LEAD Action News
Vol 2 no 3
Saving Birds With Determination
by Laurie Levy, Melbourne-based wildlife activist
The opening of the 1994 Duck Season saw rescuers acting with the same courage and determination as in previous years to assist Australia's beautiful waterbirds. Despite the lowest even number of shooters on Victorian wetlands, rescuers recovered over 150 waterbirds and 135 dead, illegally shot, protected waterbirds, including rare and threatened freckled ducks, swans, ibis, herons, corellas and many others.
For the second year running, rescuers had to contend with the Kennett Liberal government's "hunter protection" regulations, designed to keep rescuers and the media off the water until 10am, nearly four hours after the shooting commenced.
Rescuers again defied these regulations and entered the water before the season's official at 6.40am. As predicted, shooting commenced 25 minutes early and rescuers proceeded to bring out wounded waterbirds before the season had officially opened - highlighting the need for rescuers to be on the water with shooters.
Rescuers received about $20,000 in police fines as they waded through the water and brought wounded birds back to shore to deliver them to mobile veterinary clinics. The confiscation of kayaks by police officers was a major inhibiting factor, with some birds dying as rescuers took up to an hour to ferry them on foot to the veterinary base.
The Coalition Against Duck Shooting (CADS) has already fought two "test" cases in the Magistrate's Court in Kerang, Victoria, on charges pursuant to the "hunter protection" regulations. We won the first and lost the second, which has been appealed to the Kerang County Court. A victory will most likely see all other cases against rescuers dropped.
If we lose, we will then appeal to the Supreme Court. Is we lose this appeal, then the police will have to process about 120 rescuers through the courts - at considerable cost to Victorian taxpayers. Rescuers will plead "not guilty" and each case will run at least one day in court, taking up the court's valuable time.
Politically, under the Kennett government, we cannot hope to achieve an outright ban on duck shooting in Victoria. In fact we expect to take a few steps backwards - but for every political step backward, the campaign will take ten steps forward publicly.
This is already showing up on two fronts. First, duck shooter numbers have fallen to an all-time low, dropping from 90,000 in 1986 to about 22,000 today, but only about 11,000 on Victoria's wetlands at this year's opening.
Scientists and wildlife ecologists with the Department of Conservation have always claimed that the slaughter of protected species on Lake Buloke, near the Western Districts town of Donald, is so bad that it is possible to walk across the wetland (approx. 15km by 8km) over the bodies of illegally shot, protected waterbirds.
In the early 1980s Lake Buloke would attract some 15,000 - 20,000 shooters on the opening morning. At this year's opening, the number of shooters on this wetland was down to 1,500 - 2,000.
Official surveys taken by the Department of Conservation and Royal Australasian Ornithologists Union (RAOU) before the 1994 opening, estimated that only 80 freckled ducks were known to be on Victorian wetlands with 60 residing on Lake Buloke.
However, rescuers and Department of Conservation officers recovered 88 dead freckled ducks from Lake Buloke. The only known survivors from this particular population were the three wounded birds now being cared for in a Victorian wildlife shelter. This is all despite the government's compulsory "Waterfowl Identification Test" introduced in 1990 for all duck shooters.
Official surveys of Lake Buloke before the opening of the 1993 season, estimated 300 freckled ducks to be residing in this particular wetland. The government refused our [CADS] requests to close Buloke to shooting. Rescuers recovered 272 of these rare and threatened waterbirds. In fact, rescuers recovered a record number of illegally shot, protected waterbirds in 1993, from a few wetlands only, yet there are some 15,000 wetlands in Victoria.
On the second front, The Age newspaper on 24 March 1993 ran a strong editorial calling for duck shooting to be outlawed, stating: "Duck shooting is not a sport, it is an obscenity . . . Those men who need guns to reassure themselves about their masculinity should be forced to look elsewhere for reassurance."
From the outset, we [CADS] not only had to battle the gun groups but also government bureaucracy that had pandered to duck shooters over the previous 40 years and given them whatever they wanted. Duck shooting had flourished in Victoria since the late 1950s under successive Liberal Party governments through to the 1980s.
Leading politicians of the day such as a former Victorian premier, the late Sir Henry Bolte, and his Minister for Conservation were rabid duck shooters and actively promoted the activity. Another ex-premier, Sir Rupert Hamer, was a patron of the Victorian Field and Game Association. However, since our campaign began in 1986, public perceptions have changed and duck shooting is now seen as unacceptable in the general community.
We are on the last stretch home, the Kennett government is beginning to realise that duck shooters are disappearing despite the fact that the government is spending fistfuls of dollars propping up a small number of rednecks in Victoria. Our next move is to commission a "Victorian Wetlands Tourism" report. Many of our country towns have wetlands that favourably compare with the wetlands in the Northern Territory's Kakadu National Park.
Victorian country centres such as Kerang, Donald and the city of Geelong, with their spectacular wetlands and waterbirds, could bring millions of tourist dollars to the embattled state economy. The opposition Labor Party in Victoria now has a policy to ban duck shooting in this state. So there is hope on the horizon. In the meantime, our rescue operations will continue on the wetlands until the shooting of our beautiful native waterbirds is abolished.
Reprinted from Simply Living, Winter 1994 with kind permission from Matthew McPherson, Editor. §
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Updated 12 November 2012