I keep thnking about the rats. Which are gone. And werent really rats . if there had been real rats the unreal rats would have been gone long ago. But they are now anyway. Ten years ago, and we didnt really say goodbye. Or indeed hello.
The unreal rats were small rodents which lived on a small island, which is part of Queensland, which is part of a large country which appears to be on fire, but is not sure if it can admit that. On Googlemaps the small, uninhabited island ( Bramble Cay) is next to another country called Papua New Guinea (PNG), and is at the north end of the Great Barrier Reef. You have to downscale quite a long way before you get a sight of Queensland, but it has annexed all the islands in the Torres Strait, presumably to control access and mineral rights. It is quite odd to think about a country which (stretching a point ) was founded as a colony of your own country as being a major imperialist power, but there you go. One of the other things that Australia has found useful about the islands off the shores of PNG is to imprison immigrants in much the same way Britain used to do in Australia. There were some fairly nearby when the unreal rats used to live.
There are no brambles on Bramble Cay, but there is some scrub, which looked a bit like them to the itinerant British sailors who named it. The Cay is very small, and considerably smaller now due to global warming, which has caused a rapid sea rise in the Torres Straits, and was very bad news for the unreal rats, which had originally got there when the straits were a land bridge from PNG to Australia, and got left behind. Some people at the Queensland Bureau of Something -sounding-Wildlife-Friendly and a few research scientists knew they were there, but didn’t visit much, saving their efforts for trying to keep alive more accessible wildlife that we are more interested in. The kind of beasts that make it onto the wildlife documentaries that I ve been watching over the holidays. The kind of beast that there might be some outrage about if it was to suddenly not be there. And which we believe we are omnipotent enough to keep alive. Possibly in zoos, or by juggling with them very quickly while their habitat burns around them. These folks have their work cut out.
A few years ago (2009) some game fisherman saw the unreal rats when they landed on the island. In 2014 wildlife rangers went back and couldn’t find them. They set some traps and again, in 2016, there they weren’t. It seemed there had been some floods. John Woinarski, Australia’s leading biodiversity researcher, has published a paper pointing out the lack of strategy, funding and, indeed, interest in preventing the extinction of the unreal rats (and a further two vertebrate spp which the Australian government has not got round to declaring extinct yet, which also lived on small offshore islands, as many rare animals do). In February 2019 the bureaucratic process of declaring something extinct was completed – in fairly quick time as these things go, as where else could those critters have been hiding?
And shortly afterwards someone noticed that this was the first mammalian species extinction that could be unequivocally attributed to anthropocentric climate change. Which makes a good headline, doesnt it? And meant, I found out about it, at a climate psychology event in December. Which would be at least a decade after the unreal rats drowned. In one of the best known and richest countries in the world. Where there are hundreds of professionals who make careers out of studying and protecting these kind of things. You ll allow me to question how unique this event might have been.
There are pictures of the unreal rats on the Net, which make them look gawky and cute, but I am not linking to them. There is a poignancy there for those of us who would look at the dodo, thylacine , great auk and think ‘I ll never see one of those’. But honestly, these animals, ( and maybe some of those others too), were not really valued when they were around, so trying to preserve their image now feels like hypocrisy. It might be better to imagine what we might have lost.
The unreal rats who stalk my dreams look a bit like gerbils ( see blogs passim) , non-descript, opportunistic, herbivorous rodents of the types which scurry across roads in our headlights late at night, or live in our drains, or in our fairy tales , or in cages in our childrens bedrooms where they teach us lessons about love and mortality.
On the radio, tis the season of contemplation. There haven’t been any programmes about losing obscure species in the age of mass extinction, but there has been an episode of ‘Positive Thinking‘ on BBC Radio 4, which pissed me off considerably. Its about how climate change has increased rat infestation in places which may have flooded, and how mass culls of invasive rats in New Zealand (and on some other small islands) ‘may’ give hope that the rat populations could be eradicated ( which is a scientific word for ‘wiped out’). No one suggested that a man with a flute is going to lead them off to the Underland. I just went there by myself.
Instead we might think positively, that large scale community efforts might do the business – apparently people in New Zealand are enjoying spending their weekends trapping rats, in a patriotically inspired campaign to remove a predator on the remnant populations of native fauna ( which by geographical accident did not include any terrestrial mammals), and presumably in the hope these might then revive. Oddly none of the contributors mentioned the other animals which had been introduced there – dogs, cats, cattle, sheep, horses- that have changed the islands irreversibly. Or that the rats are spreading as one of the consequences of global warming, which (along with the floods , contamination and displacement of pests) will go on without them. Unless the guy with the flute sorts it out.
Or about the sense of unease that some of us might feel about deliberately eradicating another species in an age of mass extinction. ( At this point it might be worth noting that Britains most endangered mammal is the black, AKA ship, rat, which survives only on a small private island in the Irish Sea. People I know have got visiting it on their bucket lists.)
Frankly the BBC is desperate to produce greenwash stories which fit into its adapted mission statement to educate us about climate change, without frightening the licence payers or the new establishment , which only a few weeks ago threatened to remove Channel 4 s franchise for replacing an absent BJ with a lump of ice in their climate change debate. Please be deeply sceptical about what these programmes don’t mention. We owe it to the unreal rats.
_Deborah Bird Rose was an Australian writer on environmental humanities with a particular interest in the sociological meaning of extinction . Here is what she says , writing about another endangered species
when scientists offer us numbers,they are talking about a kind of verifiable presence or absence.. However, what is actually occurring us more dire than the numbers indicate.. Relationships unravel, mutualities falter, dependence becomes a peril rather than a blessing, and whole worlds of practice and knowledge diminish. we are looking at worlds of loss that are much greater than the species extinction numbers suggest.
She introduces a concept she calls ‘shimmer’, which she characterizes as noticing connectedness and encounter, with a kind of brilliance which she recognises in Aboriginal culture. It sounds very like the kind of ideas that George Monbiot is describing in his book Feral. Her conclusion is that ‘In the time of extinction, we are going to be asked again and again to take a stand for life , and this means taking a stand for faith in life’s meaningfulness’. By so doing we will encounter the ‘shimmer’ that we are losing from our lives.
I found this memorial to the unreal rats. After I d written all this , natch. The cartoonist clearly believes no one will pay attention to February 18, but I know I will.
I imagine the last rats climbing the shrubs and bushes as the flood waters rise on their island, and as these sink progressively below the water, struggling off in to the waves. I’m reminded that the Wikipedia entry for melomys describes them as the ‘only endemic mammalian inhabitants of the Barrier Reef’ . As they drowned their bodies will have drifted down to the sea bed where they will have joined the skeletons of bleached and dying coral, the plagues of starfish, unfertilised and dying fish eggs, amongst the microplastics, fishing tackle , fuel exhaust and dumped cargo residues which now make up most of what I wrote in my primary school project was’ the greatest natural wonder on earth’.
What on earth have we done?