Today I was on West Point Island in the Falklands, down at the Devil’s Nose where a bare patch of rock and dirt is noisily cohabited by a profusion of rockhopper penguins and black-browed albatross. It’s a remarkable sight, particularly when a clumsy albatross flight path clips a few yellow penguin crests or a penguin fight invades the serenity of nesting albatross.
I was looking at the scene in amazement when one of my passengers started to walk away. I asked why and he said “I can’t see any albatross or penguins here, just those seagulls”. I thought he was joking and replied “I wish I could see past those chickens too so I can observe the birds I came to see”. Only later did I learn that he really thought that four kilograms of albatross was indistinguishable from a one kilogram kelp gull.
Perhaps it’s the removal of modern society from the natural world. When our bemused friend was shown the giant birds just metres away he was finally convinced. And, eventually, he even managed to discern the apparently mad, red eyed, wildly-crested penguins standing amongst them.
It started me thinking of how our appreciation of wildlife has altered. Now, apart from domesticated livestock like cows and chickens, we are prepared to appreciate how special each species is. At least that’s true as long as it’s charismatic – I think few of us really care about earthworms and slaters. But just a couple of generations ago the whole natural world, from elephants to pigeons, was simply there to serve or feed us. Of course, I’m really only looking at it as a city-dwelling Australian. A starving African is likely to still regard a mountain gorilla as merely a large slab of meat well suited for the griller.
Tim Bowden, another Antarctic enthusiast, once told me of some old movie footage he found of Australian explorers walking around their Antarctic base. The film was rough and sped up in Charlie Chaplin style but as they walked, they came across a seal resting on the ice. They laughed and chatted as they approached then one of the men produced a club and beat the seal to death and dragged it back as food for the dogs. That’s a scene unlikely to fit within a David Attenborough polar documentary.
While it’d be nice to have chunks of the world unknown and unexplored, I’m glad I live today at a time when birds of the forest and beasts of the jungle are not merely seen as entrée and main course.