Three Years on the Road
Brett Davis

27. Death in the National Park

I had already killed a few animals since leaving Sydney in April - flies and mosquitoes of course, a few fish caught at Noosa, and the unfortunate pet spider at Tallebudgera. I was destined to kill a few more species before our travelling was over too, but during our stay at Lawn Hill, in the pristine environment and sanctity of the national park, I was particularly lethal. In fact, I killed heaps of animals.

I personally killed four feral pigs, and was involved in the deaths of a dozen more. These killings occurred inside the boundaries of a national park, and in the company of a ranger. I had no qualms about killing them. Pigs are an introduced species, totally out of place in a national park. They cause erosion which can destroy habitat, they have the potential to attack park visitors and they foul the water. They also have a similar physiology to humans which makes the transmission of certain diseases a possibility as well. Lawn Hill National Park is about three hundred kilometres north-west of Mount Isa, and therefore extremely remote. The water in the Lawn Hill gorge springs from even further afield - an artesian basin underlying the Barkly Tableland. Yet even at Lawn Hill it is recommended that only rain water be drunk, as E.coli in the creek have been sometimes measured at levels unsafe for human consumption. It is caused solely by feral pigs. Efforts at their eradication have so far met with only limited success.

Colin and I had been advised of the location of some pigs by a camper who had seen them near the lower gorge. Late in the afternoon, Colin walked with Karen down towards the lower gorge while I climbed up to the top of Island Stack, a broad, rocky outcrop which overlooks the gorge. We were in radio contact, and from a lookout on the north-east corner of the Stack I had a perfect view over the entire area where the pigs had been spotted. Via the radio I could advise Colin of the activities occurring in the valley below.

It did not take me long to spot a group of pigs amongst the palms lining the creek. I could also see that there were no human visitors in the valley either. Colin and Karen approached the area cautiously from downwind. The pigs ambled about, totally oblivious to the impending danger. While Karen stayed back, Colin advanced and set himself up in cover, with a good view of the ground ahead of him. The pigs began to move towards him, and I let him know what was happening as I turned off the radio and sat down to watch the action almost directly below. It was better than television.

About ten piglets and two large sows slowly made their way towards Colin's position. He let all the small ones pass, waiting for the breeding stock. When they came into view, Colin did not hesitate. The first sow never knew what hit her, dying instantly. In confusion, the second sow ran a few paces, then halted to sniff the air - a fatal mistake. The piglets scattered into the scrub, hopefully to fall victims to a python, or a dingo, or an eagle. It had been a safe, well executed and successful afternoon of pest eradication. Later in the week, after a sighting by another camper, Colin and I killed four of the piglets. They seemed to be fending for themselves quite well.

However, it was the feral pig population upstream from the gorge that was causing the contamination of the water. One afternoon after work Colin knocked on the donga door and invited me to come shooting with him. His regular shooting partner had failed to arrive and two people on a pig hunt is much safer than one. After grabbing a canoe, we paddled up to the end of the upper gorge and immediately spotted a large sow standing in the middle of a rocky race less than twenty metres away. The noise from the water masked the sounds of our approach. The sow was dead a moment later. Colin grabbed his victim by the hind leg, dragging the pig from the water to prevent further contamination while I snapped a photo.

Colin removes the pig from Lawn Hill Creek

Further along, thigh high grass covered the flats beside the creek. A maze of tracks crisscrossed the area. We could hear the snorting and grumbling of a group of pigs coming from within the grass, but could see nothing. They seemed to be slowly moving away from us as we made our way forward. At every turn in the track we expected to encounter a pig, but none presented themselves. After about ten minutes we crested a small rise. In the small valley beyond us the grass was shorter, and a couple of pigs were visible.

Colin signalled for me to have a shot at the pig nearest to me - a big, black, mean-looking mother I would not have attempted alone. I took aim, fired, and the pig went down. All hell erupted in the grass below. Pigs went everywhere. One started running along the track towards us, but seemed to realise its mistake and stopped. Colin shot it. I got another one that poked its head up to see what was happening, and another that stopped in full view. Colin hit a couple more, but a lot disappeared up the creek, crashing off in all directions.

When everything grew quiet, Colin and I walked down to the flat to make sure that all the pigs were dead. We counted six after finishing off a couple of the smaller ones and then went looking for the big black one that had been the first to go down. Unfortunately, it was not where it should have been. Both of us were instantly on our guard. A healthy feral pig is a dangerous animal. An injured and angry pig is even worse. We listened carefully but could hear nothing. There was no squeals, or grunts, or heavy breathing. There were no sounds of a pig in its death throes thrashing around in the undergrowth. Everything was very quiet. Perhaps the pig had crawled away and died?

We began walking back towards where we had left the canoe. Neither of us wanted to look for a wounded pig in long grass. I was in the lead as we headed back. Without warning, the black pig lunged at me from beside the track. I have vivid memories of the flash of one of its tusks. I jumped back, expecting the pig to continue the attack, but it collapsed in front of me. One of us, I can't remember who, quickly put a bullet in its head. I was so shaken that I did not even take a photo of the pig. The long grass was suddenly a place I did not want to be in. A quick canoe paddle back to the safety of the donga seemed like a very good idea.

Another introduced pest I had no hesitation in killing was the cane toad, one of Australia's worst ecological disasters. On our way north, we had first noticed them at Boonooroo, a village on the Great Sandy Strait, north of Noosa and south of Hervey Bay, where the caravan park caretaker was fishing both dead and living cane toads out of the pool with a broom and throwing them over the fence onto the tidal mud flats. After that it is difficult to remember when we did not see them, as they were always around somewhere. At Lawn Hill National Park, they were thick on the ground, but only at night. You never saw them during the day. Walking from the donga to the toilet in the machinery shed was a nightly battle of avoiding cane toads. I killed quite a few during our time there. At least we think I killed a few. They are incredibly tough. Hit one of them with a rock and it will flatten out like a pancake, seemingly as dead as a doornail. The next minute it inflates back to its normal dimensions and calmly hops away.

Lawn Hill is very close to the border with the Northern Territory, and the first wave of cane toads had passed through a few years before we arrived there, crossing the border on its expansion westward in the mid eighties. They have now reached as far as the Roper River near Mataranka, and will soon arrive in Katherine Gorge and Kakadu. They have an amazing capacity to reproduce, and it is difficult to see them being stopped from going anywhere they want. However, some animals like crows, kites and water rats have now developed a method of killing them which avoids the poison glands in the skin of their shoulders by turning them over on their backs and disembowelling them. We have seen photographs of animals that have eaten cane toads and suffered hideous deaths. Karen and I found the bloated body of a young dingo floating in Lawn Hill creek, the probable victim of cane toad poisoning, and have no reservations about eliminating them wherever possible. They are a constant reminder that man should not meddle with nature.

Another killing, however, was sadder and more difficult than most. It happened while Colin, Karen and I were away from the gorge area, at a creek which flows out of the park and into a neighbouring cattle station. Colin had checked this section of the park earlier and discovered that the fence had been knocked down by some cattle that had then made their way up the creek and into the park. We planned to move the cattle out of the park and then fix the fence. Rather than drive the animals away from us as we walked up the creek, we travelled cross country for a few kilometres, eventually reaching a ridge above the place where we figured the cattle would be. We descended into the creek bed and began heading back towards the busted fence.

It was a stinking hot day. The walk up to the ridge had been draining, and the climb over the ridge had taken its toll on Karen. She was suffering the fateful combination of menstruation and heat which had recently proved debilitating in Weipa, and the warm water in our water-bottles was not cooling her down. She needed to get back to the shady swimming hole near the fence line as soon as possible. With Karen in the bed of the dry river, Colin on one side and me on the other, we walked down the small valley together, blowing whistles every few seconds to drive the cattle before us. Although we could not see each other, Karen, Colin and I were in radio contact and everybody knew where the others were because of the whistles. The sound of hoofbeats could be heard as the cattle moved away. We were about three kilometres from the boundary when I found a new born calf. It was lying half hidden in the brush I was struggling through. When it saw me, it staggered to its feet and made its way on wobbly legs towards me, its umbilical cord still attached.

I radioed Colin for advice. We discussed the situation and he said that it was basically up to me. However, I could tell from the way he was talking that he knew exactly what he would do in my situation - he just did not want to ask me to do it. I weighed up my options. If I left the calf where it was, after we drove the cattle from the park and fixed the fence it would either starve to death, or be taken by a dingo. The calf was incapable of walking unaided and could not follow us out. The terrain was difficult enough to for me to walk through, let alone walk through while carrying a calf. I doubted I could carry the calf more than a hundred metres anyway, and certainly not the entire distance back to the park boundary. Shit, I thought. The calf had been born in the wrong place at the wrong time. It did not attempt to run away from me as I walked towards it with a large rock, It simply looked up at me expectantly, its huge eyes incredibly cute as I brought the rock down on its skull. The calf dropped instantly. I still feel bad about it, but it really had to be done.

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