Old-time firefighters

Robert Mesibov mesibov at SOUTHCOM.COM.AU
Sun Aug 25 16:04:43 CDT 2002

Connoisseurs of deja vu might like to read the following quote and check
out the article from which it was taken:

"...the land and fresh-water fauna is disappearing rapidly, and unless we
now make an organized effort it will be too late to study it effectually,
and future generations will wonder what manner of people we were not to
leave behind us some adequate record of the marvellously interesting forms
of animal life which we had succeeded in exterminating..."

Spencer, B. 1921. The necessity for an immediate and co-ordinated
investigation into the land and fresh-water fauna of Australia and
Tasmania. The Victorian Naturalist 37(10): 120-122.

Baldwin Spencer personally did a great deal in his lifetime to remedy the
inventory problem, but he never managed to get his "co-ordinated
investigation" underway. Just before the second World War, the Tasmanian
Museum organised a Tasmanian Biological Survey. Despite the grand-sounding
name, TBS involved only a few people in the field and very few new
descriptions came out of it.

Far bigger and taxonomically more profitable surveys were carried out in
Tasmania in the 1970s and 1980s in tandem with major hydro-electric and
forestry developments, and with reserve establishment. These surveys, by
and large, were in "wilderness" areas. The least well-surveyed areas in
Tasmania are in long-settled districts, i.e. the places where the bush is
disappearing fastest and where introduced species are best established.
(For an overview of the sampling bias, see
www.rfa.gov.au/rfa/tas/raa/other/invert/index.html, mainly the Data Gaps

I like to quote Spencer when I promote salvage sampling in Tasmania, but
people see that date, 1921, and think, "Gee, it can't be that urgent if
we've still got all this nature around us, 80 years later." The fallacy
here is subtle. In Tasmania and in Spencer's Melbourne-area Victoria we've
had huge habitat losses and undoubtedly species extinctions in those 80
years, but what's missing and extinct isn't part of the argument because no
pre-loss inventories were done. If I were REALLY cynical I'd explain the
paucity of inventory work since Rio 1992 as a deliberate strategy on the
part of governments friendly to developers. If there's no record of the
biota from that vanished habitat, then there's no evidence of loss...

Dr Robert Mesibov
Honorary Research Associate
Queen Victoria Museum and Art Gallery
Home contact: PO Box 101, Penguin, Tasmania, Australia 7316
(03) 64371195; 61 03 64371195

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