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In some ways, wildlife defines the true Australia – it cannot be copied or replicated, Dr Rob Morrison, Australia Day Ambassador

Posted on March 26 2020

Mayor Michael Hewitson, City of Unley and Dr Rob Morrison, Australia Day Ambassador pictured together

 Pictured: Mayor Michael Hewitson of the City of Unley with Dr Rob Morrison, Australia Day Ambassador

The following blog post was the Australia Day speech given by Dr Rob Morrison Australia Day Ambassador on 26 January 2020 in the City of Unley.

Good Morning, congratulations and welcome to those who have taken citizenship today.

I acknowledge that we meet on Kaurna land and we recognise their spiritual connection to country

It is usual in these addresses to talk about what it means to be Australian, and to invoke character, custom, and culture exemplifying the Australian way of life. These qualities have been prominent in the truly heroic behaviour of the firefighters, victims and supporters in the terrible recent bushfires claiming so much of Australia. They are very human values, but I’d like to spend a few minutes on a different aspect of the Australian character– its relationship to wildlife

Every country is unique, but what makes it so is more than just its people. Australia is well known for its kangaroos, koalas, platypus and other creatures…. tourists come in droves to be photographed with them, and the plight of fire-afflicted koalas especially has moved people across the world - but there are hundreds of other animals much less well known, and they and the plants that they depend on are more than curiosities. Together they make an Australian ecosystem that cannot be replicated anywhere else. In that sense, in some ways, wildlife defines the true Australia – it cannot be copied or replicated 

Wildlife in general can play a huge role in defining the culture of a country. Children of my generation were reared on English books – Beatrix Potter, Wind in the Willows and more. As a result we grew up knowing more about moles, badgers, hedgehogs and weasels – all English wildlife -than we knew about our own native animals like, wombats, echidnas, dunnarts and quolls.

Later children through cartoons became more familiar with American animals like bears, rabbits, coyotes and roadrunners than dingos, thylacines, bandicoots and cassowaries, their rough Australian counterparts. Wildlife matters in a country’s culture but Australians’ knowledge of their own wildlife is often woeful, many even unable to identify all the animals on our own decimal currency.

Some of you new to Australia may be perplexed as to why, in record heatwaves, we celebrate Christmas with trees and cards adorned with fake snow while we send luckless fathers in thick red winter suits out into the blazing heat to entertain children by pretending they have a host of Scandinavian reindeer with them as they sing carols lamenting the mid-winter cold. 

We who trace our ancestry back to Britain and Europe relinquish our ancestors’ customs very reluctantly, it seems, and it colours our perceptions of Australia.  Our similar fixation with the Easter Bunny, an introduced European convention, led my colleagues and me some years ago to create the Easter bilby as an Australian alternative to this country’s predominant feral pest but why is all this relevant to you from other countries who have become Australian citizens? I think in three important ways

First -Much of what we have learned about our own wildlife came from immigrants or visitors from overseas who first described them for science. It is in the names: Gouldian Finch, Krefft’s hairy-nosed wombat,  Lesueur’s rat kangaroo, Peron’s dolphin, Lumholz’s Tree kangaroo, Rothchild’s rock wallaby and dozens more. It was largely people from other countries who first recorded these creatures and important aspects of their behaviour and ecology.

My second point is that, while that was hugely beneficial, their naming of our animals was not so happy. They saw our wildlife through European or American eyes, so we came to have the koala bear, Tasmanian tiger, native cat, marsupial mouse, flying fox, kangaroo rat and many more. To give you some idea, the first Europeans to see kangaroos and wallabies described them variously as cats, greyhounds, hares, civets, apes, meerkats, squirrels, deer, jerboas  and rats. Rottnest island, now a major international West Australian tourist drawcard because of photos of its quokkas on Facebook, got its name because a Dutch explorer mistook its quokka nests for rat nests. 

Because of this, much of Australia and the rest of the world have, ever since, failed to see our animals as uniquely different creatures with no links at all to their European or American namesakes which they scarcely resemble in any case. Even today, Americans persist in calling the koala a koala bear. Our marsupials are no more related to all these creatures whose names they carry than they are to elephants or whales, but these European and American names have condemned them to a confused zoological realm where the public continues to see them as odd versions of completely different creatures from the other side of the world. As a result, many Australians born in their own land are hugely ignorant of most of the native animals that surround them, their habitat needs and their ecological roles. Worse, names like ‘marsupial mouse’ mean that endangered little marsupials like dunnarts and antechinus are killed as pests although they are completely harmless and even beneficial.  Marsupial quolls, usually called native cats, are confused with the feral cat that destroys so much wildlife, and the thylacine, damned with the names of Tasmanian Tiger and Tasmanian Wolf was, as a result, hunted to extinction a few years before I was born.

My third point is that, while that may be our historical legacy, in later years we have been luckier, and again it has been those new to Australia who have brought that luck. When, as a university student, I studied zoology, I was as ignorant as most of my Australian-born companions about our own wildlife. The people who opened my eyes were immigrants. Coming from countries like England, Germany and America, where they had enjoyed a rich natural history heritage, they simply applied that here, quickly becoming far more expert on our wildlife than most of us who were born here.

My colleague who came from England, as an amateur quickly became the southern hemisphere’s frog expert, finding and describing for science many new species. I learnt how to track and survey native mammals in a wildlife society headed by an English husband and wife team. The wombats that my wife and I hand-reared came from the German self-taught wombat expert who is even now in the forefront of treating koalas and other animals injured in the fires. These latter day immigrants have added, and are adding, immeasurably to the knowledge and appreciation of the wildlife of their adopted homeland and we who were born here are learning from them.

Wildlife is crucially important to a nation’s identity. It can be obvious in sporting names and symbols  like the South African Springboks or the Silver Fern of New Zealand; politically symbolic as in flags such as the Maple Leaf of Canada or Papua New Guinea’s bird of paradise. It is one of the top factors that brings tourists to many countries, underlying hugely important industries in ecotourism.

But wildlife is more than that. Native animals and plants, with their interlocking relationships and ecological complexity virtually define the non-human aspects of any country. Without them, a country is not the same and never can be.

For those of you joining us as citizens today, I would encourage you to take an interest in our astounding wildlife, not just the cuddly ones like koalas or the dramatic sharks and snakes which capture so much of the foreign media, but the little creatures, the less-well-known – even the unattractive or seemingly uninteresting. It was important before, but the wholesale destruction of well over a billion native birds and mammals in the recent fires has made this a matter of real urgency.

Learn their real names. Put out a bird bath.  Plant a few native shrubs or trees. Build a frog pond. Support zoos and wildlife parks or, even better, become a volunteer. Put up nesting boxes for the 200 or so species of birds and mammals  that can never breed without hollows, many of which have vanished in the colossal fires of the last few weeks.

I welcome you as you join us today as Australian citizens and hope that you will play a part, as so many new to this country have done before you, in the promotion, protection, discovery and now urgent restoration of our natural history, so much of which has recently been destroyed. Without it, Australia could not really be Australia any more.

For more information about the Australia Day Ambassador program click here  

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