I have hopes that the better angels of our nature as a species will prevail.
On a strange island, a fantastic, isolated rock in the remote South Pacific, under a single bush, a few years ago certain curious-looking giant insects were found, of a kind thought to have been exterminated 80 years ago, but still, in a tiny population, holding on.
Now, the prospects for their survival are entirely dependent upon the good will of our own species.
Of course, this is nothing new, as matters have come to such a point that the prospects for the survival of all present-day species are dependent on the good will of humans.
Given our track record in that regard, perhaps you wouldn’t want to bet the farm on the future of Dryococelus australis, the Lord Howe Stick Insect.
Far from being charismatic whales or cuddly pandas, these lumbering, outsized arthropods of the order Phasmatodea probably do not seem particularly lovable or worth conserving, handicapped by their lack of the cuteness quotient. It’s hard to imagine them competing for donations with the wistful kittens and puppies featured in the often-repeated ads interrupting televised news programs.
Originally, they inhabited Lord Howe Island, a British possession in the Tasman Sea between Australia and new Zealand. European residents knew them, up to 1918, as “those bloody tree lobsters.” Harmless and huge, at 12 centimeters long the heaviest flightless stick insects on Earth, they were accepted as part of the strange fauna of the isolated island.
In 1918 the steamship S.S. Makambo from England was wrecked there, running aground. Passengers and crew were taken off, though one passenger drowned. The Makambo was repaired in nine days, though.
But a few black rats escaped from the ship during that time. On the island they multiplied — their descendants can be found there yet. What can’t be found any more are any of the slow-moving stick insects. The rats found them delicious. By 1920, the entire population had been wiped out.
Thirteen miles away, the incredible island of Ball’s Pyramid, a towering spire of pointed volcanic rock, (discovered 1788 by a British naval officer, one Lieutenant Ball, who also discovered Lord Howe), looms 1,844 feet high above the ocean. It is a part of the sunken New Zealand land mass called Zealandia, though it’s administered by Australia, island continent to the west.
One must be an accomplished climber to scale its sides. First one must make landfall at its harborless base, avoiding the numerous sharks that endlessly prowl, swarming in the Tasman Sea.
It’s a daunting prospect, but people will go anywhere, and climbers first scaled it successfuly in 1965.
In 2001, when two Australian scientists, David Priddel and Nicholas Carlile, with two assistants, made the climb, they found a single threadbare bush growing from the cliffside, 225 feet above sea level. Under it they found, still living, a population of 24 Dryocelus, the only ones left in the world.
After much deliberation, the scientific authorities of the Australian government ruled that some of these could be taken as specimens to begin a breeding population. This was accomplished on Valentine’s Day, 2003. The animals were still living there under their bush.
Unlike most insects, members of the Dryocelus species form pair bonds– the male sleeps at night beside his mate, with three legs thrown over her for her protection.
When the scientists appeared, they scurried about, but two pairs were captured.
One pair promptly died in captivity. The other pair, cared for by Patrick Honan of the invertebrate conservation breeding group program of the Melbourne Zoo, became the nucleus of the Zoo’s new population of the insect.
Primatologist Jane Goodall, visiting in 2008, saw 700 adults and 11,376 incubating eggs.
If the current inhabitants of Lord Howe permit an extermination program against the black rats to be carried out, and if the money for this can be found somewhere, and if the islanders agree to share their home with the re-introduced bumble-bugs, the exiled tree lobsters can be re-introduced to Lord Howe and survive as part of our world.
I wish that this could happen.
Hal Robins is a renowned underground comic artist and his work has appeared in Last Gasp’s Weirdo, Salon Magazine’s Dark Hotel and many other publications. For decades he has been the co-host of KPFA-Pacifica Radio’s “Puzzling Evidence” program. Reverend Hal is the Master of Church Secrets for The Church of the SubGenius. As Dr. Howland Owll, he has served as MC for many unique San Francisco events, and is the principle of The Ask Dr. Hal Show, still currently running both as a live staged event and in-studio on Radio Valencia (radiovalencia.fm) Friday evenings. Hal contributed his unique vocal talents to the award-winning interactive game Half-Life.