Ecotourism and Ecopsychology:
Davidson's Safari was the place to go. I met tour guides Brendan and Katrina on the edge of Kakadu National Park, 240 kilometres east of Darwin, in North- west Arnhemland. B ouncing along a dusty track, we crossed into Arnhemland, at the Alligator River. They showed me where a crocodile took a tourist recently and drew my attention to a frilled lizard in defensive posture halfway up a twisted tree.
It took over an hour to reach Mt. Borriedale, part of a 700 km2 leasehold from the Aborigines. Journeying in, I was the eager novice asking all the same old questions, answered by accepting guides.
The first sign of camp was a runway used to fly in tourists. The camp was in open woodland just above the high water mark of the monsoonal wet season. Clearing of undergrowth and mown grass gave an open parkland effect. The kitchen and dining/meeting shelter stood in the centre. Although the kitchen was partly open to the elements, the dining area was screened with shade and mosquito nets. It was furnished with plain tables and chairs on a wooden floor. Nearby was a toilet and shower block with pit toilets and solar heated spring water. Around the periphery were tents.
Nearby, two captured wild piglets were being fattened with food scraps, which were otherwise composted. Adding to the safari camp atmosphere were old roofless Toyotas and an ex-army Landrover.
We drove to the billabong, where three old aluminium boats were pulled up on the bank. One, their famous ‘"tinny’" had been bitten by a huge crocodile now to be found stuffed in the Darwin Museum. They then introduced me to their gargantuan croc called ‘"Sir’", lying on the opposite bank. He has been there for years. Later, I caught his eye when we were on a collision course as he came down a narrow channel.. They reassured me that he was well fed. He moved aside and let us pass.
Brendan took me fishing in their billabong, which alternated between wide river and narrow lily-covered shallows. In a small dinghy, we trawled the wide snag-free sections, using a variety of lures.. We had a great day exploring what to him was old country and to me an all-new adventure. It was an adult fishing experience to match my childhood delight. Now, however, numbers were not paramount, but the struggle with one large powerful fish which, when she hit, jumped out of the water in all her splendour and then dived deep.
Luckily Brendan had told me to keep my line tight, allow the barrafish to go when she pulled hard and wait for the right moment to reel in. Macho force loses fish. I began to understand wise recreational fishermen, who relish the experience of the hunt, using barbless hooks and light line on flexible rods so they can better feel the fish, even though risking its loss.
Despite fear of loss and welling panic, I managed to be responsive. She battled well, pulling this way and that. Minutes later, tired out, she broke the surface and finally Brendan scooped her up with his net and lifted her into the boat. The relief of success and the sheer rush of joy was overwhelming. I struggled to hold up the fish for a photo. Months later, this shot still jumps out at friends. I had caught my first and biggest 5.5 kilogram barramundi on the first day.
At dusk Brendan demonstrated filleting and cleaning the fish. We were surprised at the thick skin of the barra, which can be tanned. Despite overcooking, it tasted great, because it was my fish and fresh barra is hard to spoil.
Hunting for Feral Pigs
Three days after our arrival, Max,the owner of Davidson’s Safaris, flew with three hunters: Julius, an Austrian factory owner, with two friends. A trophy fee of $200 was payable for a boar and a day’s stay in the camp cost $300.
There was excitement in the camp as hunters’ licences were checked. We set off at dawn, dressed in hardy bush gear. Although I had hunted rabbits with pleasure, shot snakes from fear and had baulked at culling roos on our farm, I was not quite prepared for boar hunting.
After a thirty minute drive, we divided into two teams, setting off on foot in opposite directions with an agreement to meet at sunset. Max, led, followed closely by Julius. I followed several discreet metres behind.
I could hear my breathing, the birds and the sound of leaves under foot.
Their rifles were bolt action, with a magazine of 4, resembling an old army 303s. Julius refused to use a repeating rifle, because they allowed hitting without careful aim. He used big bullets for a quick kill.
Max could smell pigs’ presence. I couldn't, but I saw their droppings, fresh trails and diggings. Julius explained that ‘"any alone is an old boar, as he has been pushed out of the herd’".
Soon, a lone, large boar was sighted near the forest edge. Slowly, step by step, we crept forward. Julius edged forward slowly and quietly and took aim. There was a long void of tense, waiting silence; and then a loud bang. The boar staggered forward and stopped, fatally wounded. Julius moved around for a final shot and the pig dropped.
After the tusks were taken, the animal was opened up to allow the wildlife to have a feed. I was uncomfortable, torn between sorrow and relief for the end to the loneliness of being old and out of the herd. The hunter was unhappy that it had not been a clean kill, for both the pain of the animal and the reflection on his professional skill. Then celebrations began with hand shaking all round and big smiles Max said to Julius, ‘"White man, Heil’" and the hunter replied, ‘"White man Danke’". Normally a quietly spoken man, Julius became animated. Max explained the ‘"White man, Heil’" ritual - ‘"in the early days of hunting in northern Europe ‘"Heil’" conveyed other hunters’ congratulations and ‘"Danke’" is the successful hunter’s thanks to the animal. The classic photos of hunter, guide, boar and rifle were taken in the age-old, unchanged tradition. He insisted that I was included.
We walked on. After a while, Max sighted a herd of pigs with binoculars. He waved us forward, checking with a powder puff that we were downwind. Because the area was hunted infrequently, we could approach close. For several minutes we observed them, mainly young piglets, females and young boars, grunting and squealing, suckling, foraging here and there in the forest. We watched while Max scanned for an old boar. Since there were none,we walked on for two hours in silence, finally resting under a tree on the edge of the plain.
Following the pattern of the pigs who slept in the middle of the day, .we lay on the ground for two hours; I moved only to escape direct sun and swat mosquitoes. We had only a bread roll and an apple for lunch. Little was said.
All day walking and five minutes shooting epitomised the pace of the hunt. There is so much more - the bush quiet, the birds, the looking, listening, and the uncertainty. Travel brochures leave out the stinking whiff of composting mangroves and pig smells, the mud boots and being wet up to the knees.
At sunset, we arrived back at camp, happy and tired. The boar tusks were boiled up in a 44 gallon drum and would be mounted and added to Julius’ private collection. Hunters examined each others’ guns and discussed past and desired hunts. Max commented that ‘"locally born Australians are more likely to want to shoot anything. Here (no-one is) allowed to shoot kangaroos or dingos. There is pride in using one shot. I have a gun as back up if the animal is not killed quickly and also as protection if the hunter is overawed by a wounded boar. We don't promote hunting out of a vehicle. It is on foot, stalking, walking up to 15-20ks a day carrying rifle and backpack’".
Could these hunters be termed ‘ecohunters’ because they were following the more ecologically-based traditions of hunter-gatherer cultures or because they were enhancing environmental sustainability by removing animals that were pests? Were they just killers?
White hunting preceded the conservation movement, and was subsequently reviled as part of unsustainable, ‘macho’ colonial history. But ecohunters had respect for the area and what they were entitled to shoot. This experience honoured both the hunted and the hunter. That meant identifying with the animal during the hunt so that facing the blood and guts meant feeling pain and grief for its death. Julius had been content to stalk his prey until he found the right animal, whether this took a day or a week. They hunted by ‘becoming’ the sought-after species. They asked ‘if I was a boar, where would I be now?’ The more powerful the technology they used the less it was necessary to ask. For these hunters, the kill was only the end product of the hunt.
The experience was mostly about being in the wild, meeting physical challenge, legitimately getting dirty, studying the animal’s or fish’s living patterns. It helped discern what was important and what fell into the background. It gave direct insight into what constituted an animal’s wildness, to which ecohunters were strongly committed. It left the animals wild, and, when done sustainably, ensured species survival. It did not tamper with the being-ness of the animal or how it lived. Julius celebrated the hunt in a way foreign to most white Australians. His view was closer to an Aboriginal’s, that species wellbeing took precedence over sentiment for the individual animal killed.
However, there is a distinction between native and feral hunting; slaughter and sustainable use. The recent decline in the market for skins from pest animals, such as rabbit or fox skins, as well as those from native animals, arose from confusion about these distinctions. Max argued that ‘people come here with the opinion that there should be no shooting, but then they see what damage pigs do, and that we don’t shoot native animals. Then they start to understand that shooting feral is helping the environment as well as putting money back into the area.
This experience was different from those of people who did not have the stomach for killing, but wanted to eradicate pest animals using the silent, smart techniques of poison or biological controls which removed them even more from animals in their natural state. Because most of us in Australia have been socialised to feel little sympathy for feral animals, our view of wild animals as feral legitimated an extermination approach. This experience was also different from paternalistic urban relationships of attachment to pets or that of farmers who wanted to domesticate buffalo, crocodiles and deer. From these positions, animals were taken out of their wild condition and reconstructed for human uses.
Hunting boar was not really a contribution to management of feral animals. Those killed had largely finished their lives. But it was an example of a mixed approach necessary to bring together private and public managers.
Rather than denying and suppressing all types of hunting, the challenge is to develop an effective ecohunting model. It would not be difficult for hunting award associations to increase environmental sensitivity, by decreasing accessibility of animals by adding prohibitions on vehicle use, dogs, guns. Nevertheless, it would be rejected by those who could not accept any hunting as environmentally sound. Although this tour is part of a minority culture within Australian hunting groups, its intense experiential educational characteristics make it worrthy of recognition.
From an ecopsychology perspective hunting as a vehicle for nature connecting is not for everyone. It can however, be a powerful way of honouring our hunter gathering heritage that is part of who we are. Done with the wellbeing of the species in mind, it can empower the will and passion to protect wild habitat while engaging in relearning that we are part of nature - its life and death.