Everybody knows about the Odra of Howl Island. Their weekly feeding, organised by the residents of Elton at the behest of the Commissioner for Environments, is often filmed by helicopters for daytime documentaries. The ongoing attempts by scientists from the University of Tasmania to make them breed more quickly are sometimes reported in the news, just before the sports. Local comedians make jokes about them. They joke about the Odra’s pointed predator heads and great fat meaty arses and how absurdly difficult the animals seem to find it to have sex with each other. There are one or two adult Odra in zoos scattered across the mainland. They are a national icon.
Howl Island is a 300m2 desert with an artificial oasis in its centre. The oasis was built as a well in the 19th century, when ideas about using the unpopulated island as a transport destination for Tasmanian Aborigines first entered political discourse. The well was nearly fully walled with transported stone bricks before one of the builders had the idea of tasting the water they had tapped. It was saltwater.
The island was abandoned and the bricks were left stacked there until after the 1930s when The Examiner printed the now-iconic headline: LAST ODRA DIES IN TASMANIA ZOO. It was bad reporting; no species is considered extinct until 50 years have passed without a confirmed sighting. It went to print because the Odra were one of the first big crusades of the burgeoning Tasmanian conservationist movement. They tied the apparent disappearance of the Odra from the wild to a century of their being brutally hunted for their silky fur. This was not the whole story of the Odra pogroms: packs of them tended to storm paddocks and kill farmers’ sheep, apparently recreationally, without even venturing to eat them. Nevertheless the tragic extinction of a unique native species was a welcome element for a state deep in the production of an environmental guilt discourse.
The Odra were not extinct. In the seventies a tiny inbred pocket of them was discovered in the forests of the state’s deep southwest, when the government was surveying Lake Pedder for the construction of a hydroelectric dam. The government quickly drafted a plan to move the miraculous creatures to a safe place. After several ownership disputes concerning more hospitable offshore candidates, Howl Island was eventually chosen as the Odra’s new habitat.
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A fishing boat from the town of Elton carrying a big green water tank drops its anchor near the shore. An old man, tired in his joints but proud to be part of a tradition, steps off the boat in his waders. He tells his grandson to hand down his stockwhip and a big bucket of raw meat.
The Odra closest to the shore give a raspy bellow and bound in the man’s direction. When they come too close the man beats the whip ineffectually on the ground. They stop in a circle around him. Long ago these Odra learned not to come near people. Still, thinks the man, they had once been predators – ruthless, if the old shepherds’ stories were true, and certainly hardy enough to have survived on their own in the deep wilds – and it would not do to forego the whip, even if he couldn’t use it properly.
More Odra cluster around him and he begins to shake chunks of meat out of the bucket and onto the sand. The frontmost animals snort and gorge themselves. The man goes back to the boat, throws his whip back on-board and collects another two buckets from his grandson. He feeds six buckets of meat to the Odra. When he was younger he had made painstakingly sure that the food was distributed evenly. He tells his grandson that is why he spreads it in a long semicircle instead of simply piling it on the sand, but he knows that even then some animals manage to eat more than others. He no longer has the strength – or the patience – to really feed them all.
He throws the sixth bucket back onto the boat and his son passes him the end of a rubber hose. He carries the hose past the snorting, feasting Odra to the spot in the centre of the island where the useless old well had been. It is a wide pool now. He lowers the hose into the pool and calls to his son. The son opens a tap in the big tank. Water begins to fill the oasis.
The waterhole is not empty. Last week had been the same; the Odra are not drinking. He reminds himself to report this to the Office of the Commissioner for Environments. He knows he will probably forget.
From where he stands with his hose the man can see the whole island. He sees three Odra isolated from the others at the far shore. Two of them sit on their spindly forelegs and a third stands still, sleepy in the sun. They do not react to his whistle so he whistles louder. The standing one turns its head. The two beings stare at each other across the desert. Neither makes an attempt to approach the other. The Odra is the first to look away.
The oasis starts overflowing and the man calls – twice – to his grandson. The water stops. He starts the journey back to his boat, coiling the hose as he walks, and wonders if there is a new Commissioner for Environments. He thinks there probably is. On the far side of Howl Island the standing Odra makes a tired horsey whimper, lowers its head, and collapses heavily on its long forelegs.