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
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