I am tormented with an everlasting itch for things remote

- Herman Melville



Oct 19, 2018

The Aboriginal “Wild”: Tackling Conservation in Tasmania’s Takayna

In the battle for takayna, the Aboriginal name for the forests, is rooted a cry of cultural and social endangerment that calls into question our basic ideas about conservation and wilderness.


Kela Fetters

Tasmania, an island 45 minutes off the coast of mainland Australia, bears little congruity to its parental landmass or anywhere else on the planet. Its northwest flank is ornamented by the cool, temperate rainforests of the Tarkine, or “takayna” in the language of the Aboriginal palawi kani (Palawa) people. This biome is a Paleocene relict of the Gondwanan supercontinent and plays host to the epoch’s astonishing evolutionary prowess. Swathed in takayna’s primordial Myrtle trees and man ferns, a salmagundi of endangered endemic species thrive, including the notorious Tasmanian Devil and the charismatic giant wedge-tailed eagle. Steeped in the cool mist of condensed ocean air is a vibrant ecosystem replete with both ecologic splendor and aboriginal relics. The Palawa Aboriginals lived in a reverential symbiosis with their environs, and early 19th century English colonists at least marvelled at the astonishing natural diversity before they began whaling, mining, and logging that splendor.

Geography and land division of the Tarkine. Creative Commons

a preview of the “environment vs. economy” dichotomy of the region’s strife.

Though takayna enjoyed 60 million years void of humanity, the forest’s history is incomplete without an exploration of the area’s 40,000 years of anthropocentric stewardship. But mainstream coverage of the 20th century’s “forest wars” pits the virginal jungle against a monolithic entity of plunder-for-profit, an oversimplification that stonewalls a radical conception of cooperation in the Tarkine.

Emphatic environmentalists decry extractive industry in the Tarkine as a prime example of human intrusion on a vulnerable wilderness. “Greenies”, as they’re dubbed by state officials, protest mining, logging, and off-road motorization in the heart of the contested ecosphere. Australian prime minister Tony Abbott has likened “Green ideology” to economic stagnation. His comment is a preview of the “environment vs. economy” dichotomy of the region’s strife.

Decades of state and Greenie embitterment comprise takayna’s “Forest Wars”. The Tarkine’s official website outlines specifics of the conflict. In 1973, Tasmania’s Forestry Commission commenced a harvesting campaign on State Forest land south of the Arthur River. Operations expanded, and with them, the need for roadways through tracts of protected land. Opposition to a Timber Tasmania road resulted in a temporary suspension of activities under the Labor-Green Accord of 1989. Despite growing support for World Heritage listing of the Tarkine throughout the 90s, the half-finished “Road to Nowhere” was given the go-ahead to recommence construction. Over 100 locals, Aboriginals, politicians, and environmentalists were arrested in an ensuing slew of protests.

The Tarkine covers 450,000 hectares Photo: Seeboundy

“a blanket heritage listing of a region that would stop further growth in an industry that will underpin the economic benefits and opportunities of our state”

The “Road to Nowhere” lost claim to its namesake, but the protests did catalyse awareness of the indelible natural and cultural value of the Tarkine. The Australian Government placed the area on the Register of the National Estate in 2002. While the formal recognition was one step in the right direction, Tasmanian state government has since oscillated in its commitment to protecting the contested lands. Labor Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings expressed in 2013 that “The last thing we want to see is a blanket heritage listing of a region that would stop further growth in an industry that will underpin the economic benefits and opportunities of our state”. And a recent piece of legislature, 2014’s Forestry Act, revived tensions by outlining a plan to unlock 400,000 hectares of high-conservation-value forest to fulfill a pulpwood quota set and subsidized by the state government. The move was intended to resuscitate the declining timber industry, which has provided jobs to Tasmania’s poverty-stricken rural population. Tasmania’s Liberal party resources minister Guy Barnett says cutting production would result in the loss of “up to 700 jobs” in communities with traditionally high rates of industry employment. “Big Timber” is fighting to retain its place in the Tarkine and communities are reliant on logging jobs. It’s a situation consonant to myriad others in the States, where traditional blue-collar employment has diminished, locals are left scrambling for livelihood, and environmentalists vilify the industries who have traditionally provided jobs.

Traditional Euro-American “Edenic wilderness discourse” eschews the idiosyncrasies of the situation; the notion that cities and human activity are antithesis to nature ostracizes the rural communities who both depend on timber jobs and love the rugged Tarkine. These stakeholders have an economic and emotional claim to the region, and they deserve a revitalized role in the debate. But the reality is, the region’s timber and mining groups are no longer sources of wealth and employment without significant government assistance. A report by The Economist noted that in 2014, Tasmania’s timber industry employed just 4,000 people compared to the 6,000 employed in 2008. Sustainable Timber Tasmania’s 2016 annual progress reports revealed a net loss of nearly $67.4 million, prompting a complete operation overhaul and state-sponsored woodchip quota. To contend with the decline of timber jobs, ailing communities must diversify economically. For now, with heavy subsidies, Sustainable Timber Tasmania will continue to produce an enforced minimum of pulpwood for production’s sake.

The economic decision-making framework has been top-down and informed by traditional industrial land-use priorities. This model effuses the testimony of generations of Aboriginals who inhabit the Tarkine. A contemporary aim of conservation in the Tarkine is to make salient the Indigenous narrative.

Aerial view of the Norfolk Mountain Range in the Donaldson River Nature Recreation Area of the Tarkine.

“We don’t have a lot of faith in [the government’s] respect for Aboriginal heritage”

Why is the Palawa outcry muted in the concatenation of takayna conflict? Due to contemporary bias and a history of oppression and eradication, Aboriginals are often portrayed as powerless and exploitable. English colonization in the 19th century disposed Tasmania’s aboriginal Palawa people of their land and life. Just a smattering of Palawa survived the incursion of English colonial interests and subsequent genocide, but their claims to their ancestry were often delegitimized. Today’s descendants battled discriminatory policies throughout the 20th century that forced assimilation and denied cultural autonomy.

Despite deliberate cultural subordination, Aboriginal leaders are some of the most preeminent and unremitting in the fight for the Tarkine. But even when Palawa are included in conservation efforts, the multiple-use ideology of sustainability in takayna fails to adequately address indigenous concerns. For example, the Office of Aboriginal Affairs critiques Eurocentric archaeological conservation criteria, which prioritize protection of site-specific, tangible artifacts. According to the group, this approach dilutes the interconnectivity of specific artifact sites and may exclude modern Palawa from unfettered access to their traditional lands. Heather Sculthorpe, executive officer of Tasmanian Aboriginal Corporation (TAC), Tasmania’s chief indigenous community body, summarized overall sentiment in her remark that “We don’t have a lot of faith in [the government’s] respect for Aboriginal heritage”. She made the comment in response to a 2015 draft plan of a “joint management arrangement” whose creation she felt betrayed earlier agreements by rezoning parts of the World Heritage Area for private development and logging.

an engrained harmony with Tasmania; the Palawa incantate that “the land owns us”

The Australian Heritage Commission recognizes that “indigenous custodianship and customary practices have been, and in many places continue to be, significant factors in creating what non-indigenous people refer to as wilderness.” The Aboriginals shaped the Tarkine, and evidence of that heritage percolates the landscape. Bill Gammage, professor at the Humanities Research Centre at the Australian National University, has researched Palawa land stewardship. Isolated on Tasmania since 8,000 BP, native peoples stratified vegetation, quarried spongolite stone, cleared undergrowth, and burned systematically in a complex, cohesive management system. Gammage notes the synergic ethos of the Aboriginals; they were hunter-gatherers, luring choice animals and managing an ecosystem in accordance with geographic rhythms. Greg Lahman of the Centre for Tasmanian Historical Studies asserts that their ontology reflects an engrained harmony with Tasmania; the Palawa incantate that “the land owns us”. Remnants of their stone tools, shell middens, and other cultural artifacts habituate the Tarkine’s wind-swept coastline.

By comparison, Sustainable Timber Tasmania and other local operations are supported not by Indigenous knowledge of optimal ecological cycles, but by government subsidies. Sustainable Timber Tasmania publicizes their corporate documents, and their library makes palpable their prolific research on forest areas of high conservation value. But corporate documents also admit that “the dieback and death of trees and the lack of regeneration in the rural landscape… continues to be a matter of concern since it was first raised in the 1970s”. This dieback is associated with the company’s primary strategy of old-growth clear-felling. Monitorization of environmental impact, including the implementation of an ecological research site, are clearly a high priority—the industry has a vested interest in long-term productivity. According to another document, company research, often in collaboration with other state agencies, has “optimized the benefits to the public and the State of the non-wood values of forests’”.

But what about Indigenous input? Entrenched in the collective Palawa experience is a land-use ethos developed over 20,000 years of Tarkine stewardship. Co-management of land-use decisions between all players in the Tarkine diversifies and dynamizes conservation by prioritizing social justice, sustainability, and cooperation in the legislative process. Without Indigenous consent, logging in the Tarkine is a contemporary incarnation of the colonialist activities that devastated native peoples 200 years ago.

The Tarkine plays host to both unbelievable biodiversity and unprecedented opportunity—the opportunity to redefine this “wilderness” as an ecosystem of man and environment. Collaboration between all stakeholders would include marginalized Palawa, local workers, environmentalists, and state government. A sustainable conservation will require a shift from traditional multiple-use state policy. Contemporary state legislation channels vast monetary resources into an ailing industry by mandating the lumber quota. Justification for this policy rests largely on the employment of rural Tasmanians on lumber mills. But there are other ways to address unemployment than mandating woodchip minimums; environmental degradation should not be the only viable employment avenue for rural Tasmanians. Transformative policy could invest research and subsidies into diversifying living-wage jobs. Bob Brown of the Bob Brown Foundation, a nonprofit group deeply involved in the fight for Tarkine protection, suggests that eco-tourism has potential. “This is not 1950. This is 2018 in Tasmania, which is trying to become a world icon for eco-tourism,” he expounds. Brown contends that employment solutions that rely on infinite productivity of a finite resource are ultimately unsustainable. Finally, progressive reform must explicitly recognize the legacy of environmental violence against Aboriginals and shape policy to reflect the concerns of the least advantaged of Tasmania’s population. TAC spokesperson Lisa Coulson opines that governmental processes “must have Aboriginal community decision making at its core, but that is exactly what is still lacking in Tasmania”. Tarkine management should prioritize the livelihoods of affected parties, not a woodchip surplus; after all, the common denominator in all stakeholders is a dependence on takayna.

Cover photo: Arthur Pieman Conservation area The Pieman River Tasmania. Helen Pearly

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Nov 11, 2018

Update: Following a Wave of Protests, China Postpones Lifting the Ban on the Use of Tiger and Rhino Parts

The use of rhino horn and tiger bone for medicinal uses was to be permitted again, which would have had a large impact on tiger and rhino endangerment.



Brooke Hess


Since this article was published, China has postponed the ban being lifted. This decision has come in the face of international outcry, and in a statement China has said that they are “dedicated to the cause of wildlife protection”.

State Council Executive Deputy Secretary-General Ding Xuedong, did not explain for how long the ban would continue, but that the “three strict bans” will continue to be enforced: strictly ban the import and export of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts; strictly ban the sale, purchase, transport, carrying and mailing of rhinos, tigers and their byproducts; and strictly ban the use of rhino horns and tiger bones in medicine.

The WWF has responded, explaining that they “welcome the news that China has postponed lifting its ban on the domestic trade in rhino horn and tiger bone, signalling a positive response to international reaction. Allowing trade from even captive animals could have had devastating impacts on wild rhino and tiger populations. This move helps maintain the leadership role China has taken in tackling the illegal wildlife trade and reducing market demand.”


“All five of the world’s diverse species of rhinoceros have been brought to the edge of extinction because of human appetite for their distinctive horns” says PBS Nature.

On October 29th, China released a statement allowing the trade of tiger and rhino products. According to Leigh Henry, the wildlife policy director at the World Wildlife Fund, “This new regulation replaces the outright ban on tiger bone and rhino horn trade which has been in place since 1993.”

Mother and young rhinoceros killed for their horns. Taken at private game farm in Gauteng, South Africa. Photo: Hein waschefort

The ban was originally put into place as a way to mitigate the rhino and tiger poaching crisis, which was contributing to the endangered status of both animals. With fewer than 30,000 rhinos and 3,900 tigers left in the wild, the possibility of those species going extinct is unfortunately, extremely high. According to Dr Jo Shaw, A Programme Officer with TRAFFIC, “A decade ago the first signs were on the horizon of the forthcoming rhino poaching crisis, but few then could have foreseen the magnitude and ramifications of what we face today. However, with the surging demand from Asia, people willing to pay high prices to get their hands on rhino horn, and little fear of capture by those smuggling horn, it was perhaps inevitable that this ‘commodity’ would catch the attention of the hardened criminal fraternity, creating a ‘perfect storm’ for rhino poaching and horn trade.”

“taken daily to keep illness at bay and restore vital energy rather than to treat specific symptoms”

Tiger bone and rhino horn have been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine as healing agents for the past 3,000 years. Tigers and rhinos are thought to have strong energy, which if used medicinally, will give strength and energy to the person receiving the medicine. According to Dr. Rebecca Drury of Flora and Fauna International, “In order to understand consumption of many traditional tonics, one also needs to understand more about Traditional Chinese and Vietnamese medicine. For example, these tend to be taken daily to keep illness at bay and restore vital energy rather than to treat specific symptoms, and wild-derived animals are considered to have stronger vital energy.”

Despite tiger and rhino bone being used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for the past 3,000 years, scientists today say there is no actual proven healing benefit from the products. PBS Nature says, “Overall there isn’t much evidence to support the plethora of claims about the healing properties of the (rhino) horns. In 1990, researchers at Chinese University in Hong Kong found that large doses of rhino horn extract could slightly lower fever in rats (as could extracts from Saiga antelope and water buffalo horn), but the concentration of horn given by a traditional Chinese medicine specialist are many many times lower than used in those experiments. In short, says Amin, you’d do just as well chewing on your fingernails.”

According to Leigh Henry with the World Wildlife Fund, “Tiger bone and rhino horn were removed from the official pharmacopoeia of Traditional Chinese Medicine after the 1993 ban on trade in these products was put in place. In 2010, the World Federation of Chinese Medicine Societies released a statement urging members not to use tiger bone or any other parts from endangered species.

Traditional Chinese Medicine, originating more than 3,000 years ago, includes an emphasis on the importance of being in balance with nature, as this balance contributes to our health and well-being. It is in this spirit that many TCM practitioners no longer endorse the use of rhino horn or tiger parts.

Rhino horn in packaging horns, seized by UK Border Agency. Photo: UK Home Office

Despite the lack of scientifically-proven medical benefits, tiger bone and rhino horns are still highly valued around the world. TRAFFIC reports “at least 65 rhino horns have been stolen from public display within South Africa with similar thefts carried out in the US and in Europe.”

6,500 tigers live in China’s tiger farms, far outnumbering the roughly 3,900 remaining in the wild.

In a statement released by the World Wildlife Fund, “The new regulations say hospitals can obtain parts from captive facilities within China—excluding zoos—where tigers and rhinos are bred for commercial purposes. Experts estimate that more than 6,500 tigers live in China’s tiger farms, far outnumbering the roughly 3,900 remaining in the wild.

These “tiger farms” that the WWF refers to are legal farms in China that raise tigers for legal commercial sale of their skins. “The trade in tiger and rhino parts and products was prohibited in China. However, there was an exemption for tiger skins and their products obtained from legal sources, including from captive breeding, if permitted by the government, legally registered and accompanied by a certificate.” These legal farms are now permitted to sell and trade tiger bones as well as skins.

“this move risks causing confusion among consumers as to what products are legal or illegal”

The World Wildlife Fund is worried that China’s declaration allowing the use of tiger bone and rhino horn will spur a rise in poaching. “It is WWF’s position that the movement of tiger products from tiger farms into the marketplace (through legal or illegal channels) negatively impacts enforcement efforts directed against those who trade in tigers poached from the wild. This is of great concern given that poaching remains the greatest threat to conservation of the species at this time. The same concern exists regarding rhino horn trade and impact on conservation of rhinos in the wild. Equally, this move risks causing confusion among consumers as to what products are legal or illegal and could expand the markets/demand for these products, which have thus far been in slow decline thanks, in large part, to the 1993 ban.”

The World Wildlife Fund is clear on their stance with this issue. “The unfortunate reality is that tiger farms in China have been growing in size for some time now, posing an increasing threat to tigers in the wild. This decision is a move in the opposite direction from where we believe China should go; maintaining the 1993 ban and setting a clear plan and timeline to close existing captive tiger breeding facilities used for commercial purposes.”

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