Losing it. And why I care about the blind velvet worm.

BACKGROUND IMAGE FROM ORIGINAL PHOTO BY JOHN MOKRZYCKI

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So I started an endangered species project on Instagram. It’s a daily commitment. I call it Day of the Species and I post the name of a threatened Australian species every day. Bright bold capitals on a background of contrasting colour. No images, just a name. More than likely this name will be unfamiliar to you.

The blind velvet worm was the first name I posted on Threatened Species Day, 7 September 2019. It’s a white, velvety, eyeless invertebrate with 15 pairs of non-jointed legs. A very small area of dry eucalypt forest in Tasmania is its only habitat. Anywhere.

The blind velvet worm is listed as endangered on the state, national and IUCN lists for threatened species. Major threats to its existence are the clearance of native forest for agriculture and conversion of native forest to plantation.

My intention with this project is to shine a light on some of the least known of our threatened species. No koalas or adorable spot tail quolls here. The ordinary, the uncharismatic, the tiny, the elusive. Names only.

Instagram is a platform that worships the image. I’m not giving you any. Endangered species can be some of the most beautiful, cute, unusual plant and animal forms on Earth. I’m not showing you any.

A few days in to this project a friend in the UK texted me to say that she loved the project but really wished she could see some of these exotic, unusual-sounding species. Mission accomplished, I replied. The aim is to create curiosity and frustration. To feed that desire to see the unfamiliar, but hold back from showing it in the hope that individuals will head off on their own research adventures, clicking their way to photographs of a species that one day may only exist as photographs.

I don’t want to parade our vulnerable, disappearing species in photographic form. I don’t want to give a quick visual hit. I want to create a sense of something missing. An absence.

Biodiversity. We are losing it big time. 10 – 100 times faster than the background rate of extinction, says the UN’s IPBES, the first intergovernmental report on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

When I first started this Insta project I’d never heard of the blind velvet worm. Or King’s lomatia, the dibbler, the pyramid mulla-mulla, nevin’s slider or hundreds more from the 1,700 plus life forms on the threatened species list of the EPBC Act, our national environmental protection laws.

I care about the blind velvet worm, a creature I’m pretty certain I’ll never come across. I care, not because it would be a great name for a tequila based cocktail or a drunken blues band, but because the loss of one, weird, tiny, insignificant species is an indication of a much bigger problem. It’s not just the one species we’re losing. It’s all the other species connected to and dependent on the ecosystem of the blind velvet worm. This is not natural extinction taking place here. This is human activity threatening entire ecosystems.

Species count, whether or not there is anybody to do the counting.

Rolston III

The blind velvet worm lives in Tasmania. So does the graveside leek orchid, the last individual of this species, hanging out all lonesome-like in a rural Tassie cemetery.

Earlier this year artist Selena de Carvarlho tapped into our eco-anxiety and asked us to “contemplate the fate of an ‘ending’ orchid.’ She created an immersive installation at Dark Mofo where one at a time people would walk into a small, shrine-like space and sing a Chris Issacs love song to this disappearing orchid. Carvarlho recorded these private renditions and took them back to the cemetery and played them to the lone surviving orchid, which is now surrounded by bunting to protect it from its greatest threat – the lawn mower.

I’m enjoying the routine of the daily posting of endangered species names. It feels like I’m dropping secrets or clues about a great unloved family. This ever growing Instagram grid of loud colours and strange words is comforting and unsettling at the same time.

Recently I went to post the name of the the Derwent River seastar. It’s listed as critically endangered by Tasmanian and Australian governments. I’d already made the tile – yellow caps on a green background. Went to grab some info about its major threats and found an Australian Geographic article from September last year declaring the seastar officially extinct.

IMAGE: BLAIR PATULO

Oh. I’m too late. Only discovered 25 years ago, now only photos to gaze upon. Documenting extinction is not an easy or precise science, especially if you are small and enigmatic and live in a body of water. It makes me wonder what and how many have already fallen of our threatened species list, into oblivion, without anyone noticing.

Does it matter to live in a world without the Derwent River seastar? Or woylies, koontoos, muchea bells, reedia, plains wanderers or blind velvet worms? I think it does. Biodiversity loss is driven by humans, not just Nature, which is simply doing its thing in the background. Only, Nature is less natural than ever before. What we have on our hands is an unnatural but fixable problem.

Destroying species is like tearing pages out of an unread book, written in languages humans hardly know how to read, about the place where we live.

Rolston III

Can we just stop with the rampant destruction? Please, can we?

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