Ni­co­las Roth­well and the elu­sive tree kan­ga­roo

Dis­cov­ered in the 19th cen­tury, the tree kan­ga­roo, the most en­dear­ing and coun­ter­in­tu­itive mem­ber of the mar­su­pial tribe, con­tin­ues to fas­ci­nate re­searchers, writes Ni­co­las Roth­well

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

It was the mid-wet sea­son of 1883, night was ap­proach­ing and a thun­der­storm was loom­ing when word reached the Nor­we­gian ethno­g­ra­pher Carl So­fus Lumholtz at his camp deep in the dank north Queens­land rain­for­est. At last his Abo­rig­i­nal guides had found it for him — the Boon­gary, the mys­te­ri­ous mar­su­pial of the trop­ics! There were shouts, and cries: a group of men emerged from the woods and down the slope at a run. One of them was car­ry­ing a large dark furry shape slung on his back. Bound­ing ahead of the party was the cham­pion dingo, Bal­nglan, with the hunter Nil­gora just be­hind: “The dark an­i­mal was thrown on the ground at my feet,” re­ports Lumholtz. “At last, then, I had a boon­gary, which I had been seek­ing so long. It is not nec­es­sary to de­scribe my joy at hav­ing this an­i­mal, hith­erto a stranger to science, at my feet.”

He could tell im­me­di­ately it was a tree kan­ga­roo, richly coloured, its fur yel­lowybrown, with a black, bear-like face and muz­zle, black­ish feet and a long, dis­tinc­tive dark tail. “Upon the whole, the boon­gary is the most beau­ti­ful mam­mal I have seen in Aus­tralia. Dur­ing the day it sleeps in the trees, and feeds on the leaves. It is able to jump down from a great height and can run fast on the ground.”

Tree kan­ga­roos had been seen and col­lected by sci­en­tific ex­plor­ers in New Guinea for decades. Naturalists were sure they must be present in Aus­tralia too, and had been seek­ing them all through the Queens­land trop­ics: Lumholtz’s spec­i­men was the first. Over­joyed, he set to. He skinned the an­i­mal and treated its pelt with arseni­cal preser­va­tive, be­fore break­ing off to watch a cer­e­mony un­der way be­side the fires in the neigh­bour­ing camps. “It was dark as pitch, so that the fig­ures of the na­tives were drawn like sil­hou­ettes in fan­tas­tic groups against the dark back­ground.” Picturesque. But Lumholtz was a cau­tious man. He went to check on his trea­sure, which he had hid­den away with anx­ious care: “I stepped quickly into my hut, and thrust my hand in among the leaves to see whether the skin was safe: but imag­ine my dis­may when I found that it was gone.” Oh no! Dis­as­ter. The alarm was raised: a shred­ded, knot­ted mass of bone and fur was quickly found, just out­side the camp, “my poor boon­gary skin that one of the din­goes had stolen and abused in this man­ner”.

The dogs were rounded up, and each one’s owner struck his an­i­mal’s belly to show how empty it was, un­til the cul­prit was iden­ti­fied and in­duced to vomit up its leav­ings, “chewed so fine they were use­less”, at which point Lumholtz found him­self en­gaged in a race to save the dog from ar­senic poi­son­ing — and him­self from lifethreat­en­ing re­venge — by force-feed­ing it a tobacco emetic.

This baroque episode marks the first en­try into main­stream Aus­tralian con­scious­ness of that most en­dear­ing and coun­ter­in­tu­itive mem­ber of the mar­su­pial tribe, Den­dro­la­gus lumholtzi, and the be­gin­ning also of the long ca­reer of tree kan­ga­roos in the lit­er­a­ture and iconog­ra­phy of the north. Rare, re­stricted in range, charis­matic, al­most silent ex­cept for the soft coughs ex­changed be­tween mother and young, but easy enough to en­gage with and do­mes­ti­cate, the an­i­mals have a par­tic­u­lar ap­peal. They com­pel af­fec­tion: sto­ries clus­ter round them.

They are also an evo­lu­tion­ary puz­zle of the first or­der, a bi­o­log­i­cal cu­rio: a dou­bly adapted kan­ga­roo, one that climbs with ease as well as leap­ing across the ground. So en­tic­ing, in fact, are the av­enues of sci­en­tific in­quiry the crea­ture holds out that the con­di­tion of acute “den­drol-- agophilia” which the doyen of the field, Roger Martin, di­ag­noses in him­self is quite com­mon among both naturalists and writ­ers in tune with the na­ture of the trop­ics. In­deed there is a very strik­ing cross­over be­tween th­ese two groups.

Lumholtz, who went on to write the ethno­graphic clas­sic Un­known Mex­ico, was only the first ar­tis­ti­cally in­clined tree kan­ga­roo en­thu­si­ast. His suc­ces­sors in­clude a supremely gifted, self-taught bush drafts­man, a fam­ily of bril­liant Huguenot na­ture writ­ers, a tor­mented Prus­sian mem­ory re­searcher, an ec­cen­tric, tor­toise-rid­ing bil­lion­aire col­lec­tor and a grave-rob­bing Scan­di­na­vian so­cial Dar­win­ist. To­day’s best­known tree kan­ga­roo ex­perts also have a way with words: their ranks in­clude John Kanowski, the science man­ager for the Aus­tralian Wildlife Con­ser­vancy, who be­gan his aca­demic stud­ies in English lit­er­a­ture, and the prodi­gious Tim Flan­nery, at once cli­mate change cam­paigner, spec­u­la­tive sci­en­tist and peer­less na­ture es­say­ist — a fig­ure, in short, al­most as well adapted to mul­ti­plicit niches as the mar­su­pi­als he tracked down in New Guinea and de­scribed in the first books of his writ­ing ca­reer.

Lumholtz’s pi­o­neer­ing tale of Queens­land rain­for­est ad­ven­tures sold well, un­sur­pris­ingly, given the lurid ti­tle he hit on: Among Can­ni­bals. It was widely trans­lated: it put Aus­tralian tree kan­ga­roos on the map. Soon the com­par­a­tive anatomist Richard Se­mon from Jena Univer­sity was in the field, comb­ing the uplands be­hind Cook­town, climb­ing “through densely en­twined forests, over slip­pery rocks, through icy moun­tain streams”, un­til he reached a min­ing camp high up Mount Fin­ni­gan. The men there had seen tree kan­ga­roos only twice in two years.

Se­mon searched high and low, and found dung but no an­i­mals. He re­turned to Ger­many, and pub­lished his great tract of psy­cho­log­i­cal the­ory, Die Mneme, which ex­erted deep in­flu­ence on the art his­to­rian Aby War­burg’s scholas­tic work. Se­mon’s end was pre­ma­ture and bleak: he com­mit­ted sui­cide wrapped in the na-

Illustration of a Ben­nett’s tree kan­ga­roo from Wal­ter Roth­schild’s

The Genus Den­dro­la­gus; be­low, mother and joey in


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