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Third Book Review
Nancy Cushing from the School of Humanities and Social Science, University of Newcastle, recently reviewed our book “The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia; an early account by A.E. Newsome”.
The review was published in the journal Historical Records of Australian Science.
A copy of the review is provided below, and the original version can be viewed HERE.
“The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia is a son’s tribute to his father but also a younger scientist’s homage to a pioneer. Discovered amongst former CSIRO ecologist Alan Newsome’s papers three years after his death in 2007, the unfinished text had been intended for publication in the mid-1970s. While others have advanced understandings of the red kangaroo in the intervening period, the lasting contribution of this slim volume lies in its lively account of the methods, attitudes and lived experience of a field ecologist working in Arrente country north of Alice Springs from the late 1950s to the early 1970s.
When he first joined the Northern Territory’s Animal Industry Branch in 1957, Newsome was just 22 years old, with a freshly minted Bachelor of Science from the University of Queensland. Directed to investigate the red kangaroo (then Macropus rufus, now Osphranter rufus) as a pest to the pastoral industry, he was well aware that he had a lot to learn and listened carefully to kangaroo hunters, cattlemen and Indigenous elders. Newsome studied the red kangaroo intensively through the 1960s, applying careful scientific methods and a good measure of seat-of-the-pants improvisation. Aerial surveys, days spent observing soaks and the post-mortem examination of some 2000 carcases built up Newsome’s deep knowledge of his subject.
Beginning with an historical introduction, the book is organized into seven chapters that place the red kangaroo in its physical setting of the Central Australian landform, climate and vegetation. It then considers the species’ distribution and numbers, its highly adapted reproductive processes, food preferences and water sources, and group behaviour (labelled ‘Sociology’).
Chapter 2, addressing climate, is now of greater interest than when it was first drafted. Although unaware of the El Niño phenomenon, Newsome produced evidence of cycles of wetter and dryer years back to 1892, including the record dry he himself witnessed between 1958 and 1965. He furthermore made the link between drought and interracial violence that is now being explored by historians.
By tracking kangaroo populations through this cycle, in Chapter 3 Newsome addressed his employer’s concerns about competition with sheep and cattle. Red kangaroos had expanded their range as new dams and bores allowed more individuals to survive times of drought, and the consumption of long dry grasses by introduced livestock encouraged the sprouting of the green grass needed by kangaroos. Newsome solved some of the riddles of kangaroo populations, showing that while they preferred to live in mulga scrub, mobs moved onto open plains during drought. Thus they created an impression of increasing numbers just when cattlemen were most troubled by their presence—and also when successful reproduction fell to near zero.
In Chapters 4 and 5, on physiology and diet, Newsome described his methods and findings in sufficient detail to satisfy other ecologists, but with an immediacy that also readily engages the non-specialist. Comparisons with better-known animals make the distinctive adaptations of the red kangaroo to their arid environment stand out, including the reflective pale red fur that lessens the heating effect of the sun. Even with these attributes, Newsome concluded that red kangaroos lived at the limits of their capacity for survival in Central Australia, with numbers kept in check by regular droughts.
For historians, the human as well as human–animal relations described by Newsome are of great interest. His book portrays a strikingly masculine world in which not a single female name is recorded. Unnamed Aboriginal women do appear in the text, voiceless in comparison with their male counterparts with whom Newsome hunted and prepared kangaroo for consumption. He acknowledged the long shared history of Arrente people and red kangaroos and described his own research into this relationship, informed by the contemporary work of anthropologist Ted Strehlow. In his 1980 Mankind article, reprinted in full in the final chapter, ‘Ecomythology’, Newsome made a case that the stories told by Aboriginal elders had an underlying ecological rationale, with dreaming tracks crossing habitats most favoured by red kangaroos and restrictions on hunting at dreaming sites reducing pressure on populations. That Indigenous people have a deep environmental knowledge that is embedded in traditional stories, is now widely understood but was then only just being recognized in the wider society. According to his son, this was Newsome’s least cited article but the one of which he was most proud.
Thomas Newsome was well placed to serve as his father’s editor: he is also an ecologist who has worked in the Alice Springs area. He rounded out incomplete chapters and inserted tables, charts and photographs from other pieces of Alan’s work, also adding a foreword, maps and explanatory notes. In the absence of a conclusion, an afterword would have been welcome, to explore how Newsome’s research was received, its impact and longevity. This could have been supported by suggestions for further reading in ecological and anthropological texts that have advanced or challenged his findings.
The Red Kangaroo in Central Australia is an engaging and informative book that draws the reader into the world of a curious ecologist. Seeking answers to questions that had practical applications at the time, they hold even greater layers of significance now.”
Thanks Nancy for the review.