Bird collecting - another angle

To: bird <>
Subject: Bird collecting - another angle
From: Syd Curtis <>
Date: Wed, 30 Jul 2003 23:14:55 +1000
(Apologies for the length.)

Some 30 plus years ago, I was (as a national parks officer) inspecting Green
Island NP out from Cairns.  There were large numbers of a very beautiful
species of Buprestid beetle - a Jewel Beetle.  I put one into a discarded
cigarette box and shoved it in my shirt pocket.  It seemed desirable to have
the species identified and recorded as part of the park fauna.  Reckon I
lasted about another quarter of my way around that tiny cay before the
constant "scritch-scritch-scritch" of that poor beetle got to me.  I had to
let it go.

So I can empathise with those who find killing birds abhorrent and
unacceptable.  But may I offer two thoughts:

    1. The situation has improved immensely in the last 30 years;

    2. Taking  specimens for scientific purposes is far from the worst we
humans do to our avifauna.

Up until '75 when premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen set up the Q. NP&WS,
Queensland National Parks were managed by the Dept. of Forestry.  Successive
Forestry administrators were very strict in applying the protective
provisions of the legislation.

One provision prohibited any interference with anything occurring naturally
on a NP.  An exception was made to provide for permits for scientific
purposes.  Nearly all such permits related to collecting biological
material.  Forestry's basic policy was that to justify getting a permit, the
applicant had to show, inter alia, that (a) the collection could not
reasonably be carried out on any location not in a national park; and (b)
the collection would not adversely affect the local population of the
species being collected.

In '63, when I began processing permit applications, the Dept did not grant
permits to museums; they did (if justified) to University Scientists.  (No
science (sens lat.) degree, no  permit.)  An indication of the strength of
that policy may be given by the fact that on separate occasions I was
invited to visit the Queensland museum, and the (CSIRO) National Insect
Collection in Canberra, in the hope of persuading the Dept to relax the
policy on museum collections.

At the time of my visit to the Queensland Museum, the Director of the Fauna
Conservation Branch in the Dept of Primary Industries was present.  He was
responsible for permits for taking fauna elsewhere in Qld other than in the
N. Parks.  I was horrified to hear him say that if a species of bird or
mammal was critically endangered, it is preferable to collect the last few
individuals and at least make museum specimens of them rather than their
simply dying in the wild and being lost as the species goes extinct.  (You
can imagine my considerable misapprehension when that individual was
appointed by Joh as Director of the new NP&WS in '75.)

There was however, a limit to what even he would accept.  A few years after
the Service was set up, the Service received an application from a scientist
in another State to collect birds in Qld. (though not in NPs).  This was
related to a research grant from an American institution and was concerned
with taxonomy, based at least in part on physical measurements.  His list
contained (from memory) one-hundred and forty (140) entries, and some of the
entries were genera, with collection to apply to any species of the genus.
Numbers to be taken per species were few for some of the rarer or more
'special' ones, but were large for birds that were plentiful.

On that occasion, the Director did not immediately grant a permit, but
sought more information.  The response did not answer all questions, and a
further request was made.  This did not elicit a reply, but Queensland is a
large State and wildlife officers are thin on the ground.  It was suspected
that the collection proceeded without a permit.

There were no ethics committees in those days.  I can't imagine any
Australian wildlife authority being faced with such an application now.  So
while some collection may still be authorised, the situation is much better
than it was - as far as scientific collecting is concerned.

But consider this:  with some exceptions, populations of wild creatures tend
to stabilise at the numbers that the available habitat will support.  Many
creatures including a lot of our native birds are territorial and actively
exclude outsiders of their own species.  Destroy an area of habitat, and all
its' inhabitants are rendered homeless.  Many (most?) will be unable to find
another suitable area where they can live.  They will die from starvation or
by predation related to their lacking suitable habitat.

Harry Frith,  when Chief of the Division of Wildlife Research of CSIRO,
commented, apropos of the 'roo industry, that he would rather be a kangaroo
killed by a clean head-shot than a kangaroo slowly dying of starvation in a
drought.  I certainly don't advocate collecting birds from areas about to be
cleared, but I think I'd rather be killed by a clean shot than be rendered
homeless and die after a period of time severe stress from being unable to
find a new home.

And whether the clearing of native bush is for primary industry, residential
development or industrial purposes, or simply by inundation with a new dam,
the effect on the wild creatures that have lost their home, is equally as
big a tragedy.  And far more serious - and heart-breaking, if you stop to
think about it - than the collection of one bird by a museum.

Syd Curtis in Brisbane

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