Humans: A Brief History of How We F*cked It All Up by Tom Phillips Excerpt

Domestication of animals had a lot of useful upsides—a ready supply of protein, wool for clothing and manure for fertilizing crops. Of course, it wasn’t all good news, as we mentioned in the previous chapter. Keeping animals at close quarters makes it a lot easier for diseases to jump from animals to humans; keeping horses and cows seems to have been linked with the origin of wealth inequality; and the military uses of horses and elephants made war a lot more…warlike.

In addition, the domestication of animals gave us a very clear idea that we were the masters of nature, and that from now on animals and plants would do our bidding. Unfortunately, as we’ll see in this chapter, that’s not exactly how it always works out. Humans’ persistent belief that we can make living things do exactly what we want them to has a rather nasty habit of backfiring on us.

For example, let’s rewind to the year 1859, when Thomas Austin was feeling a bit homesick.

Thomas was an Englishman, but had arrived in the colony of Australia as a teenager. Now, a couple of decades later, he was a prosperous landowner and sheep farmer, presiding over a vast spread of 29,000 acres at his home near Victoria. There he replicated the pursuits of his ancestral lands with enthusiasm: a keen sportsman, he bred and trained racehorses and turned much of his acreage into a preserve for wildlife and hunting. His estate gained such a reputation in Australian high society that the Duke of Edinburgh was a regular visitor on his trips to Australia. When Austin died decades later, his glowing obituary said that “a better representative of the real old English country gentleman could not be found, either here or at home.”

His determination to live the life of a traditional country squire on the far side of the world led him to do everything in his power to replicate a little bit of England in the Antipodes. And that, unfortunately, is where it went to shit.

That’s because Austin decided that his hunting would be vastly improved with the importation of some classic English animals to shoot (wallabies, presumably, just didn’t quite cut it for him). He had his nephew ship over pheasants and partridges, hares and blackbirds and thrushes. And crucially, he imported 24 English rabbits. “The introduction of a few rabbits,” he said, “could do little harm and might provide a touch of home in addition to a spot of hunting.”

He was very, very wrong about the “little harm” bit. Although in fairness he was right that they would indeed provide a spot of hunting.

Austin wasn’t the first person to bring rabbits to Australia, but it was his rabbits that were largely responsible for the catastrophe that was about to strike. The thing about rabbits is that they breed like…well, rabbits. The scale of the problem should probably have been evident from the fact that in 1861, just a couple of years after Austin’s initial shipment arrived, he boasted in a letter that “English wild rabbit I have in thousands.”

It didn’t stay in the thousands. A decade after Austin introduced them, two million rabbits were being shot each year in Victoria without denting their population growth in the slightest. The rabbit army soon spread all across Victoria, moving at an estimated 80 miles a year. They were seen in New South Wales by 1880, in South Australia and Queensland by 1886, Western Australia by 1890 and the Northern Territory by 1900.

By the 1920s, at the height of the rabbit plague, Australia’s rabbit population was estimated at 10 billion. There were 3,000 of them for every square mile. Australia was quite literally covered in rabbits.

The rabbits didn’t just breed; they ate (breeding is hungry work, after all). They stripped the land bare of vegetation, driving many plant species into extinction. The competition for food brought a number of Australian animals to the brink of extinction, as well, while without plant roots to hold the soil together the land itself crumbled and eroded.

The scale of the problem was clear by the 1880s, and authorities were at their wits’ end. Nothing they tried seemed to be capable of stopping the floppy-eared onslaught. The government of New South Wales placed a slightly desperate-sounding advertisement in the Sydney Morning Herald, promising to pay “the sum of £25,000 to any person or persons who will make known…any method or process not previously known in the Colony for the effectual extermination of rabbits.”

Over the following decades, Australia tried shooting, trapping and poisoning the rabbits. They tried burning or fumigating their warrens or sending ferrets into the tunnels to flush them out. In the 1900s, they built a fence over a thousand miles long to try and keep the rabbits out of Western Australia, but that didn’t work because it turns out that rabbits can dig tunnels and, apparently, learn to climb fences.

Australia’s rabbit problem is one of the most famous examples of something that we’ve only figured out quite late in the day: ecosystems are ridiculously complex things and you mess with them at your peril. Animals and plants will not simply play by your rules when you casually decide to move them from one place to another. “Life,” as a great philosopher once said, “breaks free; it expands to new territories and crashes through barriers—painfully, maybe even dangerously. But, uh, well, there it is.” (Okay, it was Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park who said that. As I say, a great philosopher.)

Ironically, after the initial fuck-up of introducing rabbits into Australia in the first place, the eventual solution was also a fuck-up. For several decades Australian scientists had been experimenting with using biological warfare on the rabbits: introducing diseases in the hope that they’d be killed off, most famously myxomatosis in the 1950s. That worked pretty well for a while,

A horde of rabbits drinking at a watering hole in Adelaide, Australia, 1961

reducing the rabbit population dramatically, but it didn’t stick. It relied on mosquitoes to transmit the virus, so wasn’t effective in areas where mosquitoes wouldn’t breed, and eventually the surviving rabbits developed resistance to the disease and numbers started climbing again.

But the scientists carried on researching new biological agents. In the 1990s, they were working on rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus. Now, experimenting with diseases is a dangerous busi-ness, and so the scientists were doing their work on an island off the south coast, to reduce the risk of the virus getting loose and spreading to the mainland. Go on. Guess what happened.

Yep, in 1995, the virus got loose and spread to the mainland. Life broke free, in this case by hitching a ride on some flies. But having accidentally released a deadly (to rabbits) pathogen into the wild, the scientists were rather pleased to note that…it seemed to be working. In the twenty years since rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus was mistakenly released into the wild, rabbit populations in South Australia have declined again, while vegetation has returned and the many animals that had been pushed to the brink of extinction have seen their numbers surge back. Let’s just hope that rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus doesn’t turn out to have any other side effects.

Australia’s rabbits are far from alone in proving that sometimes we should leave animals and plants where we found them. Like the Nile perch, a six-foot-long ravenous predator that, as you might guess from the name, comes from the Nile. However, the British colonizers of East Africa had bigger plans for it. They thought it would be a terribly good idea to introduce it into Lake Victoria, the largest lake in Africa. Lake Victoria already had lots of fish in it, and local fishermen were perfectly content fishing those fish, but the British thought that this situation could be improved. The biggest group of fish in the lake at the time were hundreds of different species of cichlids, those small, adorable-looking fish beloved of aquarium keepers. Unfortunately for the cichlids, the British colonial officials hated them, describing them as “trash fish.”

They decided that Lake Victoria would be much better with bigger, cooler fish in it. It would make for superior fishing, they reckoned. Lots of biologists warned them that this was not a great idea, but in 1954 they went ahead and introduced the Nile perch into the lake. The Nile perch then did what Nile perch do: they ate their way through species after species.

The British officials were right about one thing, in that it really did make for superior fishing. The fishing industry boomed, with Nile perch proving immensely popular both as a commercial catch for food and an enjoyable catch for sport. But while the value of the fishing industry shot up by 500 percent, sup- porting hundreds of thousands of jobs, the number of species in Lake Victoria plummeted. More than 500 other species became extinct, including over 200 species of the poor unfortunate cichlids.

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