Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Still sticking with colonial attitudes, here’s a twist: the effect of those attitudes on natural environments. Adapting (after adjusting) to a new ambience is the perennial mantra. Here’s how this mantra annoyed Australians.

Australia was colonized relatively late in British colonial history. A penal colony was established at Botany Bay in 1788, but soon afterwards organized colonization of this vast continent by working class British people wishing to improve their lot was encouraged. Rather than molding to their new environment, the settlers tried to reproduce their familiar environment within the new colony.

Many plants, birds and animals were brought to the new land. One food source these settlers could not do without was rabbits! After several failed introductions, 24 wild rabbits from the English countryside arrived in Australia aboard ship in 1859 and were successfully released. The rabbit population increased far more rapidly than did the human population, as they had few natural predators and little competition for food. They spread across the continent to occupy a wide variety of environmental conditions -- from lush farmland to semi-arid deserts, at sea level and in mountains.

As is well known, they rapidly became pests of such proportions that shooting or trapping them was inadequate. And Australia had to resort to creating hundreds of miles of fencing, and then to biological warfare (by introducing myxomatosis and, when that failed, the rabbit calicivirus) in an attempt to control the rabbit pest.

What had seemed like a good idea initially became a nightmare, and the success of the Australian rabbits is an often-quoted example of the perils of interfering in a natural environment.

Meddling with nature has been human pastime for long and has yielded fine results as well; but beyond a threshold, it reacts and that too violently; remember the grim tsunami. Forgot, pestilence is the keyword that captures the impact of the entire rabbit mess. Pestilence was what even the mad were once thought to inflict the society with; they were treated no less than the pests. More on it in the backdrop of my favourite subject, psychiatry, tomorrow.

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