Rougette – by Matt Stanfield

Featured image: taxidermic rougette, with faint reddish-orange “collar” still visible despite fading. Image: Wikimedia CC, citron

A triple thread of discrimination, exploitation and subjugation runs through many historical extinctions. These injustices have long constrained the agency of entire strata of human societies. Above the disadvantaged many, a revolving cast of small elites have sat and called the shots. How many wage-slaves in the so-called rich world possess one iota of the power of the super-rich? And what of the agency of those trapped in the sweatshops and subsistence farms of the world?

Of course, injustice is not just an economic issue. Racism, misogyny, religiously-inspired bigotry and much more besides all fuel the malign inequities of the modern age. Moreover, cruelty and callousness amongst humans has a long, sad history of bleeding far beyond the boundaries of our own species.

This is one such tale. It is a story of slavery, in this case carried out for the benefit of French and British plantation owners, at the expense of the life and liberty of many living around the Indian Ocean. This tale of despoliation on Mauritius and Réunion also accounts for the extinction of a small and singular bat species: the rougette.

 The Dutch abandoned Mauritius in 1710 and five years later France laid claim to it. French settlers had already established themselves on nearby Île Bourbon (later Réunion) decades prior. One hundred-and-twelve years of Dutch activity on Mauritius had profoundly harmed its ecosystem. Six bird species and one lizard are thought to have vanished, with likely much more besides. Yet Mauritius retained a great many wondrous species.

Amongst these was the small Mauritian flying fox (Pteropus subniger), also found on Réunion. Alluding to the band of reddish fur around their necks, the French often called them rougettes. The Pteropus genus contains some of Earth’s largest bats, such as Pteropus vampyrus, whose wings might span five feet. As suggested by their English common name, rougettes were far smaller, about two feet from wingtip to wingtip. When the French began settling Mauritius in earnest during the 1720s, the creatures were common.

This would not last. Mauritius’ new masters had a plan for it. Thousands of enslaved African, Malagasy and Asian people were shipped there to work in the lucrative sugar industry. For over a century Île de France, as the island was renamed, would be a brutal slave colony. Though the percentage of Île de France covered in sugar plantations grew quite slowly, about one-sixth of the already disturbed forests were felled under French rule. The enslaved were tasked with carrying out the backbreaking clearances.

Rougettes were especially vulnerable to deforestation due to their unusual roosting habits. Early observers wrote that up to four hundred might roost inside a single old hollow tree. Most of the rougette’s congeners roost on tree branches, not crammed together in crevices. As old-growth forest was destroyed, suitable roosts for this bat grew scarcer. P. subniger suffered a further consequence of human cruelty: enslaved people were fed appallingly, with those working the sugar fields given far fewer calories than required, and negligible quantities of protein. Survival depended on supplementing what were basically starvation rations.

Eating the native fauna was the best hope for long-term survival available to enslaved people on Île de France and Île Bourbon alike. The eighteenth-century French observer De la Nux claimed rougette hunting on Île Bourbon originated with enslaved Madagascans, though this is unverifiable. Anyhow, by the eighteenth century rougettes were, in De la Nux’s unsympathetic opinion, part of the diets of ‘numerous poorly off and unfastidious people’. P. subniger were fatty creatures, an adaptation to the cooler temperatures of their favoured high-altitude forests. This made them an invaluable source of calories for many denizens of the French Mascarenes.

Eighteenth-century engraving of enslaved people on cleared land near Port Louis, in north-western Mauritius. Image public domain.

In 1815, after the French Revolution broke the power of the Bourbon kings and Napoleon lost his wars, Britain became the colonial master of Île de France, restoring the name of Mauritius to the island. Île Bourbon stayed under French rule.

Deforestation cost Mauritius around a quarter of its remaining virgin forest over just twenty years of British rule. Simultaneously sugar cane cultivation expanded vastly, though cane fields did not replace much of the forest. Instead the felled wood fuelled the sugar-mills. Despite all this, at least one record suggests Mauritian rougettes may have remained reasonably common into the early 1830s.

Everything changed for Mauritius on 1 April 1835, with the formal abolition of slavery. Three in every four of Mauritius’ inhabitants were told that they were now free. Tragically “emancipation” was a poisoned chalice. Whilst Britain’s government compensated former slave owners for their “inconvenience”, nearly eighty thousand former slaves on Mauritius faced two unpromising options. Either they could serve an “apprenticeship” to their former masters, or try to eke out a life away from the settled parts of the island. Unsurprisingly the majority chose to abandon the savagery of the plantations, heading for isolated parts of the island to practice slash-and-burn peasant agriculture. Though this internal diaspora of the desperate likely harmed rougette populations, especially in those parts of the highlands which were settled, none of those involved had chosen to be on the island in the first place.

Much the greater act of ecological harm in the wake of 1835 was the work of the “plantocracy”. It proved profitable for plantation owners to import indentured Indian labourers to replace their slaves. The sugar industry boomed. The cost was the suffering of tens of thousands of Indians and the halving of Mauritius’ forested area in just a decade.

On Île Bourbon things were no better. Slavery remained legal there until 1848, when political upheaval in France led to formal abolition and a new name for the island: Réunion. In an inversion of the situation on Mauritius, it was impoverished white settlers who occupied the highlands of Réunion which harboured the island’s remaining rougettes.

The rougette as it once was. Hand-coloured French engraving from the late nineteenth-century. Image public domain.

In the end, nearly two centuries of plantation agriculture-driven hunting and habitat destruction would drive P. subniger extinct. The final record on Réunion came in 1862, with the animal last reported on Mauritius two years later. Live rougettes were not heard of again.

The sting in the tail of the bats’ demise is that, being primarily nectarivorous, plants which they pollinated might have passed into oblivion with them. We’ll never know.

 

Bibliography
Cheke, Anthony & Hume, Julian P., Lost Land of the Dodo (London, 2009)

Flannery, Tim & Schouten, Peter, A Gap in Nature (London, 2001)

Macmillan, Allister, Mauritius Illustrated (London, 1914)

Various authors, IUCN Red List, online (2017)

Various authors, Volume 1: Truth and Reconciliation Committee Report (Mauritius, 2012)

 

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST – by Megan Hollingsworth

The last of the mighty big and free were prisoners guarded with guns,

the named among popular relics saved for trophies

like swaths of impressive land and sea

or captive specimens locked in laboratory cages

within rooms without windows.

 

And they were all whats

And they were all its

Some to be tagged, released, and watched

 

Why? Because the body’s pleasure had been denied

Sanctity? Because, after being treated as an object

forgetting all souls housed,

someone claimed the body an object

nothing more than material to be used, maybe,

and more, a curiosity to be observed

in a photograph pinned to the wall

now pornographed on screen

 

Child sex trophies along with wives

for the successful

not so different at root

than skulls placed in plastic bags

on shelves

labels noting where they were found,

an estimate of when they were killed

 

All too common to count,

the fortunately unfortunate heartsease got away

 

 

Author’s Note: BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is a 2017 revision of a poem written in 2014 during a month’s witness with rhinoceros and thoughts on the militarization of species conservation. As well, why some humans protect who they do. And they were ‘whats’ is in reference to Maya Lin’s last memorial, What Is Missing? And they were ‘its’ is in reference to the description of Ilin Bushy-tailed Cloud Rat at IUCN Red List. Heartsease, Viola tricolor, also known as Johnny Jump up heart’s ease, heart’s delight, tickle-my-fancy, Jack-jump-up-and-kiss-me, come-and-cuddle-me, three faces in a hood, and love-in-idleness, is a common European wildflower, growing as an annual or short-lived perennial introduced to and spread in North America.

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST is offered for Indigenous People’s Day as the ‘why and how’ of who gets protected and what communities ‘reserved’ is fresh in my mind following a visit to Yellowstone National Park with my son September 30th, 2017 – National Public Lands day and one of the annual free-entrance days for National Parks. With intent to show my son the Lower Falls and perhaps share the experience I had seeing the view for the first time in 1994, the day visit was bittersweet.

When I first visited Yellowstone with my mother while on summer vacation from college, I was uninformed of how U.S. National Parks, spurred by the cutting of giant sequoia during the California Gold Rush, came into existence through continued forced removal of native peoples. I had also not yet experienced living in forest homestead or extended periods wandering Wilderness. The time in the Park on September 30th was very much what visiting the Park has felt like since being informed of genocide and these personal experiences of immersion in community. To me, the Park feels like a zoo or museum with charismatic community members like relics on display. Captives, like famous actors and musicians, mobbed when they appear.

Along with the urgent need for preservation of all remaining intact ecological communities, the ‘us and them’ practice of species conservation and community preservation needs to end. And the ‘half-Earth’ meme clearly emphasise the reintegration of human lifeways to established reserves where peoples have been removed in the course of establishment. Just as the whole of ecological community needs to be integrated in urban centers in the vein of ‘win-win ecology’.

I imagine the time when all humans again experience themselves indigenous – as participants in biologically diverse community rather than as guests and observers of ‘wildlife’ and ‘nature’. Because we humans are participants in biologically diverse community. Biodiversity is social diversity. And there is no escaping that reality. This is painfully obvious as everyone suffers and whole communities fail when humans neglect responsibility to care for those vulnerable in our midst.

On our way into the Park, my son and I happened to stop for a lunch break along Gardiner River just before bighorn sheep arrived for a drink and the crowd arrived to photograph them. As we were headed home, we chanced to see two black at separate points, though near one another, both surrounded and traffic stalled. I did not stop and did my best to explain why to my son, who is seven years old.

Looking out into the canyon from Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

Lower Falls, Yellowstone National Park

My son was less impressed by the grandness of the Lower Falls than with the spaces he could fit inside, and tiny rocks and sticks and clay he found on trail.

Franklin’s Bumblebee: Already Too Late? – by Matt Stanfield

Humans are inquisitive and acquisitive, predisposed to hanker after novelty. Throughout history, the rare and obscure have enticed us. Those insect species associated with multitudinous swarms struggle to appeal to this psychological trait of ours. If they do get our attention, it is generally for other reasons.

Bees, for instance, have recently been making news for their precipitous declines. The anxious coverage of this phenomenon is very much linked to immediate human concerns. It is estimated that one-third of our kind’s food is pollination-dependent. Thus the conservation of bees is widely seen as of direct interest to our own species, in a way that the conservation of many other organisms is not. Even if the motive is a self-interested one, humans would do well to work on arresting and reversing bee declines, given we are far from the only species in need of their continued presence on the planet.

Though bees are often considered only en masse, as a homogenous force, this piece will look at just one bee species: Franklin’s bumblebee (Bombus franklini). This insect has not been seen alive since 2006 and may already be extinct. Absent any further confirmed sightings, it will likely be some time before Franklin’s bumblebee is declared gone forever. This is quite standard, as far larger and more conspicuous species have occasionally been known to vanish from record for decades or more. Still, for this small creature the signs are not promising.

B. franklini has had a highly restricted range ever since it was first described in 1922, possibly the smallest of any bumblebee on Earth. So far as we know, they only ever lived within a limited tract from southern Oregon to northern California. Specifically, these bees were found in the Klamath Mountains, an extremely picturesque area incorporating a substantial amount of officially protected land.

Example of potential B. franklini habitat. Siskiyou Wilderness near Preston Peak, California. Image public domain

Between 1998 and 2006, the bees’ home range was examined thoroughly by Dr Robbin W. Thorp. Thorp’s initial findings showed that Franklin’s bumblebee was slightly more widespread than previously assumed. Each year, his surveys included at least five potential new sites where the bees might exist. Up to the year 2000, Franklin’s bumblebee was indeed found at seven of these new sites.

From 2001 onwards, no new locations yielded any B. franklini sightings. Worse, the insects started disappearing from areas which they had previously occupied. The 2004 and 2005 surveys failed to turn up a single Franklin’s bumblebee anywhere within their known range. In 2006, the situation differed, inasmuch as precisely one member of the species was seen during an entire year’s searching. Without Dr Thorp’s work, the fading of this insect might never have been noticed at all.

It is fitting that B. franklini vanished before our eyes so near the western edge of North America, where the ever-shifting frontier of colonial mythology finally came up against the Pacific and an insurmountable obstacle to further expansion. In the end, nothing is inexhaustible, whether it be the “Wild West” or the Earth’s legions of invertebrates.

A female Franklin’s bumblebee. Image public domain

So, whatever happened to Franklin’s bumblebee over the first few years of the new millennium?

The IUCN identifies two main agents of the species’ possible demise. First, it notes that our species’ commercial interest in bumblebees may imperil them. Commercial usage of bumblebee colonies to pollinate crops both indoors and out has brought wild populations into contact with new pathogens. In recent decades, bumblebees have become commercialised, with colonies transported across nations. Tracheal mites, intestinal protozoa and others have travelled far and wide with these bees.

Even where pathogens do not kill bumblebees directly, the sophisticated nature of bee behaviour renders it easily disrupted. The capacity of bumblebees to learn to handle or feed on newly-encountered flower types may be reduced by infection. In turn, this shrinks the amount of food which forager bees bring into the colony, diminishing its size and ability to produce offspring. Thus, the colony may collapse entirely.

The second culprit which the IUCN puts forward in the case of the vanished B. franklini is agricultural intensification, most importantly regarding pesticide usage. Pesticides can prove immediately deadly to bumblebees, or eat away at the health of their colonies as foragers unwittingly bring poisonous chemicals into their homes.

Recently, a class of pesticides known as neonicotinoids has been identified as especially dangerous to bees, a discovery picked up on by some sections of the media. Whether such attention might dissuade humanity from gambling with the future of a crucial pollinator genus is yet to be seen.