It was the 1960s, and a revolutionary spirit was thick in the air. Even, it seems, at the very ends of the earth.
The particular end of the earth in question was Lord Howe Island, a remote, reef-laden dreamscape island of chiselled slopes, upholstered in a dense subtropical rainforest. Located 600 km off the New South Wales coast, the island is home to a small permanent population of less than 400 people, with its nearest neighbouring land mass being the mysterious shard-like sea stack of Ball’s Pyramid, an edifice erupting to a height of 562 m from Lord Howe Island’s pelagic horizon.
In February of 1964, there was small but sure rebellion afoot in the community of Lord Howe, the unexpected results of which came to be an amazing ecological discovery.
Dave Roots and Nick Higgins, both avid young climbers, had come to Lord Howe Island as a launching point for their quest to conquer the slopes of Ball’s Pyramid. Their ambitions aroused the chagrin of the local board, which immediately put the local youth of the island on the side of Roots and Higgins. And just like that, a microcosmic rebellion ensued to get these two climbers to the pyramid.
This is the story we are swept into via a sequence of interviews and spectacular aerial footage from the first moments of Asher Flatt’s documentary film Stuck on a Rock. The film artfully delivers the tale of how two climbers had to break a few rules in order to achieve their goal of scaling the world’s tallest sea stack, and in doing so, made a discovery that would ultimately lead to the salvation of an entire species. The species, of course, is the Lord Howe Island Phasmid, or Stick Insect, described at the time as the world’s rarest insect.
Flatt, an independent natural history filmmaker, describes the film as ‘a story about adventuring into the unknown, extinction, conservation and our fragile connections with nature: all centred on the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect, a species that managed to cling onto existence in one of the most unlikely spots imaginable.’
The Phasmid is a beautiful, glossy black invertebrate, believed extinct after predation by introduced rats razed them from the island. What wasn’t known was that a tiny population of Phasmids had persisted in the low shrubs and salty gales on the slopes of the nearby Ball’s Pyramid.
What Roots and Higgins disovered on their venture was the exoskeleton of a deceased Phasmid. But even such a discovery put the existence of the animal as much more recent than any entomologist might have dared to dream. It was this discovery of a simple exoskeleton that prompted almost 40 years of searches, before the final successful rediscovery by David Priddel and Nicholas Carlisle of just 24 live individuals back on Lord Howe Island, in 2001.
Flatt describes how he first came across their incredible story of unlikely resilience. ‘I was volunteering in the live animal exhibits section of the Melbourne Museum, which was headed by Patrick Honan at the time. They have loads of different species of stick insects here, including a small colony of Lord Howe Stick Insects. One of the other animal keepers mentioned that Patrick had been involved in a captive breeding program to save these animals and I just had to know more… It had everything from rogue climbers to near failures and final success, and I knew I had found a story worthy of making into a documentary.’
Flatt saw the story as representing broader environmental and conservation themes that have never been more resonant. He says, ‘This film is an attempt to answer the question of why we should bother to conserve species at all, what does nature mean to us and who is putting effort in to save it and why. This is also a chance to present a positive message in what sometimes feels like a sea of depressing news about what we are doing to our environment.’
One of the aims of the film was to give the audience a chance to form a genuine emotional connection with the narrative of insect conservation – no easy task. But the film’s infusion of humanity makes the story of the Phasmid one that is not only easy to connect to, but genuinely entertaining.
‘Right from the start I knew it was less a natural history documentary about an insect and more a story about conservation and the people involved,” Flatt says. ‘I knew the story was strong enough that you could have swapped out the insect for any animals and it would be just as compelling. Although there is something sweet about such an epic tale being centred on such a small insect, which would classically be considered ugly and not worth anyone’s time.’
He adds, ‘Years ago you might have been able to show nature by itself, but now as we encroach on more and more of the natural places on the earth it’s unavoidable that the human element becomes a part of it.’
The story of the Lord Howe Island Stick Insect continues to be a tale of good news due to the tireless efforts of conservationists, although the Phasmid continues to teeter precipitously near to extinction. It is now the subject of an extensive network of rigorous breeding programs, which have generated a thriving captive population of over 1000 adults and 20 000 eggs. There is even hope for these Phasmids to soon return to their home from captivity: Next year, a rodent eradication program on Lord Howe Island is planned, and may finally return the Phasmid’s namesake island to a paradise for this precious species.
Stuck on a Rock tells the important story of one of Australia’s greatest conservation blunders and victories side-by-side, as well as the human story that is so inseparably tied to it. Director Asher Flatt has executed his goal with a deft hand. The film has been screened publicly in Australia and New Zealand and the Natural History Museum in London.
To catch a viewing of Stuck on a Rock, keep an eye out for the film on next year’s film festival circuit.
Banner image courtesy of Asher Flatt