Culture //

Ibis intrigue

Ed McMahon on the majestic birds that now call Sydney University home.

Image: Lane Sainty

The Australian White Ibis, otherwise known as Threskiornis molucca or “that fucking white bird,” prompts impassioned reactions from even the most apathetic student.

Overwhelmingly, these reactions reflect a deep fear and/or loathing. Yet for those of us who are also a little different and a little dirty, the plight of the ibis feels familiar. For the most part, we just accept that the haters gon’ hate as we live and let live. For the ibis, though, things are not so simple.

Like most residents of this city, the ibis is a recent migrant. Its great migration began in the 1970s, when the destruction of its native wetlands began in earnest. As human beings have continued to build roads, suburbs, and mines across the geographic area that we have arbitrarily named New South Wales, the destruction has compounded. Forced from its home, the ibis has turned to the big smoke to for a new start.

Here it has claimed its place in the urban landscape, charming us with its idiosyncratic personality, commitment to waste minimisation, and no-fucks-given attitude. Yet some have responded with moral panic. “It stinks,” say some. “It threatens aircraft safety,” say others. While elements of truth may be conceded in such claims, many other baseless and outrageous assertions like “it creeps me out,” or “it tried to steal my lunch,” abound.

So it has come to pass that systemic anti-ibis programs have been instituted, which have included tactics such as destroying eggs and nests in a bid to curb population growth. These programs have been pursued without any real attempt to scientifically understand ibis populations. In particular, its populations are consistently reduced without any proper research into its survival, growth and fertility rates in its comparatively new urban environment. It may be that the present population is large because of continuing migration. But are new, urban generations surviving in sufficient numbers? The evidence is not yet in.

Earlier this month, a number of respected Australian conservation biologists called on governments to pursue a new conservation policy. Observing global extinction rates approaching unprecedented levels, the scientists declared a need to focus on protecting particular species from extinction, while letting others complete their decline to eternal nothingness.

It would seem that as humanity continues to build its new world on the ashes of destroyed ecosystems, our perceived capacity to ‘save’ all endangered species is a delusion. It would seem that the time has come to choose what lives and what dies.

Clearly, such decisions would require scientific foundations. Yet the philosophical and moral foundations remain unclear. As the self-proclaimed masters of the planet, we should have settled these foundations a while ago. Instead, we continue to pursue unbridled material growth in the midst of our own population explosion. Are we just another animal who will, by nature, dominate and destroy all others? Or is our destruction gratuitous and unjustified?

These are not questions that can be answered here, but they are the questions that come to mind in the case of the ibis. Perhaps they will be the questions that will enter lunchtime conversations on the front lawns if ibis numbers dwindle. Perhaps we will better define our moral duty to the ibis of Sydney University. Or perhaps, as seems more likely, haters will continue to hate and our project of ecocide will continue.