FACES IN THE MOB

 

 

The following article is reprinted with kind permission of Brian Courtis, Editor, The Australian Way and Qantas Airways Magazines and was first published in The Australian Way, the Qantas inflight magazine, in November 1992.

 

FACES IN THE MOB

 

What do we really know about our kangaroos? Brian Courtis looks at an extraordinary study in the wild by a team of scientists and dedicated filmmakers. Their work shows Australia’s best known symbol ‘in a startling new light.

 

One of my great moments of disillusionment was to discover that the click-clucking calls of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo were the product of on Olivetti typewriter and a shrewd television recordist.

 

Imagine, then, the pleasure when film-makers Jan Aldenhoven and Glen Carruthers reveal that the real sounds of Eastern Grey kangaroos include a cheerfully familiar tsk-tsking as well as some memorably throaty coughs of respect.

 

But Aldenhoven and Carruthers, both biologists as well as wildlife film producers, are about to create far greater sensations with their new documentary Kangaroos: Faces In The Mob, a film that takes us into the world of our ‘supposedly primitive’ marsupials.

 

Their year-in-the-life study of a mob of about 60 wild kangaroos living in the rough back paddocks of a remote, misty valley on the east coast focuses on the animals as individuals with unique qualities and achievements.

 

It is an immensely rewarding project on which they have spent the past two and a half years, a project that is sure to create controversy among natural history film-makers, scientists, conservationists and farmers.

 

The film, it seems to me, is an extraordinary tribute to what is the Australian equivalent of Jane Goodall’s study of chimpanzees, or the famous Gorillas In The Mist research of Dian Fossey in Central Africa.

 

To make it, Aldenhoven and Carruthers joined Dr. Peter Jarman’s Kangaroo Study Group from the University of New England, a little publicised unit that has been quietly researching this one mob of kangaroos for the past 15 years.

 

Guided by the scientists, and camping out in a rough, wind battered hut day-in, day-out, they found themselves startled to be recognising kangaroos as individuals and understanding the true richness of the animal’s society and family life.

 
“We had been filming for David Attenborough’s Trials Of Life and had met up with these scientists by chance,” explained Aldenhoven, who, as well as co-producing and directing, was the film’s writer, sound recordist and narrator.

 

“Later, on a friendship basis, we joined them, had a look at the kangaroos and I started seeing all sorts of things which I didn’t really understand.”

 

“My perception of kangaroos, I think, had been similar to those of many people.... you see them lolling about like a lot of sheep, sleeping, and I knew they boxed.   But there was a lot more to it than that.”

 

“I began asking questions, making up my own answers, which, it turned out, were invariably wrong. And, as all this unfolded, I just thought, my goodness, this is all happening here at home.”

 

“You see, I had always thought the best thing we could do eventually as wildlife filmmakers was, perhaps, to go overseas and film a troupe of monkeys because of the complexity of the society, their relationships and how engaging they are....”

 

“But it suddenly struck me, that maybe it was all here.”

 

Suddenly also, in talking with researchers like Dr. Robyn Stuart-Dick, they realised that their impressions of individual ‘roos, making their own decisions and having their own quirky ways, were not so off-beam.

 

“What came across most strongly with Robyn was how much she loved those kangaroos.” Aldenhoven says.

 

“She talked about this one’s grandmother, this one’s cousin, and had a depth of understanding of these animals.   It was almost as though they were an extended family to her.”

 

In many scientific studies, ‘naming’ the subjects under research is frowned upon. But individuals in this mob had been given ‘non human’ names and, after some soul searching, the filmmakers agreed recognition of the characters best suited their needs.

 

Make no mistake, their film is no Skippy. The camera follows the adventures, triumphs and disasters of a specific group within the mob, but reveals behaviour patterns never seen on camera before.

 

The film shows the birth of a kangaroo and its miraculous, unassisted blind crawl through the mother’s fur to the safety of the pouch.

 

It reveals how a mother kangaroo chooses the sex of her offspring.

 

We see kangaroo mothers teaching their joeys the art of survival, allowing themselves to be kicked and boxed around by their ‘teenage’ sons as part of their growing up.

 

Aldenhoven and Carruthers show us the differing ways in which kangaroos signal and communicate how they play, and how they deal with the potential terrors of wind, fire, rains and dingo attacks.

 

We see the cunning and mischief with which male and females find the most appropriate partner with whom to mate, and where it should all take place.

 

And their film provides an enthralling picture of the strategies that the big male kangaroos employ to gain control of the mob and all the females within it.

 

The faces in this mob include Cedar, the ageing patriarch who must be prepared for a fight-to-the death from young challengers like the younger but somewhat dim-witted Ursid.

 

There is the rather careless, casual Columbine and her battling, inquisitive son Jaffa; in contrast there is also the aristocratic, careful Eucalypt and her well-protected daughter Sunshade.

 

The drama in which they all become immersed is more engrossing than any Neighbours and a lot more real.

 

“When you film animals, you can start to get hooked into the individual differences between them, but it’s something science hasn’t talked much about.” says Carruthers, who relentlessly followed the mob with 40kg of camera equipment.

 
“But anybody who has a pet knows, their dachshund is very different from Mrs. Bloggs’s dachshund up the road temperament and so on.
“We wanted to do two things: one was the normal in depth behaviour of kangaroos, the other was in showing the individual differences.   The latter is where it became hard.”

 

“Because films like this had not been done before, it was difficult to work out how to actually do it, and how to involve characters without it becoming too confusing for those watching.”   But the more we got involved with the individuals, the more we knew we wanted to do it.”

 

The shoot was far from predictable. One ‘roo, for example, that became a favourite was the young and spirited El Nino, who fancied himself in checking out the ladies.

 

There is a strict protocol for such behaviour. First, says Carruthers, the suitor should ascertain there are no larger males within sight, for it is extremely rude to forget your status in the mob.   And dangerous too.

 

That having been done, the male is expected to sidle up to the female, clucking gently as though introducing himself, while sniffing to check if she is on heat.

 
On the ridge this particular day were five kangaroos, all bent over feeding.    Without further ado, El Nino nosed straight under the first.   She was a little gruff, so he moved on unabashed.   And on.   And on.   Nose under, sniff... no good.

 
Then, as Carruthers levelled the camera, El Nino went for the last animal.   It seemed a possibility.

 

“Fantastic” the photographer recalls. “I started the camera, but what came into frame was not the female cloaca we had both expected but a large and pendulous pair of testicles.    I last saw El Nino disappearing over a far hilltop with an enraged male in hot pursuit.”

 

Dr. Jan Aldenhoven and Glen Carruthers met while studying biology at university and turned to wildlife film-making ten years ago. They founded Green Cape Wildlife Films.

 

Their first complete documentary was the remarkable, award winning Kingdom Of The Crabs, a film about the annual mass migration of red land crabs on Christmas Island in the Indian Ocean.

 

Kangaroos: Faces In The Mob, which will be screened by ABC TV in Australia later this month (November 1992 Ed.) and by National
Geographic elsewhere around the world, is their second major film.
Although it holds together like a well constructed drama, they insist they went to extraordinary lengths to ensure it was ‘a true story’ and that many shelves of inappropriate and discarded, but often more dramatic footage, bear witness to that.

 

One of the most dramatic moments is a brutal boxing contest for supremacy between Cedar and Ursid, a once only fight that the scientists had told Aldenhoven and Carruthers to expect.

 

“Cedar’s fight is one shot, not edited; it suffers from that.” says Carruthers. “That’s it, from the first blow to the last. Normally, you might include close-ups taken from other fights.    But not here.”

 
“As the cameraman, it’s quite embarrassing to watch.   But we felt it had to be true.”

 

Living with Cedar, with Columbine, Jaffa and the others, Aldenhoven and Carruthers quite naturally developed an attachment.

 

“We would wonder, what if we get the classic shot of a dingo coming into the group - are we going to just sit there, watch and film, or are we going to try to save our loved ones?” Aldenhoven says.

 

“This question of interfering with nature is a dilemma for every photographer and scientist.”

 

“But you’re almost placing yourself as some sort of god that knows better to step in and do something. And the one thing we learned about the kangaroos was how little we did know about their way of living.”

 

The bottom line, however, was that they were involved in a scientific study and the rule adopted was very much hands-off.

 

The only time they broke the rule was to free joeys who had been hooked up in barbed wire - a human intrusion on the landscape.   Had they not done so the young ‘roos would have died.

 

Getting close to the mob brought both laughter and tears for the pair.   Every morning in the year, they would go out, looking to see what might have happened during the night.

 

“I guess the one thing that starts to get to you is that you are able to predict how they will behave, how they will react in a crisis.” Carruthers says.

 

“When you become part of their scene, when they start to trust you, you do go out looking for them all.”

 

Their film, which will precede some undoubtedly controversial academic reports from the scientists, helps to show kangaroos in a unique, fascinating way.

 
“When we first went for it, we thought the film might take two or three months to film.” Aldenhoven says.

 

“Dealing with these animals on their own terrain took a lot longer and gave us a lot more than we expected.   It would have to be the most enjoyable experience of filming in Australia ever.”

 

(Thanks to Qantas inflight magazine The Australian Way)

 

[Anyone who has not seen this film (it is available from many sources on DVD/video including your nearest ABC shop), I would strongly recommend you beg, borrow or buy a copy.    It is the most fascinating piece of cinematography I have ever seen.    Anyone who has a love of kangaroos cannot help but be moved by it!

Ed]

 
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