In the preface to his acclaimed book Wildlife Conservation: In the Belly of the Beast, Australian author and conservationist Professor Grahame Webb admits his reason for writing it will be achieved if it ‘stimulates others to think in more depth about wildlife conservation’.
Four years on and with a wealth of glowing testimonials under his belt, Grahame can rightly claim ‘mission accomplished’, after a remarkable book which tells the complex story of wildlife conservation in refreshingly plain English.
A keen zoologist since the late 1960s, Grahame began working with saltwater crocodiles in Arnhem Land as an employee of the University of Sydney. He was one of the few biologists to have worked with them seriously at that time.
By the middle of the 1970s he was operating as a consultant for the Australian Museum and University of New South Wales, before being engaged by the Northern Territory Government to focus on both freshwater and saltwater crocs.
His experience was broadened even further when he helped establish a sustainable use program for the NT Government.
But it was while stranded at Kuala Lumpur Airport many years ago that Grahame’s ‘lightbulb’ moment arrived, when he spent almost 12 hours debating with himself the question of what conservation is really about.
He struck on the notion that our decision to conserve or not has little to do with plants, animals or the environment. The issue is a far more fundamental one: that we only direct our resources into conserving things we regard as being of value.
As he rightly points out, placing a positive value on wildlife will empower people to conserve it, subsequently the reasons why we value wildlife becomes a secondary consideration. He advocates looking at conservation as a big picture issue and placing less focus on individual species.
In March 2018, a pod of 150 short-finned pilot whales beached en masse at Hamelin Bay in Western Australia. Vets and volunteers managed to save only five as the remainder perished on the sand.
But the question remains as to how much value there is in humans attempting to rescue beached whales, as this may well be nature’s way of balancing the numbers (it’s a popular misconception that whale populations are dangerously depleted, something not true of the majority of species).
Said Grahame: “The world is full of whales and their numbers continue to rise every year. People look at whales beaching en masse and see it as some kind of disaster. It’s not a disaster at all.
“Go to a nursing home and there are people dying all the time – it’s the natural order. We’ve become so detached from nature now that we have to look at re-educating children on what’s actually important from a conservation point of view.
“We reached a point where environmentalists came to regard farmers as a public enemy, they blamed them for everything that went wrong with the environment. But without farmers and fishermen we’d have no food. We should be looking up to them, not down on them.”
Grahame’s book explains in layman’s terms the challenges facing conservationists the world over, as the subject becomes bogged down in technical jargon which only further clouds the issue at hand.
Said Grahame: “It is the responsibility of scientists to simplify, not complicate issues. The public and politicians ultimately make most decisions about conservation, and if the scientific evidence is not seen as compelling, there’s a real risk it will simply be ignored in preference to other more user-friendly sources of information.”
He uses a simple farm analogy to better explain the complexity of the framework in which wildlife exists. Farm animal populations must be ‘managed’ to be controllable, otherwise the numbers spiral out of control.
And the same system can be applied in the wild. Without proper management, many species would reach feral proportions, effectively resulting in a free-for-all where the strongest would dominate.
In Australia, this is best demonstrated in the case of wild rabbits. If their numbers are not managed in areas where farming takes place, the food supply for sheep and cattle would be vastly reduced with obvious consequences.
Said Grahame: “From a conservation point of view, the willingness to kill animals is essential. The award for international conservationist of the century will go to the individual who devises a fool-proof method for killing millions of feral animals which are driving other native animals towards biological extinction.
“Hunters usually love the animals they hunt and kill. If people truly wanted to endear their children to wildlife, making them hunters and fishermen, instead of supermarket junkies, may be the best way to go.”
And it is this fear of native species being wiped out by feral marauders that drives conservationists to find a solution.
Said Grahame: “Feral animals are increasingly recognised as one of the most serious global conservation problems, yet getting control over their numbers and expanding distribution often proves impossible.
“There are some wonderful people still engaged in biological research, but those major, long-term studies I was involved in years ago will never be repeated because they cost too much now. Yet it’s the foundation work on conservation which ultimately lasts the test of time.”
And it is that very research which informs Wildlife Conservation: In the Belly of the Beast. The book has been lauded at the highest level, with glowing testimonials from informed experts as far afield as China, Zimbabwe, Japan, Argentina, Italy, the UK and US.
As Dr Brendan Moyle of New Zealand’s Massey University said: ‘Some solutions he advocates will not be palatable to people living in the comfort of Western societies. But he does not shrink from tackling these issues.
‘But if conservation is truly about sustaining wildlife populations, it must be adaptive and free of entrenched positions on issues such as animal rights.’
Said Grahame: “People at the top have written to tell me how much they enjoyed it, and some have even suggested that no-one should think about getting into international conservation until they’ve read this book.
“Unfortunately, politics plays such a huge part in conservation today, and all the red tape that goes with it only serves to complicate an issue that doesn’t deserve to be complicated.”
But it’s for his world-renowned work with crocodiles that Grahame is most widely recognised. Back in the late 1980s, with a shift in politics and his consultancy work on the decline, he pitched the idea of a World Crocodile Research and Education Centre, which the NT Government originally agreed to support.
However, during the building process, government funding was completely eroded, so the focus of the project shifted to put tourism at its heart. The idea for Crocodylus Park was born – it opened in 1994 – and Grahame’s consultancy work became largely international, working on a variety of species.
As word spread and visitor numbers to the park soared, it was expanded to add an array of exotic animals in addition to crocodiles. Still a family business, Grahame’s wife Giovanna – the Rural Industries Research and Development Corporation 2013 Woman of the Year – has also been at the forefront of its success.
With crocodile research still one of the main focuses, in 2004 the couple started to allocate more resources to farm-type research with a minor production element.
Said Grahame: “We do various other things, especially involved with the sustainable use of wildlife. However, there is no real government support, and strangely we are in competition with government for tourism, research and management.
“So we have built Crocodylus Park largely around our science and research, which continues to this day, but we fund most of it privately.
“We play a big international role, as I chair the crocodile specialist group at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s species survival commission, which has more than 600 members from 64 countries.”
Wildlife Conservation: In the Belly of the Beast by Grahame J.W. Webb is available to buy at Crocodylus Park or can be ordered online at crocodyluspark.com.au
Read Professor Webb’s noteworthy sustainable use article History of Crocodile Management in the Northern Territory of Australia: A Conservation Success Story