Max Downes is a patron of Field & Game Australia and has spent decades compiling and indexing the Australian National Hunting Archive. The vast collection is an important and valuable asset but Max, who is in his 91st year, needs younger members to become guardians of the past and to take the archive into the digital age.
When we meet at the archive Max is lively and enthusiastic. He points to a photograph of himself as a young man on his first deployment with the Australian Antarctic Division.
It was 1951 and the photograph could just as easily be a poster for a swashbuckling Errol Flynn feature film. As it turns out, the only connection is that Flynn’s father Theodore was a respected biologist.
Max was an adventurer but his mission as a biologist was measured and scientific.
He was on the first Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition (ANARE) to Heard Island, a sub Antarctic island located in the Southern Ocean, about 4000 km southwest of mainland Australia.
The island and surrounding waters teem with wildlife and other natural wonders and Max set about documenting the species.
“I spent a year there as a young biologist; it was the first time I’d seen snow or ice, my first time out of Australia,” he said.
That first expedition came after what Max calls the “heroic age” of Antarctic exploration and before the “technical age”, where scientists with particular expertise and research goals were sent.
“We learned on the spot, whereas now they teach them before they go,” Max said.
He conducted the first census of southern giant petrels (Macronectes giganteus), and nearly 40 years later he helped repeat the exercise, alerting scientists to a halving of the breeding population, from approximately 3500 pairs in 1951 to 1700 pairs in 1987.
An account from Nils Lied’s diary from October 1951 demonstrates just how rugged and isolated expeditioners were.
“Since the last entry, we have had a most harrowing experience,” he writes.
“Our cook, Jack Starr, took ill one night — last Sunday 7th, in fact, and complained of severe pains in his right lower abdomen. It was diagnosed by Dr Rec as appendicitis, and cables started to ply back and forth between Heard and the Antarctic office in Melbourne weighing the pros and cons of the case.”
Medical evacuation was impossible so the ‘Heardites’ were instructed to cleanse the recreation room and convert it to an operating theatre.
“Dr Rec wanted the following assistants: biologist Ken Brown as assistant surgeon to help him underbind the tissues and arteries etc; myself to hold Jack’s guts open while he and Ken did the digging: biologist Max Downes to be in charge of instruments; Frank Hannan, OIC, to be the anaesthetist and Kevin Johnson R/O to be general ‘sister’ to fetch and carry,” the diary records.
The surgery took four hours: one hour to achieve a complete anaesthetic, and three hours to do the actual operation.
“He was very calm, poor lad. I know I would have had the willies in no uncertain way had I been the patient, considering the primitive circumstances of the whole show,” Nils wrote.
By late October the patient was recovered and the diary records him going fishing and Max got back to studying the birdlife.
Max wrote a number of books and papers on the birds of Heard Island and also documented the history and impact of sealers who operated from the 1850s to 1877, and on a return visit in 1987 he discovered a sealers’ cemetery on the island.
Max even has his own glacier, Downes Glacier.
When Max first graduated, adventure in the Antarctic was irresistible but on his return, his childhood hunting with his father would lead him down a more logical path.
“After I returned I looked around for a job and Fisheries and Game was starting up and I got a job straight away; what I liked about it was I was working with hunters rather than working on research, we were working on applying our knowledge on wildlife,” he said.
“I had accepted from an early age that hunting is a legitimate activity; people have been hunting for millions of years, and it is part of being human.”
From 1953–1968 he worked as a biologist and held the position as Superintendent of Game Management during a critical period for waterfowl conservation in Victoria.
“I was responsible for the game bird program; for the first two years we had to work out what recommendations to make to Government about game birds.”
It took six years but Max was able to convince Government that the real risk to game bird populations was the loss of habitat and climate, not recreational hunting.
“On the one hand, they were worried they would be shot out and on the other hand they hadn’t realised the destruction of the swamps and seasonal conditions were far bigger influences on the duck population than hunters,” he said.
“In the first years, I was able to show the Department they needed to have some system to preserve habitat. It took from 1953 to 1959 but the Government adopted a game management program whereby they started State Wildlife Reserves to preserve habitat and Field & Game (Victoria) formed to also preserve habitat.”
Max worked with hunters to support the conservation program, including a large-scale banding project. Together they achieved an outcome long envisaged by the hunting community.
“It took 100 years to get to that stage; the suggestion from hunters for a game tax or licence had been around since the 1800s and there had been 30 attempts to do it,” he said.
“It was the community motivation that convinced Government.”
Community support for hunting was more broadly felt than it is today, something Max attributes to the demise of commercial game meat. While he doubts commercial processing would be possible in the current climate, when the fish and game market operated in Flinders St it was a staple and special source of food and provided a link between non-hunters and hunting.
“The details of the game market are all in the archive; it is a special project waiting for someone,” he said.
Max likens the current campaign against hunting to the early 20th century when for 20 years hunting was frowned upon.
“The Ornithologists Union was started by really keen hunters but over time it divided into people who shot and those who considered killing things inappropriate,” Max said.
“As part of the propaganda, either side would exaggerate their case; it emphasises the point that without work to compile proper data, the claims of anti-hunters are wildly exaggerated. The advantage hunters have is the national archive and the real facts it contains.
“There are two types of evidence: evidence where there are no statistics and evidence where there are statistics, and we need a small group of hunters who understand that the argument isn’t about superficial things.
“Hunters as a group are engaged in my view in a fairly elitist pursuit and therefore they have difficulty convincing the wider population. Hunters are not separate from the rest of the community, hunting is a valid community activity historically, and in the present context, and it is an artificial belief to think otherwise. It is so invalid it is wicked.”
Max has also worked extensively on deer, firstly during an eight-year stint in Papua New Guinea from 1968 doing the first research into the introduced Rusa deer population.
His work with isolated communities also extended to management of crocodiles, butterflies and birds of paradise.
“I came back in 1976 and worked for the Australian Deer Association as a consultant, which was a difficult job because little work had been done in Australia at that stage,” he said.
“Game managers at the time tended to confuse research into game with game management: game management is the application of knowledge, research is discovering how to do it, and they are distinct activities that require different sorts of people and training.”
Max was also facing a shift away from game within Government. While he was away, the game management section disbanded.
“They changed the name and their objectives changed at the same time; in effect the people in charge were not interested in game and they did wildlife work.
“Under National Parks and Wildlife they were in effect anti-game: game worked stopped, the game reserves were considered little national parks and were managed as little national parks but they had no money to manage them.
“No work was done at Tower Hill for more than five years, there were protests about it.”
The issue is still alive today and Max believes the hunting fraternity can again lay the foundation for significant reform, just as they did in the lead up to the establishment of the State Game Reserve network.
“The most valuable thing hunters can do is attempting to do these things themselves and persuade the department, who will think they can do it better, and take over; if you tell them to do it, they won’t,” he said.
“A really big effort should go into having management of game reserves shift to the Game Management Authority; they are the only ones who will manage them properly.”
Again, Max points to the National Hunting Archive, a joint project of FGA and ADA, as a significant resource for building the case.
A grant under the Victorian Government’s Sustainable Hunting Action Plan will begin the process of consolidating the archive and making it more accessible to the public for research.
Age has caught up with the adventurer who expresses frustration that he can no longer scale the ladders to put archive boxes in the right order.
“We need hunters to take responsibility for it and someone to be the curator in training. If nobody is looking after it, all of this is downgraded from a valuable resource to a collection that is just stored away and preserved,” Max said.
“It would be tremendous to have a small group whose thinking is informed by the archive, whose arguments encompass a broader historical view rather than the issue of the day.
“As well as believing in what you do. you have to have a valid case as well as the numbers; we had that in 1958 but I think now we have the numbers but not the case, and making that case relies on the history and heritage contained in the archive.”