Tjilpa – Quoll – Native Cat – Dasyurus geoffroii – Dreaming – Vulnerable – Coming home

James Hatley and Deborah Rose

An advertisement for the nocturnal tour at the Alice Springs Desert Park invited us to come and see endangered species. The work of protecting rare marsupials interests us enormously, and we were also drawn, it must be admitted, to the idea of seeing creatures we would never see any other way. In spite of our discomfort at the thought of getting glimpses of ‘the last of their kind’, we were keen to learn more about the Desert Park, its relationship with endangered animals, its captive breeding programs for vulnerable species such as quolls and mala (rufous hare wallaby), and its efforts to educate the public.


We had come to Alice Springs in the heart of the Red Centre, known more prosaically as Central Australia, specifically to learn about the western quoll (Dasyurus geoffroii). Our awareness of the fact that Central Australia has the highest rate of mammalian extinctions in the world shaped our inquiry, and in light of that knowledge we chose to focus on an animal that was not yet completely gone. The western quoll once inhabited 70% of the Australian continent. It is locally extinct across most of its former habitat, living now only in a small area of south west Western Australia. That population seems to be thriving, and the western quoll is listed as ‘vulnerable’. As a species its future was in peril until conservation measures were undertaken; now the small population seems to be thriving in its protected location – good news. But as a participant in ecosystems across two-thirds of Australia, the quoll is functionally extinct. And for the Aboriginal people who have known quolls as kin and Dreaming creators, local extinctions are grievous. The news that there are some creatures living thousands of kilometers away is no doubt significant, but for people whose clans had lived for millennia in kinship and proximity with quoll, and whose own lives have been given meaning and purpose by those relationships, local extinctions hit hard.

Deborah: In Arrente language they call it Tjilpa (atyelpe in Arrente orthography); in vernacular outback English, the most common term is ‘native cat’. This carnivorous marsupial is one of the great Dreaming figures in Australia both in terms of significance of the ceremony and extent of the travels. The tracks or songlines are extensive (thousands of kilometers, taken together) but even more impressive is the density of webs of connection articulated by Tjilpa Dreaming. I encountered Tjilpa Dreamings in the course my work on Aboriginal Claims to Land in Central Australia. During the 1990s and early 2000s I was privileged to serve as consulting anthropologist to the Aboriginal Land Commissioner on numerous claims. Almost everywhere we went we met ‘native cat’ Dreamings and the ‘native cat’ people who testified to their responsibilities for the sites, songlines, and country.

In the south-western part of the Northern Territory people know the quoll as kuningka. In that region the Kuningka Dreaming is associated with the great Tingari Dreaming track. This extensive track is associated with both men’s and women’s business; it carries ceremony out of the desert and into the northern savannas. One publicly identified site is Watarrka, also known as King’s Canyon. Here the Kuningka men travelled and conducted men’s ceremonies. The head of the canyon is closed to visitors because of its secret/sacred quality.

In the centre of the Northern Territory, the quoll is called Tjilpa, and here too it is associated with men’s ceremony. Tjilpa Valley, out to the west of Alice Springs, is another place where the Dreaming ancestors travelled and conducted men’s ceremony. The people who belong to this country, and who are responsible for the ceremony and for the quoll itself are tjilpa people.

In the eastern part of the Northern Territory Aboriginal people call it urrumpele, and the track, or songline, is one of the longest in the nation. Urrumpele, the ceremony men who become quoll, travel into Central Australia coming from Port Augusta in South Australia (900 kms), and may go all the way north to Arnhem Land. In the course of their travels from south to north, they encounter the Simpson Desert, and there they dive underground, emerging at the northern edge of the desert where the country again becomes habitable for them and where as a result of their action there is now a major ceremony site.

Dick Kimber and Mike Smith have published an imaginatively reconstructed account of the travels of Arrernte and Wangkangurru people to this site. In a vivid way they show how rain, seeds, Dreamings, songs, travel, and communication form a matrix of desert sociality. In my own experience, in the course of the North-west Simpson Land Claim, the traditional owners took us to the site known as Therrerreyete as part of the evidence they offered. The site is sacred on account of the creation activity of the Tjilpa, as well as other Dreamings. Here the men engaged in a restricted (men-only) session, and here the women did ceremony. They danced rain and all the new growth and life that rise up with the coming of rain in desert. In the night, at this sacred site, in the glow of campfires, as the sound of singing rolled into our hearts and minds, we were drawn to witness the conjunction of rain’s life-giving work, the human work of ceremony, and the lives of desert creatures in their ancestral and every day modalities. Ceremony communicated connectivities and continuities – it seemed to draw up the lives of Aboriginal people and the nonhuman creatures of the desert through millennia, wrapping them into this changing and challenging desert while singing and dancing the rain that brings forth life, keeping it all happening anew.

In the flow of all this experience, it came as a shock to learn that the quoll at the centre of so much of this social, cultural, ecological, and zoological attention, can no longer live in country that is their home. They have been gone from this region for decades, perhaps; written records are not the best sources, but on their account, the Tjilpa may have become locally extinct in the 1930s. Other accounts indicate that the 1960s was the crucial decade. The result is a material absence: tjilpa country in the Red Centre holds an emptiness in its heart.

Deborah and Jim: Our guide on the nocturnal tour was Simon Dower. He works with the animals by day, conducts tours at night, and in his spare time gets out into the bush. He took our group of eight visitors through the secure gates into a four hectare enclosure where numerous small marsupials on the edge of extinction live and thrive. There is a breeding program, and care is taken to ensure that the genetics are managed as best they can be. This means that the animals don’t breed out there in the enclosure. Indeed, Simon explained, every species in the enclosure is either all-male or all-female in order to ensure there won’t be any unplanned pregnancies. Within the enclosure, the animals are protected from the predators that are said to bear a large responsibility for population loss – foxes and feral cats. The enclosure is open to the sky, though, so the creatures are still subject to predation by raptors and owls. Simon held the view that this was a good thing. We had a longer conversation with him later, and he spoke about his respect for animals as individuals. His concern was with the character of an animal – the behavioural and mental patterns and faculties that make a species and an individual who they are. His aim in the enclosure was for the animals to live the lives they were evolutionarily adapted to, and that included the stress of being prey.

Jim asked Simon if he thought a time would come when the animals could be released back into country. He was pessimistic. So much has changed, he said: not only the introduced predators, but also the loss of Aboriginal fire regimes, and changing species of grass, have combined to push these animals to the edge, and there is no indication that these factors are going to change in the foreseeable future. And so they live on in this calm, protected area; a ‘boutique habitat’ is Jim’s term for it. They forage in restored habitat, and are protected from most predators. Supplementary food is provided both for nutritional reasons and to bring the animals close to the paths where humans like us were eagerly hoping to see them. We saw most of them, but not, of course, the one we were most fascinated by. Quoll do not live in the enclosure. They are carnivores, and would eat the others.

You have to go to the nocturnal house to see a quoll. You walk into the dark building where night is simulated, and you see a glass fronted mini-habitat within which is said to be a western quoll. Only if you are lucky do you actually see one. They are solitary by nature, and not prone to display. In recent years, Aboriginal people have been doing just this: visiting the Desert Park to visit their animal kin. Nick Atchison, the energetic and deeply committed Curator of Zoology at the Desert Park, told us of a visit by senior Aboriginal men from the south-west who were hoping to see some of the animals who are extinct in homeland country. They came, they saw animals they had not seen for decades, and they were deeply moved. They started singing the songlines for the animals, and they sang, and they sang. More than that, they wanted to teach some of the inma, or ceremony, to the zoo keepers at the Desert Park so that they could continue to sing up these endangered creatures, caring for them in the cultural way, as well as caring for them as zoo keepers.

But there was more, as Nick explained. The senior man for the Tjilpa Dreaming site at Tjilpa Valley not far to the west of Alice, is Herman Malbunka. His wife Mavis is one of the great movers and shakers in Central Australia. They have contributed to the Desert Park educational materials concerning Tjilpa, and they are determined to bring the tjilpa from the mini-habitat in the nocturnal house to a spacious enclosure out there in Tjilpa country. If the plan goes ahead, quolls will live again in the country where the Dreaming ancestors travelled, did ceremony, and created the kin groups that now include the Hermann Malbunka family and the quolls in the Desert Park.

Visitors to the Desert Park have the privilege of listening to a recording of Hermann Malbunka talking about quolls. As one enters the park one is offered a device that has sound clips of spoken information, calibrated to the numbers of various displays. Number 20 is the recording for quoll; it includes both a short information piece that quotes Mr Malbunka, and a longer piece in which Mr Malbunka speaks directly to the listener. He gives us a glimpse into the status of quoll as Dreaming, and into life without it. Mr Malbunka described Tjilpa as his ’totem god, from the creation’. He tells of his efforts to explain to people that ‘it isn’t just an animal’, but rather something ‘sacred’. Through his words it becomes possible to gain a glimmer of insight into life in which that which is sacred is not present. He says: ‘we didn’t see those animals before…. I didn’t know at all, but I was believing in him’. And he goes on to describe seeing the animal at the Desert Park: ‘That’s why when I went in and saw this little animal, really beautiful, and I loved him first when I saw him. That … made me really proud to see that animal back here.’

Now the Malbunkas want to bring the tjilpa all the way home. They have chosen an area that they and Nick think will be suitable habitat, and they’ve marked out a fence line that will avoid damage to important tress, and will provide the security the tjilpa need. They will have to provide supplementary food, since most of the animals the tjilpa used to eat are also locally extinct, and they will have to monitor the fence. It will be a family and community project requiring dedication and commitment. Two things have to happen: the family has to make the commitment, and funds must be raised to pay for the fence (which will be built by a contractor and with family labour) and to cover on-going employment for the people who will handle the food, boundary-ride the fence line and monitor other threats.

There is experience on which to draw. The mala, or rufous hare wallaby, is another great Dreaming creature of Central Australia. It does not now live outside of captivity on the mainland, but small populations have been established on off-shore islands. Attempts to sustain wild populations have meet with disasters as well as success stories. According to mala expert Don Langford, one of the last wild populations, perhaps fifty individuals, was wiped out in a single night by a fox (1999). With such experience in mind, it is clear that tjilpa people will be taking on a huge responsibility if they make the commitment to bring the tjilpa home to country.

Jim: Even as the western quoll faces the prospect of becoming a boutique animal in order to survive its threatened extinction, another possibility is being suggested as well: domestication. Before meeting up with Deborah in Alice Springs, I interviewed biologist Dr. Keith Leggett, the director of the University of New South Wales Fowlers Gap Arid Zone Research Station. Although Leggett is not directly involved with the quoll, he studies some of its traditional prey and spoke appreciatively of his colleague Mike Archer’s suggestion that Australians replace their current domestic animal companions and particularly their cats with species indigenous to their surroundings. “No animal that has ever entered [humans’] inner circle has become extinct,” Archer has argued. “When you value something and have an emotional connection with it … it simply doesn’t disappear” (Kamenev, 2009). Leggett pointed out that in recent human history, say the last 4000 years or so, we have been less apt to engage actively in the domestication of new species of animals. Perhaps the time has come, he suggested, to seriously began this process anew. And once domesticated, he speculated, it would merely be a matter of time before quolls began to escape into the wild, ironically staving off their extinction by becoming feral animals.

But as Trevor Evans pointed out to me in a day-long conversation at his Secret Creek Sanctuary for eastern quolls in the Blue Mountains, quolls are generally nervous, solidly nocturnal animals with short life spans—two to three years. It doesn’t make sense to domesticate them, he concluded. To his qualms, I would add another: Would not the very act of domestication, if it were carried out thoroughly and successfully, inevitably involve breeding quolls so that precisely their temperament, life expectancy and periods of dormancy were altered? Modifying the genetic makeup of an animal is precisely the difference between taming and domestication. The quoll or finch living by its own means, even if comfortably nearby one’s home, is not really the same at all as the quoll we might invite to live inside. Becoming domesticated would involve the quoll’s becoming yet another sort of boutique animal, one that would no longer be recognizable in its habits or temperament as the quoll we have heretofore encountered in country.

Would a domesticated quoll then be really a quoll? This question in turn raises the issue of what exactly constitutes a species identity. Or what other identity an animal kind might have beyond that of being a species. In determining a species, taxonomy historically has placed the emphasis on the capacity of a species member to reproduce successfully with others of its own kind: the proof was in one’s progeny. And contemporary biology has specified this capacity through the delineation of genetic maps that can pin down the precise shape of a reproductive legacy, as well as the manner in which one legacy is related to yet other legacies, to other species. The notion that a quoll might have a particular way of life and a manner of being at home on the face of the earth is only to be appreciated by reflecting on, as well as participating in through one’s imagination and empathy, how the quoll actively lives. Its species identity totally falls out of a genetic or taxonomic approach to quollian existence. Simon Dower’s worries about the animal’s ‘character’ are crucial here: A quoll that gets its daily dole of food in a ceramic bowl set out by a human hand in a human home is not the same quoll at all who lives off its wits in the ongoing search for sufficient prey among a diversity of living kinds in country.

One should consider as well that the very formulation Archer uses for domestication—that it involves an entry on the part of an animal into “the inner circle” of humans—can be thought quite differently from the Malbunkas’ perspective. As an Arrente owner of the Tjilpa Dreaming, Hermann Malbunka feels a kinship with the western quoll (as whitefellows call it) that cannot be characterized as domestication but is every bit as intimate, at home with the quoll, as what we whitefellows typically feel about our animal companions. Indeed, the Malbunkas’ relationship might be characterized as even more intimate with and at the same time more respectful of this animal and its own sense of its existence. For one of the very conditions of Arrente intimacy with the tjilpa it that it ought not physically be brought into the Malbunkas’ home to live in domestic bliss but is to be accorded its own place in creation and in country, a place to which the Malbunkas and all their human kin feel a powerful connection. Might this notion of intimacy with a more than human world—nurtured by ritual objects, ceremonies, the recitation of stories, respect for creation, the caretaking for a particular place—be one that we whitefellows might learn from? The tenderness mentioned above that Herman Malbunka feels for the quoll is of a different order than the tenderness that a family feels for its beloved dog or cat. While both deserve our respect, only one seems to be truly appreciated in whitefellow culture. The very presupposition by whitefellows of what brings a human being into intimacy with an animal calls for probing reflection and radical critique, particularly when the animal is one whose vulnerability to extinction is directly linked to a history of colonization replete with its genocidal and ecocidal attitudes and practices. Perhaps this is what Malbunka himself means to suggest when he states the quoll ‘isn’t just an animal’. ‘Animal’ for Malbunka is a whitefellow term, a way of approaching and acknowledging the quoll that forgets crucial aspects of a quoll’s significance as a creature, a created and creating being, for the Arrente.

An important corollary to the point being made here has been suggested by Deborah: In spite of Archer’s best intentions, his notion of animal domestication, just as his notion of animal intimacy, is a culturally-loaded one. His suggestion forgets that dingoes had been selectively domesticated by Aboriginal people for at least 5,000 years, and yet have become the target of all-out campaigns of ‘management’ (a common euphemism for killing) conducted by pastoralists, government, research scientists, and the manufacturers of killing equipment, as the Cooperative Research Centre for Invasive Animals makes clear. They are now extinct in some parts of Australia, and their future is uncertain. Deborah writes: ‘I’m reminded of something Dominique Lestel said at a recent ethology symposium: that every anthropocentrism is also an ethnocentrism…there is no singular ‘inner-circle’’. Which is to say: some modes of domestication are ruled out from the get-go, precisely because they do not fit the dominant (and colonizing) culture’s notion of the human inner-circle. As a result, Archer’s suggestion to turn quolls into animal companions curiously furthers the still potent agenda of colonial cultural hegemony in regard to dingoes. This, in turn, increases the quolls’ vulnerability to becoming extinct. For the argument has been made repeatedly in the interviews Deborah and I conducted that reintroduction of dingoes into the Australian landscape would go a long way toward controlling three populations of feral animals whose presence threatens vulnerable marsupials, including the quoll: feral cats and goats, and foxes.

James Hatley and Deborah Rose
25 October 2012



  • CRC for Invasive Animals: http://www.invasiveanimals.com/
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