Majestic Icon or Invasive Pest? A War Over Australia’s Wild Horses

ANGLERS REST, Australia — Coming over the rise, Philip Maguire gripped the mane of his white gelding and rose on his heels to survey the bush land. He had hoped to be photographed mustering wild horses, but the animals weren’t playing along.

“They were sitting up there on that ridge,” Mr. Maguire said of the horses, now spooked by the human intrusion. “They’ll come back,” he huffed. “I’ll run them again.”

Mr. Maguire, a 60-year-old cattleman, is leading a campaign to prevent the Australian authorities from culling the wild horses, known as brumbies. The clash traces some of the country’s biggest fault lines, including its urban-rural divide and the legacy of colonialism.

To scientists and the politicians who support the policy, culling is a matter of environmental protection. The horses, an invasive species whose populations are booming, must be removed because they are trampling ancient ecosystems in the Australian Alps already hurt by climate change, they say.

To Mr. Maguire and his followers, the fight is about a way of life they perceive to be under threat. They see brumbies, the descendants of horses introduced by European settlers, as symbols of a rugged individualism that they believe is being lost in modern Australia.

“It’s a culture war,” Mr. Maguire said last month as he searched in vain for the horses.

A burly man, he wore a brown waterproof coat faded by years of wear. “This is my heritage,” he said. “All our culture is gone, by people saying anything that’s not native is not good.”

He was referring to the animals, though he may well have had people in mind, too.

Mr. Maguire’s lobbying for the brumbies is part of a backlash to a growing movement in Australia to correct historical narratives that cast white settlers as conquering an “empty” and untilled continent. Instead, there is now broad acceptance of Indigenous people’s careful guardianship of the land for tens of thousands of years, before their territories and culture were stolen.

These efforts have been buoyed recently by the protests against racism in the United States, which have inspired activists around the world to tear down symbols of colonialism.

Still, some Australians find it difficult “to recognize the dispossession and genocide of Indigenous Australians,” said James Pittock, a professor of environmental science at the Australian National University in Canberra. The brumby, he said, is a kind of “talisman” for those holding on to nationalist visions of Australia’s history.

Mr. Benedetti leapt onto the bare back of a brumby he had tamed to show how placid the animal was. “They want to shoot them,” he said. “Doesn’t that make you upset?”

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