Book Review: Chasing Kangaroos by Tim Flannery

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Review: Chasing Kangaroos – A Continent, a Scientist, and a Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Creature by Tim Flannery
Publisher: Grove Press, 2004, 292 pages, Hardcover

There are few people in the world who do not look at the Kangaroo and marvel at this improbable creature. There are also few fans of Dr.Flannery who cannot help but admire his sparkling and conversationalist style of writing. Put the two together and we have a lovely romp through Australia as the author explores the origins, the present challenges and the future of this unique fauna.

The story as told by the author begins with a motorcycle road trip taken with his friend with the ambition of getting to know their country. Of course, everything goes awry and they don’t really make it back on their bikes. However, the author gets a very close up picture of the hinterlands. He explains in very graphic detail, the destruction of ecosystems for profit and its impact on the aboriginal populations.

The author is very taken with the Kangaroo (no one knows why they are so named but myths of all sorts persist) and the various species that make up this family of Diprotodonts. We, who do not live in Terra Australis, tend to only associate the kangaroos with the Red and Grey Kangaroos that we see in the media. In fact, there are over 70 species: ranging from the Musky-Rat Kangaroo to the Tree Kangaroos of Papua New Guinea.

The author knows them quite intimately. He started working at the Australian Museum in Sydney early in his career and got very fascinated by these wonderful creatures. He clearly holds Kangaroos in higher esteem than the so called Great Apes, because in his own words “Any number of creatures can walk on two legs, the adaptations to enable hopping are truly wondrous”.

And that they are indeed. There is not an ounce of extra weight or fat on their bodies. Their feet so different from other mammals, being distinctive with sharp angles and closely opposed linear facets that they can be identified with ease. Their genitals resemble penii and cloaca much closer to reptilians, than today’s placental mammals. A female Kangaroo can choose her time of pregnancy at her own will. When a joey is on its way out, another is pushed to development. The hopping gait has evolved to make the leg muscles act like springs so that energy is lost slowly with each hop as the springs tighten and then spring forward. Each hop is perfectly timed to collapse the lungs at the time of landing so there is almost no energy expended for breathing. And to think, they came about from tree-dwelling possum like creatures!

The writer also takes time in this book to acknowledge and honor both his teachers and colleagues by name. It is rare to see such praise sprinkled about in books by naturalists. In this book the focus is also deliberately on the humans studying kangaroos as well, perhaps underlining the impact human actions over time have had on these species.

The book also covers a couple of expeditions that the author participated in deep in the inhospitable deserts of Australia where there were lakes in ancient and less arid times. His discovery of a small 3 millimetre bone is described thus,

It is a strange thing to crawl for days on end along the edge of a salt lake in one of the most empty desert in the world, your eyes strained with the glare of the sun and the effort of concentration, your back a vast, slow-moving vessel crewed by a thousand flies. But it is even stranger to pluck a speck of ancient bone from a decomposed crocodile turd, apply it to your tongue, peer at it, then rise to your feet screaming in exhilaration. Yet that is what happened the day I found the bone of the grandfather of all kangaroos”.

After this, how could one not be hooked by this irreverent, delightful read! The writing style is somewhat reminiscent of Bill Bryson and his book on Australia, “In a Sunburnt Country”. That is a travelogue but it invokes a lot of conservation issues that face Australia and its declining species of Marsupials of all types.

This book while focusing on the different types of Kangaroos, also explores relationships between Australians and their changing environment. The positive ending where the author talks of the successful re-introduction of Banded Hare Wallabies to the island of Faure gives us some hope that we can continue to enjoy seeing the hopping beasts for some time yet.

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