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A state of their own: Ibistopia

As complex as legal statehood would be for the ibis community, the moral case is simple

Map of Victoria park and surrounds with three ibises

In my old place of work, I witnessed something beautiful. As summer’s sedated half-light crept down Castlereagh Street’s carbon monoxide-laden lanes one day, a crowd of ibis glided over my head in a v-shaped pattern. It was an unearthly sight, far removed from the bins they predominantly call home.

But in truth, I haven’t always admired the ibis.

The very first ‘in-joke’ of my USyd experience was laughing at their plight. I developed my first sense of belonging by partaking in the collective mockery of their evolutionary quirks. Sitting on the lawn, it became a recurring social exercise to point out the creature’s pungent odour, its disproportionate features and penchant for litter. The ibis was the subject of ridicule, a meme normalised by faculty mentors and friends. It encroached on human land as a larcenous delinquent and a feral intruder. We merely tolerated it, and at any moment, we would declare it a pest, and vanquish it from this world, justly.

Occasionally, the joke transgressed this benign disrespect, and swelled into something more twisted — active distaste and unquestioned malice.

In 2016, around 20,000 people clicked ‘going’ or ‘interested’ on the “International Glare at Ibises Day.”

“Show general distaste towards Ibises,” the event description read.

When the anti-ibis movement subconsciously constructs the ibis as a trespasser, a thief or a homeless vagrant which wanders the urban environment for human scraps, it buys into the system of human exceptionalism which dismisses anthropocentric climate change, and the real impacts of habitat destruction. In the age-old brand of human hubris, it erases the fact that human urbanisation into Sydney’s swamps and wetlands resulted in deforestation and destruction of the ibis’ home in the first place. Deprived of its natural dietary preference for crayfish, mussels, and insects, the ibis has taken refuge in our cities, resigned to living an atomised life as a ‘bin chicken.’ Ptolemy’s discredited geocentric theory of the universe persists in our hatred of the ibis.

All this represents the moral case for a free ibis state, an Ibistopia, a res publica exclusively for the campus ibis community, carved out of none other than modern-day Victoria Park — a utopia with enough water for breeding and insects for eating for years to come. This is the case for returning the ibis home.

Although the universe’s arc of justice favours the ibis, the legal requirements are less encouraging.

To acquire statehood, the community must wade into the International Court of Justice in The Hague. This itself is a perilous journey. This journey alone should take the crowd up to 20 days including rest breaks at their respectable average speed of 40 kilometres per hour.

Once they arrive in the Peace Palace, there will be no time to waddle. The Ibis must prove under the Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States that it has; a permanent population, a defined territory, an effective government and the capacity to enter into state relations.

Unlike The Vatican, ibis actually have a self-sustained population with estimates of more than 10,000 in Sydney alone according to the ABC although as many as 25,000 roamed the wild in 1983. Though there remain border skirmishes, its territory is sufficient in consistency across campus and Victoria Park to mitigate the need for clearly settled borders. No long-term studies have yet established that the ibis community has an effective government but animals have acquired statehood before.

Dr Rowan Nicholson of Sydney Law School told Honi that one historical precedent may be the Mangani who organised into a confederal monarchy as late as the 1910s.

“But there may be legally pertinent differences between primates and long-legged wading birds, so this precedent may not be applicable,” said Dr Nicholson.

The final issue remains the sovereign status of the ibis community. The Australian White Ibis happens to have a preexisting relationship with the Australian state. Conservation legislation including the 1974 National Parks and Wildlife Act recognise the ibis’ protected status. If the Australian government were to recognise Ibistopia, that may at least make Ibistopia binding in Australian eyes.

The practical reality for the ibis is, albeit, more difficult.

“Since the Emu War of 1932, there has been little evidence in Australian practice that it is willing to tolerate avian secessionism,” said Dr Nicholson.

For now, the humble bin chicken can only dream of a state of its own.