Fauna, Treatment of in Tasmania

James Ross, 'Kangaroo hunter and his dogs', 1830 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)

For both the Tasmanian Aborigines and early European settlers native fauna was a source of food and skins. Aboriginal groups sometimes used fire to flush out kangaroos, lizards and snakes, while early European settlers enhanced their sometimes-insufficient rations with kangaroos, wombats and birds. The settlers exported kangaroo, platypus and seal skins, as well as whalebone and whale and seal oil. Exploitative practices saw many sealing and whaling grounds severely depleted, while over-hunting and egg-eating significantly diminished populations of Tasmanian emus and black swans.

Hunting for sport, the 'preserve of the wealthy' in England, became a mark of freedom in Tasmania, with native fauna killed in hundreds. Naturalists, scientists and collectors were keen to obtain specimens of native Tasmanian fauna for their private collections and museums. Artists such as John Glover portrayed the animals, which were considered beautiful yet strange. Sheep-farming, the mainstay of the Van Diemen's Land economy, meant clearing the land for pasture, and the consequent removal of native fauna habitat. Thylacines, Tasmanian devils and wedge-tailed eagles developed a reputation for taking sheep and lambs, and were therefore hunted as pests until numbers were severely diminished.

Early attempts to protect native fauna were based on the utilitarian motive of keeping sustainable numbers of animals alive for food or hunting, rather than on special appreciation for the animals. This prompted Lt-Governor Collins to order partial protection of the swans on the Derwent as early as March 1804. A series of game protection acts from 1860 provided closed seasons for several Tasmanian native birds, primarily for hunting purposes. During the 1860s, the practice of keeping black swans in pens to starve, making their down easier to collect, prompted protests against cruelty from advocates such as Louisa Ann Meredith. By the early twentieth century the Tasmanian Field Naturalists Club and the Royal Society of Tasmania were arguing against indiscriminate killing of native animals.

The Scenery Preservation Act (1915) protected animal habitat in national parks and protected animals within reserves. The Animals and Birds Protection Act (1928) addressed native fauna protection specifically and comprehensively. It was administered by the Animals and Birds Protection Board, which included hunters and trappers, farmers, and representatives from the timber industry, agriculture, zoology, game acclimatisation and government. As well as administering the Act, the Board undertook projects such as monitoring and managing animal populations.

In 1970 the National Parks and Wildlife Act was passed, repealing the 1915 and 1928 Acts, and recognising the importance of treating management of wildlife and their habitat as an integrated whole. The annual reports of the National Parks and Wildlife Service reveal continuous growth in the areas of science and research and in the complexity of management programmes, from tagging leopard seals in the sub-Antarctic and developing marine conservation strategies to estimating pesticide levels in birds of prey and investigating the wildlife aspects of ecotourism.

The Threatened Species Protection Act (1995) required species recovery plans and threat abatement plans to be implemented. There are currently eighteen Tasmanian native species on the 'endangered' fauna list, 37 on the 'vulnerable' list and 86 on the 'rare' list. The history of the treatment of native fauna in Tasmania reminds us that constant vigilance is necessary in a world competing for resources.

Further reading: T Bonyhady, The colonial earth, Melbourne, 2000; R Paddle, The last Tasmanian tiger, Cambridge, 2000; S Morgan, Land settlement in early Tasmania, Cambridge, 1992; E Guiler, The enthusiastic amateurs, Hobart, 2001.

Rachel Hibberd