'Elephants in the Top End, Kangaroos in the Top Paddock: The Colourful History of Introduced Species', by Rhianna Boyle


(Illustration by Bonnie Eichelberger)

In 1861, the Governor of Victoria received a letter requesting that monkeys be released into the Victorian bush. In the words of the Governor, Sir Henry Barclay, his correspondent suggested that the monkeys should be introduced “for the amusement of the wayfarer, whom their gambols would delight as he lay under some gum tree in the forest on a sultry day.”

For many Australians nowadays, the wisdom of introducing exotic species does not even require protracted argument, but is instead summed up in a single byword: ‘rabbits’. Or perhaps ‘cane toads’, or even ‘foxes’. But before we had the advantage of ecological hindsight—in fact, before the science of ecology existed—the introduction of exotic species was seen in a very different light.

The request for monkeys, while wisely rejected by the Governor, came not from an eccentric crank, but from Edward Wilson, former editor of the Argus newspaper and founder of the Victorian Acclimatisation Society. Along with the politicians, academics and hereditary title holders that made up the Society, Wilson was committed to introducing all of the world’s wonderful species to the impoverished fauna of the new colony. The introduction of English songbirds, Wilson argued, to mention just one example, would temper the harsh calls of our native kookaburras and cockatoos.

The first Acclimatisation Society had been founded in Paris in 1854. Its British counterpart was formed in 1859, and its gentlemen members celebrated by dining on an exotic dinner of eland, a deer-like African species. For a few decades in the nineteenth century, Acclimatisation Societies flourished in the British colonies and in the United States, although they were most influential in Australia and New Zealand. ‘Liberations’, as the releases of exotic species were called, were carried out to satisfy combinations of civic duty, nostalgia, religious obligation and God complexes. Some introductions had a practical rationale—to introduce ‘useful’ domesticated species—but others were the result of loftier ideals.

In her book Exotic Intruders, Joan Druett describes the “gentleman’s menagerie” established by the one-time Governor of New Zealand, Sir George Grey. During the 1860s, Sir George purchased the island of Kawau, off New Zealand, and set about creating a paradise for exotic species. Animals were allowed to roam free in a set-up that seemed to take its cues from the Garden of Eden. Living together on the island were zebras, emus, kangaroos, monkeys, possums, wallabies, antelope, cassowaries, peacocks and swans, together with a selection of exotic plants. The wallabies bred uncontrollably, and in conjunction with the possums, ate so much of the island’s vegetation that all the animals began to starve. Shooting parties were able to kill as many as 200 wallabies in a single weekend.

Thomas R. Dunlap writes that the focus of the natural sciences during the Victorian era was not to describe relationships between species, as it is today, but to catalogue and arrange the diversity of life. According to Dunlap, the Victorians believed that nature could be “taken apart and put together almost at will.” Such a rationale seems to have played a part in the establishment of the menagerie on Kawau, which resembled a living version of the butterfly collections or stuffed bird arrangements that decorated Victorian homes. An obvious design flaw in the eyes of modern ecologists—the absence of a predator that would limit herbivore populations— was not considered.

The Victorians believed that man had a duty to assist the proliferation of the creator’s best work. And in their eyes, His finest pieces, both human and animal, were European. Just as people of European stock would displace the original inhabitants of the places they colonised, the superior European plants and animals would displace their native counterparts.

The starling is now amongst the most invasive bird species in North America. Its presence there is thanks to Eugene Schieffelin, a member of the American Acclimatisation Society. It is thought that Schieffelin, a dedicated aesthete, decided to introduce starlings and other European birds because he wanted to look out the window and see all the birds mentioned by Shakespeare.

In 1858, the poet William Cullen Bryant commemorated Schiefflin’s release of a flock of English house sparrows with the lines:

A winged settler has taken his place

With Teutons and men of the Celtic race

Twenty-three years later, the sparrows had acclimatised so successfully to North America that a magazine published a parody of Cullen Bryant’s verse, referring to the sparrows’ poo and seed pilfering.

 Meanwhile, in Australia, the Victorian Acclimatisation Society was also releasing sparrows, along with pheasants, robins, partridges, blackbirds, and other English birds. Non-avian animals released included goats, hares and several species of deer. The Society also possessed monkeys and a leopard, but these were amongst animals kept in captivity at what later became Melbourne Zoo.

At the same time as these importations were underway, the Society was shipping kangaroos, wombats, dingoes and kookaburras to cities in Europe and Asia. It is likely that most of these exports ended up in zoos. But those who feel patriotically towards our native species will be pleased to know that just as our bush is suffering under the onslaught of invasive species, our native fauna and flora are wreaking their own havoc overseas. There are Australian possums in New Zealand, brown snakes in Guam, and melaleuca and casuarina trees in Florida. There are even wild colonies of wallabies in Britain – escapees from private zoos.

Overwhelmingly, modern popular opinion has shifted against exotic introductions. Today, a civic-minded concern for the environment does not entail ‘liberating’ zebras into it, but rather removing exotic species. However, the legacy of the Victorian era Acclimatisation Societies may not have left us completely.

Introducing animals was once an upper-class pursuit. But while wealthy, educated types have now taken up the peasant-like pastimes of kneading their own sourdough and growing heirloom vegetables, the marginalised rural underclass are the ones carrying on the gentleman’s task of acclimatisation. And it seems that was once carried out, however misguidedly, for the edification of society, may now be undertaken as a big middle finger raised to the environmental values of elites. The possible deliberate introduction of the fox to Tasmania, in the late 1990s, for example, has been described as an act of environmental terrorism.

The story of modern fox introductions to Tasmania is a tricky one to tell, because barely any of the facts are undisputed. Whether or not there are currently foxes in Tasmania, let alone how they got there, is up for debate. Foxes were introduced to mainland Australia in the 1800s, however, despite similarly early attempts at introduction, Tasmania remained fox-free until late last century.

In 1998, a fox was captured on security cameras at Burnie port, presumably just after it had walked off a container ship from Melbourne. This video evidence suggests that foxes are able to cross the Tasman (check) under their own steam, but it seems unlikely that a few stowaways could found a whole population.

Then, in 2001, two men appeared in the media with a fox they claimed to have shot, but the case was later believed to be a hoax, with the body of the fox presumably brought across from the mainland. Subsequent corpse discoveries and sightings have been publically ridiculed, which may mean that people who genuinely believe they have seen a fox are reluctant to report the sighting to the government-funded Fox Taskforce. 

The only abundant concrete evidence of a fox presence in Tasmania exists in the form of scats that contain fox DNA, but even this evidence is controversial. Some environmentalists have accused their opponents of bringing fox poo over from the mainland and scattering it about to waste the time and money of the Fox Task Force, thereby siphoning resources away from other environmental issues. Others have claimed that those secretly transporting the poo are most likely to be members of the Taskforce themselves, or work for the laboratories that perform the genetic analysis, because they benefit financially from the foxes’ presumed presence.

In 2001, three people were investigated by the police and the Tasmanian Parks and Wildlife Service over suspected deliberate introductions. No evidence of such introductions was found, but some scientists and environmentalists still suspect deliberate introduction as a way of antagonising ‘greenies’.

Foxes are not the only animals suspected of being deliberately introduced in recent decades. Deer in Australia descend from those introduced during the nineteenth century. However, in 1995 there were just four distinct populations of red deer Australia, but by 2007, that number had increased to sixty-five populations. It’s thought that many of the new deer populations in south-eastern Australia have been deliberately established by hunters, who capture feral animals and release them in new wilderness areas.

The world of deer hunting enthusiasts is a topsy-turvy parallel universe of environmental politics. The language and ideology are familiar, but the context is new. According to hunting websites, deer contribute to biodiversity. They should be hunted in moderation, rather than subjected to the widespread culling called for by some environmentalists, in order to protect a valuable natural resource. The idea that moderated exploitation now will protect a resource for the future has long been promulgated by green groups, but it seems strange that it has been taken up so enthusiastically by the hunting lobby.

According to the website of the hunting lobby group Research Into Deer Genetics and Environment (R.I.D.G.E), hunters’ desire to preserve deer can be attributed to the “long and constant link that many Australian families have with deer hunting, especially amongst those of European or Celtic descent.” In some cases, “traditional hunting practices go back at least 5 generations.” According to the group, the cultural significance of the deer can be seen in the fact that it appears on council and property signs, football teams and place names.

This rhetoric implies that the deer is effectively the white man’s totem animal or spirit guide. As with the environmental arguments, these defences seem to cherry-pick from left wing ideas about indigenous rights, but they seem to have been appropriated—perhaps cynically so—by a demographic not usually associated with either the conservation or land rights movements.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the deer hunting in Australia is that, in an apparent throwback to the days of the Victorian Era acclimatisation societies, the government is on board. In most states of Australia, deer are considered a pest. However, in Victoria, Tasmania, and New South Wales they are a protected game species. In these states, deer are allowed to persist in national parks for the enjoyment of hunters. There are bag limits to preserve the resource.

Certainly, deer aren’t as destructive as rabbits or foxes, but the disturbing aspect of government protection of feral deer is that we don’t really know what effects they have on the environment.  The few existing studies suggest they cause vegetation destruction, competition with native herbivores and weed transmission. Some farmers have raised concerns that deer damage their crops.

Yet hunters seem to be able to rely on support in high places. For example, in 2005, two scientists from the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries published a scientific paper claiming that a “professional” approach to wildlife management means we must “move away from traditional paradigms of protection of native species and eradication of exotic species.” Echoing the sentiments of hunters, the paper claims that deer are have been “part of the Australian biodiversity since early in the nineteenth century.” Apparently, it’s “traditional perceptions of deer as an exotic species” that lead people to believe they cause agricultural and environmental damage.

It seems odd that both the science of ecology and green politics—both generally regarded as being born in the 1970s—are now ‘traditional paradigms’, while the hunting lobby’s born-again acclimatisation movement is the new way of thinking. It’s one thing when hunters on an internet forum appropriate the language of the left to promote an opposing ideology, but when a state government department does the same, it seems to be inviting unflattering comparisons to Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty Four.

State government protection of introduced species is not limited to deer. In fact, there is one introduced species that a state government-funded body breeds in order to release into the wild. Each year, Victorian Fisheries releases captive raised trout — a European species — into the wild so that fishing enthusiasts can catch them.

This occurs despite evidence that trout eliminate populations of galaxiids, a group of native fish that includes some rare and threatened species. In Victoria, trout hatchlings are now released only into closed bodies of water, such as lakes and dams, but it is thought that they may reach rivers despite this practice. Ecologist Susan Lawler points out that the same agencies tasked with breeding and protecting native fish are also breeding the trout that may end up preying on them.  

The government-sanctioned presence of deer and trout in Australia raises the question of why the hobbies of a minority take precedence over the conservation of public resources. Even disregarding the environmental impacts of trout, the money put into the scheme means it can effectively be considered a charitable service that provides subsidised fish dinners to the incurably rugged. It’s tempting to think that government deference to hunting and fishing types is a psychological throwback to the time when manly men who killed animals with weapons were the pinnacle of respect. In Western society, that time ended somewhere around 4000BC. Perhaps political organisation, in the form of the Shooters and Fishers Party, has had an impact.

But it would be wrong to think that these practices are the last gasp of the acclimatisation mentality, as a resurgence may come from unexpected quarters. In recent decades, the scientific community has been the strongest critic of exotic introductions. But a new concept in ecology is rewilding. This practise is exemplified by the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in the 1990s, after they had been exterminated from the park decades before. Some scientists take this idea one step further. According to some proponents of rewilding, in the absence of the original native species, exotic species should be introduced to fulfil particular ecological roles.

Professor David Bowman of the University of Tasmania believes we should consider introducing elephants to northern Australia. This claim was made last year in Nature, one of the world’s leading scientific journals. The elephants are apparently required to control gamba grass, a giant weed that is colonising the top end of Australia at a rapid rate. But this is not the elephant’s only proposed function. Our continent once boasted, amongst other things, two-metre tall wombats and kangaroos. Bowman believes the Australian ecosystem has been ‘out of balance’ since we lost such creatures during the Pleistocene megafauna extinctions of about 50,000 years ago. For this reason he also suggests introducing komodo dragons in order to fill the niche left by extinct giant goannas.

I suppose that if we have to revive a Victorian-era fad, on a spectrum that includes baby farming and incurable syphilis, acclimatisation is a lesser of evils. If acclimatisation is the scientific trend of the future, my support is behind a revival of Edward Wilson’s plan for monkey introductions. Like deer, monkeys will contribute to biodiversity, and that can only be a good thing. The presence of monkeys will make up for the obvious deficits in our native fauna, the gambols of which are simply not delightful enough. And monkey-watching is a serious sport, which supports regional economies. At least, that’s what my platform will be when candidates from my soon-to-be-formed Monkey Appreciation Party run for the Federal Senate. If recent events are any indication, I’d say we’re in with a chance.


Rhianna Boyle is a research assistant in the zoology department at the University of Melbourne.


Bonnie Eichelberger is a Melbourne-based freelance designer and illustrator.


This piece is from our most recent print issue, TLB20. You can grab a copy for yourself, if you like.