War on feral cats: Singaporean artist tackles Christmas Island’s ecological dilemma
Christmas Island is known for its red land crab migration, but a new show by artist Robert Zhao Renhui pulls back its idyllic curtains to reveal the island's complex animal-human relationships, from killing feral cats to the deaths of animal species.
SINGAPORE: For many tourists, Christmas Island is famous for a spectacle that celebrates the abundance of life – the annual mass migration of red land crabs as they head out to sea in their millions during the monsoon season.
But a new exhibition by Singaporean artist Robert Zhao Renhui puts the spotlight on darker ecological issues that plague this remote island in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
“The crabs are a good starting point (to know more about Christmas Island), but there’s a lot of drama that has been happening since humans came to the island,” he said. “In a very short span of time, two animals have recently become extinct right under everyone’s noses. They’ve also been culling cats on a mass scale.”
The complicated human-animal relationship on the Australian territory is the subject of Zhao’s ongoing solo show Christmas Island, Naturally, which is on display at ShanghART Singapore at Gillman Barracks until May 8.
First exhibited at last year’s Sydney Biennale, the exhibition was the result of three exploratory trips to the island, which was previously part of the Crown Colony of Singapore.
Zhao initially planned to explore the island’s Singapore-Australia connections, but was drawn instead to its native animals and the effects the presence of humans (and the animals they’ve brought in) have had on these.
GOODBYE, FOREST’S GUMP
Among the works on display are photographs that touch on the extinctions of two endemic species: The Christmas Island pipistrelle, a tiny bat, and the Christmas Island forest skink, a type of lizard.
The last recorded echolocation call of the former was in 2009, while the last remaining skink – nicknamed Gump – died in 2014.
For Zhao, visiting the places where the last of both species had died made the concept of extinction that much more palpable. “I was in the spot in the forest where the last recorded call of the bat was found, and it was kind of sad to know that something can die in front of our eyes and we could have stopped it somehow, but didn’t. It was very real.”
The demise of the two species has been partly attributed to the presence of so-called yellow crazy ants and feral cats, both of which were brought onto the island by human inhabitants.
But complicating matters is the fact that these predators, too, are now at the receiving end of drastic measures, Zhao pointed out.
Wasps imported from Malaysia have been brought in to tackle the ant problem, which has also devastated the red land crab population.
Meanwhile, the island’s war against feral cats continues, with poisoned kangaroo meat sausages being used as bait. Recently, plans to use drones to drop the toxic meat in remote places were also revealed.
“It’s very hard to see them anymore,” said Zhao, who reckons that between the strict registration of domestic cats and active culling of feral ones, the entire island would be cat-free by the 2020s.
Among the works in the show are a series of photographs of a rare feral cat sighting, as well as an installation featuring a cat skeleton and a poison lure. Both are Zhao’s homage of sorts to the island's imagined “last cat”.
“Humans killing the cats on the island is a kind of extinction itself, but in a way it’s a celebrated extinction,” he said, pointing out the situation’s complex ethical issues.
“Is the killing of thousands of cats on the island justified to save a bat that we’ll never see again? Who do you feel sad for – the cats or the animals that the cats will kill? I don’t know the answer, but we did screw things up. Human brought cats to the island – what do we do now?”
A MORE DEVELOPED PULAU UBIN
Despite all these, Christmas Island - which has been described as the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean - has also proven to be fascinating in less macabre ways for Zhao.
“The crabs moving in and out to the sea is quite a spectacle. The whole island will be covered with them – although it can be a bit of an inconvenience because all the roads are closed,” he quipped.
Among the more fascinating animal encounters Zhao had was with the less popular swell moths, which would often cover entire trees. He was also able to see a local goshawk, a type of hawk, prey on a thrush before his very eyes.
“The island is like Jurassic Park,” he joked. “It’s very strange. The birds are not afraid of you. You can go near them and they won’t fly away because it’s as if they still don’t know how to react to humans.”
And if you’re Singaporean or Malaysian, Christmas Island itself feels a bit like deja vu moment, added Zhao.
With Chinese and Malays forming majority of the population, and Malay and Mandarin also considered mother languages, it's almost like Singapore in the 1980s and 1990s.
“There used to be direct flights from Singapore. Tourist posters are in three languages, you’ve got HDB-looking flats, people eat nasi lemak for breakfast, there are Chinese and Malay quarters … It’s like a more developed Pulau Ubin,” he said.
Could Christmas Island's similarities with Singapore extend to ecological issues? After all, wild boars, otters, and wild chickens – and Singaporeans’ often uneasy reactions to their presence - have figured prominently in the news.
“The priorities are different. On Christmas Island, they’re trying to return to a kind of pre-humans state, to make it as wild as possible. So the killing of the cats, from that perspective, is very justified. In Singapore, wildlife is intruding on us and we’re trying to keep them back. And unlike in Christmas Island, we don’t have a baseline of what state it should be in because it’s always changing,” said Zhao.
“But at the same time, I’ve learned that humans really have a large part to play (in the environment). Our impact is very big and can have serious consequences on animals. We have a hand in everything.”
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