John Gould's Extinct and Endangered Mammals
What inspired me to explore the fates of Gould's mammals
10 October 2014
When I look out my lounge room window south-east of Bungendore, I look down our creek towards a hill 5 km away. More than 100 years ago, just on the other side of that hill, a young man was given a stern talking-to by his companions for shooting 35 Koalas one morning—such were the numbers of Koalas around Lake George and many other parts of south-eastern Australia. Today, the closest record of a Koala to my house was one seen in 1985 some 15 km to the north-east, on the other side of the dividing range. The occasional Koala passes through Canberra and its surrounds, but there are few local populations of any note.
I had been researching these sorts of stories, often told in old newspaper articles, for several years before the National Library approached me to write John Gould’s Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia. It was a natural extension of my work at the time, examining bone deposits in caves to discover where mammals had lived in eastern Australia prior to European colonisation. Many of the original articles I found were focused on the Canberra region, because of my involvement with the Mulligan’s Flat Woodland Sanctuary. The sanctuary wanted to know what mammal species were most appropriate for reintroduction to the site (which is adjacent to the northern suburbs of Canberra). This local focus lead to discovery of stories of quolls (‘native cats’) stumbling around with tin cans on their heads, countless records of hunting of small wallabies and kangaroos, and other stories of the major changes that overtook the region as rabbits and foxes swept through the landscape in the late 1800s and early 1900s. These stories were repeated across most of Australia.
My own involvement in the recovery and release of native mammals includes the reintroduction of several species that Gould wrote about in his 1863 works. For example, Eastern Bettongs and New Holland Mice now live at Mulligans Flat for the first time in 100 years.
But I was surprised in researching the book how long the call for such actions had been heard in newspapers, and how many proponents of mammal conservation had taken action to both change laws and popular opinion. Attempts had also been made to save the last remaining populations of species, such as the Toolache Wallaby—an icon of South Australia’s past. The action taken by the Commonwealth Government to intervene and stop the 1927 Koala skin export from Queensland was strangely reminiscent of the later action of the Hawke Government over the Franklin dam. It was a direct response to overwhelming popular objection to the re-opening of exports and hunting of koalas more generally. Ultimately though, it’s not the information I could find about Thylacines and Koalas that tell the story of Gould’s mammals. It’s the pages where there is nothing to show but a painting from his works and a few lines of text about how the species was never seen again after it was first found…
Fred Ford's John Gould's Extinct and Endangered Mammals of Australia featuring coloured plates from Gould's original 1863 publication was released by NLA Publishing in October 2014.