publications/ir/pubs/ir568.pdf?
6. Amos Aikman, “Extinction risk in Kakadu National Park” The Australian, June 28, 2012
– See more at: http://www.theaustralian.com.au/news/health-science/extinction-risk-in-kakadu-national-park/story-e6frg8y6-1226410521540#sthash.5oqFu2jI.dpuf
7. For government of the Northern Territory, see http://www.nt.gov.au/lant/about-parliament/history-of-nt-parliament.shtml
8. Australian Government, Department of the Environment, Kakadu Visitors Guide. http://www.environment.gov.au
9.John Lord, Lord of Kakadu, privately published autobiography, http://www.Lulu.com, 2006
10. “Uranium mining in the Alligator Rivers Region”
11.”Ranger Mine,” http://www.infomine.com/minesite/minesite.asp?site=ranger
12.Koongarra and Jeffrey Lee: Australian Map of Nuclear and Uranium Sites. http://australianmap.net/koongarra/
13.“New Brine Concentrator significantly improves water management capability at Ranger uranium mine” ERA- Media Release September 19 2013, http://www.energyres.com.au/media/38_media_releases_3002.asp
14. “Mirrar Resolve Against Uranium Mining Strengthened By Fukushima” Media Statement, April 7, 2011, http://www.mirarr.net/media/W1siZiIsIjIwMTMvMTAvMzEvMDJfNTBfNDFfNTgzX0dBQ19tZWRpYV9yZWxfN19BcHIyMDExLnBkZiJdXQ/GAC_media_rel_7_Apr2011.pdf
15. “Yvonne Margarula’s letter to the UN expressing solidarity with the people of Fukushima” reported by “Anonymous” on 16 April 2011, in http://indymedia.org.au/2011/04/16/yvonne-margarulas-letter-to-the-un-expressing-solidarity-with-the-people-of-fukushima