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Manna for the cassowaries

IN FEBRUARY 2011 Cyclone Yasi crashed, like Thor's hammer, into Far North Queensland's (FNQ) Cassowary Coast. Yasi was classified as a Severe, Category Five cyclone. The last event of such magnitude in this region was in 1918 when one hundred people perished and the sugar town of Innisfail was flattened.

When Yasi struck, Mission Beach's cassowary population was still convalescing from Cyclone Larry's 2006 unbridled assault. Larry cut a swathe through the rainforests, decimating both the cassowaries' habitat and its larder of fruits. Some seventy birds lost their lives, reducing the population to around one hundred and forty. Five years on and Yasi inflicted similar catastrophic damage. It was a tragedy of epic proportions for the beleaguered cassowary population.

Seduced from England's inclement climes by the allure of turquoise seas and year-round warmth I have lived in the tropics for forty years, thirty of them in Cairns. When in 1970, at twilight, I first witnessed giant ghost gums edged with phosphorus, I knew I would never leave. Since those distant days cyclones have been a recurring theme of my life; from my first experience in the tropical islands of Papua New Guinea's Bismark Archipelago to now, their lethal power never ceases to chill my soul.

When Yasi first appeared near Fiji, I was working with the non-governmental organisation FNQ Volunteers. Once Yasi left for Mt Isa, we were in the vanguard of the recovery effort. Our office fielded some five hundred calls seeking and offering help. Tourists and interstate visitors battered on our doors desperate to assist. Mission Beach, Tully and Cardwell – those tiny Cassowary Coast towns that bore the execrable consequences of Yasi's fury – were inundated with a human flotilla of helpers. Teams of tradies sallied forth to repair fractured homes, rendering assistance wherever possible. A masseuse transported her massage couch and aromatic oils, delivering comfort and solace to traumatised victims.

Of the five hundred calls, one was from an Adrian Walker at Mission Beach. He was coordinating a Wildlife Care and Rescue program to feed starving cassowaries. A concerned Cairns school had donated fruit and now it awaited transportation.

'Ellen, I'll take it down tomorrow morning,' I said to our volunteer coordinator.

'Good, I thought you would jump at the opportunity. I'll tell Adrian,' she replied. Ellen knew I would be keen, for I was writing a tale about Yasi's aftermath.

I have a long-standing interest in cassowaries, dating back to the 1970s when the documentary maker, David Parer, arrived in Papua New Guinea's Southern Highlands to film a documentary for the ABC. Titled Bird of the Thunder Woman, it explored the Wola people's ceremonial exchange of cassowaries. In the Southern Highlands, possession of cassowaries is perceived as a symbol of wealth. I provided assistance to Parer in moving his cameras and crew high into the montane rainforests.

 

ACCEPTING MY 'MEALS-ON-WHEELS' commission, I rose early to be greeted by a Rubenesque sky and a polystyrene box gift-wrapped in masking tape waiting for me at the Environment Centre for my one hundred fifty kilometre journey south.

The road sign announcing the turn off to Mission Beach was buckled; its stanchions had bowed submissively to Yasi's fury. What should have been a fifteen minute drive to Mission took thirty. The images of the torn and ripped forests were so powerful they seemed to bruise my eyes. Opening my car window, a blast of scorching air scuttled in. I listened for signs of bird life but silence prevailed. As Yasi had approached, all varieties of birds had fled to the west. One lorikeet which had arrived in Alice Springs was returned home by a caring airline. Triangular yellow warning signs, perched by the roadside, indicated recent cassowary crossings and pleaded with me to drive carefully.

Entering Mission Beach evoked memories of Darwin's Cyclone Tracy. Bulging blue and silver tarpaulins clung to roofless buildings. The shopping complex was boarded up, its windows criss-crossed with beige masking tape. The advertising signs around the town had all been whisked away. So too those backpackers who enthusiastically follow Lonely Planet's prescribed route. They had vanished as quickly as a perfect rainbow. The main streets' souvenir shops, usually brimming with faux trophies of the tropics, were closed 'until further notice'.

Turning inland away from the battered town, I followed the potholed bitumen for two kilometres. It was bordered by needle-thin broken trees and banana palm stumps which lacked 'hands'.

Adrian's house was off the main drag, along a gravelled road that had not witnessed a chastening grader for some time. In the unkempt guinea grass bordering the road, a drove of abandoned car wrecks evoked images of hippie communes. Here, the forest was short in stature and the trees no longer wore crowns; they were headless stalks. It was as if sharia law had briefly prevailed and Yasi, nature's scimitar, had beheaded the offending trees.

I turned into a crusher-dusted driveway.

'Hi, does Adrian Walker live here?' I asked a bespectacled woman, clad in a dress unbefitting for a CWA meeting.

'Yes, this is Adrian's house. Hold on – I'll get him,' she said, reversing into a cluster of khaki-camouflaged buildings.

A stooped, tall man materialised from a dark alcove. 'Hi, Rod is it?' He was ubër-white, with long yellowing hair and red glowing eyes as if he'd been 'spotlighted'. His handshake was welcoming. I took an instant liking to him.

'Yes, I'm your fruit bearer, Adrian.'

Opening the hatch, we unloaded my cargo into his readied Nissan.

'I'll distribute it this afternoon. Come inside. Mind the spiders' webs,' he ordered, pointing gently. I suspected they were family. 'Would you like something to drink?'

I declined; I was keen not to impose. The gut-tightening shock of being in a war zone was overwhelming.

Taking up my designated position in an olive-coloured cane chair I scanned the surrounding tapestry. The dwelling was a series of rooms mounted on a timber decking perched a metre above the forest's floor. Gazing along the decking I was greeted by a web of jade-green vines bordering the rainforest. A cluttered coffee table stacked with sepia-brown newspapers and an overflowing ashtray divided me from my host.

Adrian turned out to be a renowned snake expert and author. One of his books, Diary of a Snake Whisperer, lay on the table before me.

'Is it okay if I take notes? I asked.

'Of course,' he replied, sweeping a lock of yellowing hair from his forehead. He offered me a synopsis of the cassowaries' plight.

'While they are omnivores they mostly rely on rainforest fruits for survival. With the help of Woolies and of course the community we have set up feeding stations. Department of Environmental Resource Management (DERM) are involved but they only have two field officers so it is very much up to us.'

An hour later I was becoming an authority on Mission Beach fauna and the minutiae of local politics.

'Yasi brought with it twelve hours of 300 kph winds,' he continued. 'For six hours trees crashed like runaway trains in the forest. Then magically, the winds ceased and an eerie silence prevailed. Our giant silky oak, which had shaded the bathroom and toilet block, had fallen,' he smiled sadly, pointing; I spied a bleeding stump peeping through a wooden aperture.

'While Yasi's eye was over us we went outside and had a squizzy but we were powerless. Then the eye passed and the winds returned with renewed vigour. This was all rainforest here,' he pointed to the broken sticks of timber bordering their veranda. 'Now we get direct sunlight onto this veranda – amazing.' Raising his eyebrows, he pursed his lips in disquiet.

I nodded.

'The damaged Alex [palms] are beginning to throw spears again. And look at the new berries – see the clusters?' I had. Bouquets of vibrant pink growth and reddy-brown fruit were springing from broken and twisted boughs. The urge to touch their waxy texture was almost irresistible.

'We are unsure yet just how many cassowaries we're feeding but we're monitoring the feeding stations and should have some stats soon,' Adrian said.

I tarried for more than an hour before reluctantly waving farewell. Driving back down the hill, the dishevelled landscape of skeletal trees offered a startling contrast to the tropical blue sky.

 

IT'S DECEMBER NOW and ten months have elapsed since my last fruit delivery to Adrian. I am revisiting for another information-gathering mission but this time I carry no fruit. Today, when I drove down the highway, few signs of Yasi's furious attack remain. Trees have regained their apparel but the tips of their trunks rise from the greenery like an army of Zulu assegais. Road signs have been straightened and Mission Beach's garish souvenir shops have re-opened, replenished with a motley collection of straw hats. The tourists, however, are few and just two backpacker pilgrims stand waiting for the Greyhound buses. Pulling into Adrian's driveway, the Cassowary Coast is now facing the advent of a new cyclone season.

'Hi Rod, it's nice to see you again. Come in,' Adrian says.

'Wow, what a surprise!' I take in the scaffold of luxuriant green foliage, hastily constructed by nature, sheltering his home from the tropical sun. The forest is still in recovery mode and fractured limbs laced together by industrious creepers litter the forest floor. Entering the passageway, guarded by its brigade of spider sentries, we pass the dining room.

'Follow me,' Adrian says.

Walking past the kitchen, we come to a space before the bedrooms begin. I screech to a halt. Adrian grins. An imperious cassowary is fossicking in a mound of fecund compost on the forest floor, beneath the kitchen window. Two metres tall, it's clothed in a cape of oily-black plumage. A rainbow of colours flickers from it. Its brilliant blue and purple head and the fleshy red wattles hanging from its neck are stunning. We are a mere two metres away. Ignoring our presence it continues to forage for fodder with its beak. I feel like I have wandered into a scene from Jurassic Park.

'Don't maintain eye contact if she looks at you. They become very threatened if you do.'

'Yes, I know,' I reply.

'Oh, how?' Adrian asks.

'Once, in the rainforests behind Cairns' Botanical Gardens, I almost bumped into one. I stepped past a tree and we met face-to-face. Simultaneously, the cassowary and I looked away. Fighting the urge to flee, I walked off along the path as if nothing had happened, like a dance floor rejection. I was so scared, I didn't have the courage to look back and when I did it had vanished.' A moment later I asked, 'Are we safe here?' aware that cassowaries can kill. Adrian ignores my impoverished question.

'They are amazing birds. See the casque on her head?' I look intently, not sure yet what a casque is. 'It acts like an air conditioner. Look at the iridescence of the red on her neck – that indicates she's in good condition.'

'How do you know she's female?'

'Tail shape.' I make a mental note to Google for more information.

Cassowaries have a reputation as shy birds but this one isn't acting to type. Reaching basketballer heights, their wedged-shaped bodies allow them to race through the jungle. Bouncing off saw-edged leaves they escape the clutches of the notorious wait-a-while vine, with its barbed wire spikes, with consummate ease. Equipped with a three-toed foot, the middle toe sports a dagger-like claw one hundred and twenty-five millimetres long. This fearsome weapon is known to have kicked humans and killed would-be predators.

'Next door's dogs live in mortal fear of her. If only cassowaries could perfect their cycling they'd be a shoo-in for the triathlon,' Adrian laughs. 'They can reach speeds of up to fifty kilometres an hour through the forests, jump up to one and a half metres and are excellent swimmers in both rivers and seas.' In the adjacent rainforest a kookaburra laughs, drowning out the gurgling sounds of the flooding creek, hidden from sight by a veil of green creepers.

'Of course we are safe – they can't climb stairs. The only reported killing was in 1926 when a teenager stole an egg. The bird allegedly kicked him in the neck. Recently Mama Cass here,' – he points, I smile at the sobriquet – 'killed the banana farmer's Rottweiler. She stomped it to death and then opened its stomach and ate the contents. They love road kill.'

Mentally I recoil in shock, unsure if I want to be this close. Mama Cass' neck darts into the compost, daintily swallowing a sliver of paw paw.

'DERM, according to their web site, set up one hundred and five feeding stations after Yasi but in reality it was more like twenty-six.' Adrian fills me in on what has occurred since my last visit.

'They only have two staff so one hundred and five was an improbable number. We were feeding thirty-eight birds immediately after Yasi but it's down to twenty now. Woolies at Wongaling Beach supply some seventy kilograms of unwanted fruit weekly and we disperse it to the remaining twenty-six stations.'

'Where have the others gone?' I ask. Sitting now in my allotted chair, I am in thrall as Adrian recounts the details of the rescue mission. Mama Cass has moved around the house and positioned herself as the passive observer. My senses are on hyper-alert. She is not two metres away, reclining in a bower of newborn groundcover listening intently.

'Not sure – just wandered off. They are very solitary birds and enjoy their own company. Some, mostly chicks, have died. If we can keep the sub-juveniles alive, however, for the next six months many of them will survive.'

The phone rings. Adrian fields the call unsuccessfully. Telstra is due to repair Adrian's water-damaged line so he rushes inside to find another phone. Sitting in the presence of Mama Cass feels like an audience with royalty. There is a gentle patter of raindrops on the iron roof. The patter escalates, becoming a furious avalanche; sheets of water cascade off the roof like a giant waterfall. The rainforest's cicada orchestra is drowned out in the tumult. Mama Cass sits unmoved. The rain bounces like river pebbles off her satiny plumage.

Adrian returns, sighing in frustration. I ask, 'How much do they eat?'

'They need five kilos a day and Mama Cass gets two from me and then she has to go into the forest to find more. You know it's illegal to feed them? The forest is still only producing twenty per cent so it will be next autumn before it returns to full production.' Mama Cass, her beak wide open, stares pensively into the forest.

'What fruits do they like best?'

'They love grapes particularly but anything really. The only thing they're not keen on is citrus but they'll eat that at a pinch. The Botanical Gardens in Cairns were sending down rainforest fruits but then the courier started charging exorbitant rates and we had to cancel.'

'So your symbiotic relationship with Mama Cass is determined by the amount of food you put in the compost every day?' I grin.

'Absolutely, but it's important that she goes into the forest and forages. She has been here three months now. There was a male here for a while, after Yasi. He disappeared though after the vet tranquilised him to fix an infection on his foot. Sadly he was found dead a few days later at Garners Beach, just south of here. The vet conducted an autopsy but it revealed nothing.' Sadness wells up in Adrian's eyes. 'Before Larry we had about two hundred birds. Then, from either hunger or infanticide about seventy died.'

'So, how many died after Yasi?' I ask.

'Probably the same number as with Larry, mostly chicks. When food is scarce they practice infanticide, spearing their young through the oesophagus. We know for certain we lost at least three like that after Yasi,' Adrian reports.

'So there are only about seventy left now?'

'Yes, but that is probably the optimum number for a sustainable population. According to a recent PhD study, there was only that number a hundred years ago. Then with the arrival of banana farms they acquired a reliable food source and their population increased significantly.'

'So, if a population of seventy can be maintained, the species can survive?' I ask.

'We are ever hopeful. It would be nice though to have a captive breeding program like they have in Wau in Papua New Guinea. They've been running it for years and they now have a wealth of empirical knowledge,' Adrian says.

Sadly, once again the time comes to leave. Mama Cass continues to stare into the forest and does not rise to bid me farewell. Climbing into my car I thank Adrian for his help and enthusiasm. His phone rings. The call is from a friend in Nicaragua.

Meandering back over the hill, I see that the banana palms have grown new hands. The pendulous fruit is protected from the diminishing number of cassowaries by arctic-blue plastic bags. It is an incongruous image, set against the backdrop of a turquoise ocean.

Driving home, the images of Mama Cass are pellucid and resilient. I ponder on how the cassowaries will cope if another cyclone of Yasi's magnitude appears and what Mama Cass thinks of Adrian's efforts to save her species. When the first cyclone of the season approaches I shall monitor the Bureau of Meteorological website with unease.


From Griffith Review Edition 35: Surviving © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

Griffith Review