Once I met a man who possessed an object of such great value that it was, in a monetary sense, worthless to him.
His name was Damanius Bao Dasion. He lived in a small fishing village east of Flores, on the Savu Sea.
On a kind of altar in his modest living room he kept what I guessed to be a small Portuguese cannon, some silver objects and the tusk of an African elephant.
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Three years ago this week, Australia was burning. On 7 February 2009 — now known as Black Saturday — a massive firestorm consumed more than 400,000 hectares in southern Australia. At least 173 people died trying to outrun the fires, defend their homes or seek shelter.
That blaze was unusually fierce, but fires are a constant source of anxiety for Australia. The continent is extremely fire-prone, with a distinctive signature of oscillating fire activity that begins in the north during the winter, then moves south during the summer. Lately, the fires have been more intense and widespread, perhaps as a result of climate change — last year, around 5 per cent of the continent was burnt.
If only fires were Australia’s sole environmental concern. The continent is also overrun by invasive species. They fill holes created by a mass extinction event that occurred around 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene, when the arrival of the first Australians coincided with a collapse in the continent’s megafauna, namely giant marsupials (some as large as hippopotamuses), reptiles and birds.