Incorporating Aboriginal people’s perceptions of introduced animals in resource management: insights from the feral camel project


  • Petronella Vaarzon-Morel,

    1. Petronella Vaarzon-Morel is an Independent Anthropologist (PO Box 3561, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia; Email: Dr Glenn Edwards is Director, Wildlife Use, Biodiversity Conservation, Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport (PO Box 1120, Alice Springs NT 0871, Australia; Email: This research was part of an integrated research programme with the overarching aim of developing a national management framework, which will lead to a reduction in camel numbers to a level that reverses their current population growth trajectory and reduces their impacts. The research was undertaken through collaboration between the researchers and different stakeholder groups, including Aboriginal organisations and communities, individual pastoralists and conservation land managers based in a range of jurisdictions.
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  • Glenn Edwards

    1. Petronella Vaarzon-Morel is an Independent Anthropologist (PO Box 3561, Alice Springs, NT 0871, Australia; Email: Dr Glenn Edwards is Director, Wildlife Use, Biodiversity Conservation, Department of Natural Resources, Environment, the Arts and Sport (PO Box 1120, Alice Springs NT 0871, Australia; Email: This research was part of an integrated research programme with the overarching aim of developing a national management framework, which will lead to a reduction in camel numbers to a level that reverses their current population growth trajectory and reduces their impacts. The research was undertaken through collaboration between the researchers and different stakeholder groups, including Aboriginal organisations and communities, individual pastoralists and conservation land managers based in a range of jurisdictions.
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Summary  Recently, the value of incorporating Indigenous ecological knowledge approaches in natural resource management has been increasingly recognised. In arid zone, Australia scientific interest in Indigenous ecological knowledge has tended to focus on native plants and animals and on customary ways of looking after country that Aboriginal people have developed over thousands of years of engagement with their environment. Far less attention has been paid to how Aboriginal perceptions of introduced species inform their ecological knowledge and land management practices. This study argues that it is important to take account of Aboriginal understandings of introduced species in addition to native species if a more sustainable approach to natural resource management is to occur across Australia. It draws on a recent cross-cultural and interdisciplinary research project conducted for the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre on feral camels in central Australia. In discussing how culture shapes Aboriginal people’s views on introduced species, we attend to the complexities of Aboriginal interactions with introduced species through time and space. In doing so, we move beyond simple categorisations of introduced animals as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging’ to a more nuanced appreciation of how context may influence shifts in perspectives and result in more flexible positions on management options. Finally, we discuss the need to incorporate both Aboriginal and Western scientific understandings concerning feral animals in developing strategies to manage the negative impacts of the animals.


In arid Australia, scientific interest in Indigenous ecological knowledge (IEK) has tended to focus on native plants and animals and on customary ways of looking after country that Aboriginal people have developed over thousands of years of engagement with their environment. In contrast, this study is concerned with Aboriginal people’s responses to an animal species –Camelus dromedarius, hereafter referred to as camel – which was introduced to central Australia in the late 1800s and which ecologists and conservation biologists regard as an invasive species requiring management (Edwards et al. 2008). Yet, if we broadly define ‘ecological knowledge’ as ‘the knowledge, however acquired, of relationships of living beings with one another and with their environment’ (Berkes 1993: 3), then it follows that Aboriginal people’s perceptions of introduced species and their relations to natural–cultural environments must inform their ecological knowledge. The camel case we examine here indicates that how they do so is not clear-cut.

In the early 1990s, Rose (1995) conducted a landmark study for the Central Land Council (CLC) on Aboriginal attitudes and perceptions of environmental land management issues, including feral animals. According to Rose, Aboriginal people’s views on feral animals were relatively homogenous. He found that although people recognised that feral animals such as the camel were introduced, they viewed them as ‘belonging to country’ because they had grown up and worked there. Moreover, Aboriginal people did not ‘separate the impact of feral animals from native species’ but saw ‘the contemporary ecosystem as an integrated whole’ (Rose 1995). Significantly, when Rose conducted his research, camel numbers were relatively low (Vaarzon-Morel 2010). Rose’s findings have since been used to contrast Aboriginal and Western scientific views on introduced species (Trigger 2008) and to imply that the Central Land Council’s attempts to manage feral camels ignore the spirit of Aboriginal views (Franklin 2006: 177–178). However, this charge overlooks the complexity of the situation. Not only does it disregard changes in the camel population and the interaction of camels with the environment but it also ignores associated changes in Aboriginal people’s relations with camels. Additionally, it leaves little room for bicultural management to be conceived as a productive exchange and partnership (see for example Ens et al. 2012) rather than a form of neo-colonial coercion. Recognising the inequitable power relations between the funding bodies and the Indigenous ecosystem service providers in which intercultural resource management occurred in North-East, Arnhem Land, Yunupingu and Muller (2009) have shown how the development of management plans based on local Indigenous understandings, concerns and priorities can lead to more equitable planning processes and partnerships (see also Barbour & Schlesinger 2012).

Drawing on a recent cross-cultural, interdisciplinary research project that the Desert Knowledge Co-operative Research Centre (DKCRC) conducted on feral camels, this article explores the complexities of Aboriginal people’s understandings of human, camel and country interrelationships. By indicating how Aboriginal people’s understandings of camels relate to their material engagements and symbolic associations with the animal through time and space, we hope to contribute to new approaches to cross-cultural land management and perspectives on Indigenous ecological knowledge.

The conceptual framework we adopt is underpinned by the understanding that Indigenous ecological knowledge is structured according to socio-cultural and ecological understandings gained over deep time and that it is flexible, adaptive and contextual (Berkes 1993; Sillitoe 1998; Muir et al. 2010). We recognise that Indigenous knowledge and Western science are configured by different worldviews. Indigenous ecological knowledge is grounded in a relational worldview that emphasises the interdependence of nature, society and culture (see Berkes 1993; Ingold 1996; Milton 1996; Rose 1999). As Muir et al. (2010) point out, fundamental to the Aboriginal worldview is an ethic that stresses the importance of social relationships to the maintenance of ecological health. Western science, on the other hand, posits nature and culture as separate domains of reality, in the process ‘demarcating an object world that can be studied dispassionately and objectively from the world of human interests, values and judgments’ (Ivakhiv 2002: 392; see also Sillitoe 1998; Ingold 1996). That Aboriginal people and Western scientists ‘configure relations’ (Ivakhiv 2002) between different entities in sometimes radically different ways presents challenges for a two-way approach to land management. Muir et al. (2010) note that it is important ‘to explore ways of grappling with this ontological challenge so that those concerned can facilitate good relationships, creative exchanges and productive partnerships’. In this study, we explore findings from the DKCRC research to provide insights into how this challenge can be approached.

In what follows, we first provide a brief background to the emergence of feral camels in central Australia and the DKCRC stakeholder research on the issue. We then explore findings from the research conducted with Aboriginal people and some subsequent developments. Lastly, we discuss the significance of findings to cross-cultural land management projects involving Indigenous ecological knowledge. Throughout the study, we adopt the Warlpiri orthography to spell Aboriginal terms.


The history of feral camels in central Australia

Camelus dromedarius, the one-humped camel, was first introduced to Australia in 1840. Subsequently, during the period from 1880 to 1907, approximately 20 000 camels were shipped to Australia from the north Indian region to assist with transportation, exploration and development in the arid interior (McKnight 1969; McGregor & Edwards 2010). By the 1930s, however, motorised transport had largely replaced that of camels. No longer valued by Europeans for their labour, unwanted camels were either killed or released in the outback. Utilising most habitats, camels increased in both number and range. Today, they are distributed over 3.3 million km2 of Australia (Saalfeld & Edwards 2010). The population is estimated at about one million and doubling about every 9–10 years (Pople & McLeod 2010). As a result, they have become a very significant land management problem. Camels have spread across multiple boundaries with different land tenure and nature–culture relations including pastoral, conservation, Aboriginal and vacant Crown land in three States and a Territory. Due, in part, to historical processes involving alienation of better-watered country by settlers and the eradication of feral camels from cattle stations as they were seen as vermin (McKnight 1969: 117–119), the majority of camels are now on Aboriginal freehold land. Places with high densities of camels include those located in the Northern Territory, Western Australia and South Australia border region and near the Simpson Desert (for more information see Saalfeld & Edwards 2010).

Recognising the increasing environmental and economic impacts of the growing feral camel population, in 2005, the DKCRC obtained funding from the Australian Government’s Natural Heritage Trust Fund for cross-jurisdictional management of feral camels to protect NRM and cultural values (Edwards et al. 2008). As part of the project, stakeholder surveys were undertaken to ascertain Aboriginal, pastoral and conservation landholder perspectives on feral camels. The survey of Aboriginal views involved in-depth face-to-face interviews and case studies, whereas pastoralist and conservation perceptions were assessed primarily through a questionnaire survey delivered by email and post with responses provided verbally by phone (Zeng & Edwards 2010).

Findings from the stakeholder surveys indicated that the views of conservation and pastoralist land managers were relatively homogenous (Zeng & Edwards 2010). While acknowledging that camels had both positive and negative impacts, both groups categorised free-ranging camels as a feral, pest animal and thought that efforts were needed to manage the negative impacts they had on the environment. They favoured culling and the commercial use of camels as a means of managing these impacts. Key differences between the two groups were that pastoralists emphasised the economic impacts of feral camels, whereas conservation land managers focused on the natural and cultural impacts of feral camels (Zeng & Edwards 2010). Like pastoralists and conservation land managers, Aboriginal people recognised that feral camels had both negative and positive impacts (Edwards et al. 2010). However, in contrast to the former, the perspectives of Aboriginal people were more varied and complex, revealing socio-cultural, ecological and livelihood dimensions that were configured in radically different ways.

We have reported in detail elsewhere on the aims, scope, methodology and findings of the stakeholder research (see Edwards et al. 2008; Vaarzon-Morel 2008, 2010; Zeng & Edwards 2010). In this study, we explore findings related to the cultural impacts and meanings that Aboriginal people attribute to camels and the implications for Indigenous ecological knowledge and cross-cultural land management projects. First, however, we highlight aspects of the research process that we believe facilitated a nuanced understanding of Aboriginal views and laid the groundwork for a meaningful dialogue and ongoing collaboration concerning feral camels and land management.

The DKCRC stakeholder research

Grounded in community-based participatory research principles (see Israel et al. 2005), the research employed qualitative methods and comprised community case studies in two Aboriginal settlements in the Northern Territory and a broader community survey in 25 other settlements in South Australia, Western Australia and the Northern Territory. The cultural relevance of the research was greatly facilitated by an innovative partnership between the DKCRC and Waltja Tjutangku Palyapayi Aboriginal Association (Waltja), an Aboriginal community-based family service and registered training organisation located in Alice Springs. Waltja was involved in major stages of the research process including the selection of settlements and participants, the development, translation and interpretation of questions and responses, and the dissemination of information to participants (see Vaarzon-Morel 2008). Waltja researchers and Vaarzon-Morel, an anthropologist, conducted the research in areas across the camel range, which had different camel densities. Among other considerations (see Vaarzon-Morel 2010), the selection of the settlements also took into account the need to ensure the coverage of different cultural groups whose members had varying histories of engagement with camels.

The broader survey involved semi-structured face-to-face interviews with individuals and groups comprised of young, middle-aged and older men and women. Aboriginal cultural protocols concerning the need to consult senior knowledgeable landowners who had the right to speak for country were observed in the selection of participants. In addition to seeking people’s views on the presence and impacts of camels and their attitudes towards camel management, people’s historical engagements and symbolic associations with camels were also explored. The interviews were followed by discussions about educational material that provided information on camel numbers, their impacts and management options. The intercultural translation and interpretation of this information was conducted, for the most part, by local researchers who interviewed the participants using their preferred languages and by the anthropologist who had considerable experience working with Aboriginal people.

Exploring Aboriginal people’s views on camels

The research revealed that Aboriginal people’s perspectives on camels are not homogenous and that Aboriginal people’s relations with camels have undergone significant transformations since their introduction to central Australia. Interactions between Aboriginal people and camels were greatest in the eastern Western Desert and adjacent region straddling the NT/WA border (Fig. 1). While initially in the early 20th century people experienced fear at the sight of the strange animals as they drank water on which the people themselves depended, it was not long before stray camels were speared for meat, hair and fat. As Vaarzon-Morel (forthcoming) has described, Aboriginal people’s relations with camels underwent a profound change when people began working for Afghan cameleers and learnt how to handle camels for transport. When camels ceased to be of value to Europeans, many Western Desert and southern Arrernte people began using them. Camels facilitated people’s mobility, enabling them to travel from place to place while living on bush tucker and rations obtained by trading dingo scalps and/or labour with Europeans. By the early 1970s, however, people had abandoned camels in favour of motor vehicles. Nevertheless, the varying and complex interactions that arose between people and camels resulted in new cultural forms, attachments and adaptations including lexical items and stories (as Pfeiffer and Voeks (2008) have also noted for invasive species elsewhere).

Figure 1.

 Map of Australia showing language groups, settlements and regions referred to in this report.

When the DKCRC research took place in 2008, many middle-aged and older people remembered travelling the country with camels and fondly recalled their names. Reflecting on the close relationship they had developed with their camels, some people commented that they were ‘like family’, while many others expressed a sense of responsibility towards them (Vaarzon-Morel 2008). A few people still kept camels as pets, which reinforced these sentiments. Due in part to this historical relationship and the inclusive nature of Aboriginal social relations, many people believed that the camel had earned its place in central Australia. At the same time, while people did not view camels as ‘outsiders’, they nevertheless pointed out that camels are an introduced animal and that they are unlike native animals, which originated in the Dreaming and with whom they share totemic relations to country. Unlike buffalo, which have been incorporated into some customary Aboriginal practices and ceremonial traditions in northern Australia (Altman 1982; Robinson 2005; Trigger 2008), camels were not regarded as part of Aboriginal Law. However, camels were attributed other symbolic meanings. As a result of being introduced to Christianity and taught Christmas nativity stories that associate camels with the Three Wise Men, many Aboriginal people identified the camel as Jesus’ animal (see also Rose 1995). Some felt that camels should not be distinguished from native animals, as they were ‘all God’s creatures’ and should be treated equally.

Our research found that Aboriginal people held a diversity of views concerning the impacts of feral camels, including positive economic views. In addition to camels being used for food, they were also used to derive direct income through tourism opportunities and the sale of live animals and meat (for both pet and human consumption). At the time of the research, income earned through camels was limited in value and restricted to a minority of individuals and places in the eastern Western Desert, Arrernte and Pintupi regions (see Fig. 1). Notably, indigenous species such as kangaroo remained the preferred source of meat (Vaarzon-Morel 2008).

In addition to positive impacts, people also identified negative interconnected economic, ecological and cultural impacts. Views on impacts tended to differ depending on the density of camels in the particular area and people’s historical familiarity and ongoing association with places within that area. In areas that had a high density of camels, it was generally people with long-term and ongoing familiarity with country who highlighted the negative impacts of camels. Also, in areas where some people noted the negative impacts of camels, other people were unaware of the extent of the problem because it had been a long time since they had visited the places where the impacts were occurring and/or they were young or new to an area and did not know what the country was like before the impacts of camels were experienced (cf. Ens et al., 2012). Although senior people generally held greater knowledge of their country than younger people, a number of middle-aged and some young people also demonstrated an intimate knowledge of and ongoing familiarity with country where camels were having negative impacts and they recognised these impacts. Some people perceived camels to be ‘killing the country’ by depleting and fouling waterholes and desecrating sacred places. They were concerned about camels trampling and eating bush food, medicine and culturally significant trees such as yinirnti (Bean Tree, Erythrina vespertilio) and mangarta (Quandong, Santalum acuminatum). In some areas where there were large numbers of camels (for example, on the fringe of the Simpson, Gibson and Tanami deserts—see Fig. 1), people indicated that they were frightened of them and they were having a major impact on their use of and access to country. When hunting, people avoided places where they knew camels were present. People observed that camels damaged fences and community infrastructure, and they were concerned that the problems would increase unless camels were controlled (Vaarzon-Morel 2008, 2010).

During the 1980s and 1990s, most people accepted the presence of camels in their cultural landscape as unproblematic (Rose 1995); however, it was clear that their perspectives were changing. We found that people were more likely to re-assess their views on camels when they were familiar with country and had first-hand experience of the negative impacts. People without such experience tended to generalise about camels on country and emphasise the positive aspects. This situation points to the significance of ongoing physical engagement with country in informing people’s cultural interpretations. It also indicates the importance of exploring links between Aboriginal people’s knowledge of places and the impacts of feral animals on cultural landscapes when undertaking bicultural land management projects (see also Ens et al., 2012). Central Australian Aboriginal people believe that their world – including the social, material and totemic religious dimensions – was created in the ancestral, creative period called Jukurrpa (‘Dreaming’ in English). Reflecting on camels in the Aboriginal cultural landscape today, several senior Indigenous land owners with profound knowledge of Jukurrpa mythology, plant, animal, kin and country relationships expressed deep concern about the threats posed by an increasing camel presence to the interdependence of these relationships. At times, concerns were framed in terms of transgression of cultural boundaries. More than one person observed that because camels have no totemic link to people and country they therefore are no one’s responsibility and are like orphans, walking around lost, creating trouble. Others were of the view that it is because camels have ‘got no Law’ that ‘they got no manners and don’t know how to act’.

Yet, although many people perceived a need to manage the impacts of camels, as a result of the intertwined histories outlined earlier, the majority of people were only prepared to consider limited options. There was considerable opposition to culling, with most people perceiving it as cruel and wasteful: ‘killing for nothing’. The identification of camels with Biblical figures creates dilemmas for many Aboriginal people, who, as well as practising traditional religion, are also Christian and reluctant to support culling. This complex issue is entangled with a strong cultural ethic against killing animals for waste that is part of Aboriginal Dreaming Law or Jukurrpa (Vaarzon-Morel 2008, 2010). As one man explained: ‘Jukurrpa, Aboriginal way, you can’t shoot animals for nothing. Must be for a purpose, like eating.’ This view arises from an ontology that, as pointed out earlier, does not separate nature and culture. As Rose (1999, 2005) has noted, Aboriginal ontology stresses the importance of maintaining respectful social relations among humans and non-human actors, including country. In accordance with this view, it is believed that killing for waste will attract retribution. Punishments mentioned included ill health, death and environmental repercussions such as drought. Not surprisingly, then, the preferred camel management strategies were live removal and harvesting camels for meat. However, while a few thousand camels have been removed in this way, the lack of a commercial demand for camel meat combined with the remoteness of the camels from processing plants means that it is uneconomical at present (Zeng & McGregor 2008) and does not provide an effective broadscale management strategy.

This situation is forcing people to articulate their fundamental values in relation to indigenous and introduced animals. Increasingly, many are concluding that camels do not belong. As recent Central Land Council experience at Docker River (Fig. 1) and other settlements indicated (Central Land Council 2010a,b), many Aboriginal people now recognise the need to cull camels to care for their country. In doing so, they continue to invoke notions of identity and belonging, which at one level can be reconciled with the moral order originating in the Jukurrpa but which conflict with it at another level. Clearly, for Aboriginal people, there are no easy solutions for managing the impacts of camels.

As was pointed out in the DKCRC report on Aboriginal people’s perspectives (Vaarzon-Morel 2008) and has been argued by Robinson and Whitehead (2003) in relation to feral buffalo, if effective long-term collaborative camel management strategies are to be developed, Aboriginal people’s perceptions, values and attitudes must be respected. This is not simply a matter of translating perspectives but also interpreting them (Sillitoe 1998; West 2005) and exploring how and on what basis the latter are formed (see also Robinson et al. 2005). As we have indicated in this article, people’s perspectives on camels have changed through time. They reflect their changing experiences with the animals and the cultural meanings that arise from these experiences in differing socio-historical and ecological contexts (Milton 1996). People’s perspectives on camels also varied from place to place, according to the nature of their experiences with the animals. Many people in areas of low camel density were unaware of the potential effects of camels on their cultural landscape should the camel population increase and large numbers of the animals invade. Pfeiffer and Voeks (2008:283–84) note that a biological invasion can cause a ‘ripple effect’ by displacing certain species and related traditions and by impeding people’s access to places and their ability to pass on cultural knowledge. As a result, cultural landscapes can be restructured within a few generations (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008:283). Vaarzon-Morel (2008) noted that many older people in areas with large numbers of camels were concerned about the ripple effects of camels in relation to future generations’ knowledge and experience of the Aboriginal cultural landscape. They were concerned that not everyone across central Australia shared their awareness, and they pointed out that, in order for people to make practical decisions about camel management strategies, they required additional information, assistance and resources. Western scientists and land managers have a major role to play in assisting Aboriginal people understand issues associated with introduced species and management alternatives. However, they need to work with Aboriginal people in a participatory way, paying regard to and combining Aboriginal ecological knowledge and understandings with those of science, if Aboriginal people are to take ownership of issues, prioritise concerns and arrive at culturally acceptable solutions (see Bowman & Robinson 2002; Robinson et al. 2005).

Implications for cross-cultural land management

Worldwide, there is growing concern and debate about the movement of non-human species into new ecosystems with increased human travel, globalisation and climate change impacts (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008; García-Quijano et al. 2011). In concert with the rise of biological invasions as ‘a major ecological and environmental policy issue’ (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008: 281), there is a growing appreciation that scientists cannot understand and solve the problem alone (Musante 2004). Collaboration and communication of the different viewpoints of ‘scientists, policy makers and others in the community’ (Musante 2004) are required. This is especially important in cases involving cross-cultural land management. As an emerging literature around the subject indicates (see Robinson et al. 2005; Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008; Trigger et al. 2010), this is not simply a matter of gauging the views of stakeholders on ecological and economic impacts. It also involves understanding socio-cultural impacts and meanings that arise from people’s engagement – both material and symbolic (West 2005) – with introduced species through time and space.

According to Pfeiffer and Voeks (2008), scientific studies of the effects of invasive species have focused largely on the ecological and economic impacts, leaving their cultural impacts ‘largely unexamined and therefore unrecognised’ (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008). Yet, they state, when conservation programmes ignore cultural concerns, this often results in conflict (see also Milton 1996). They note that invasive species such as feral animals can have ‘mixed cultural impacts’ that affect societies in multiple, sometimes unpredictable and contradictory, ways. They suggest that ‘an understanding of the processes by which invasive biota become culturally enriching, facilitating or impoverishing can contribute to articulating interdisciplinary programmes aimed at simultaneously conserving biological and cultural diversity’ (Pfeiffer & Voeks 2008: 281).

In this article, we have attempted to move beyond simple categorisations of introduced animals as ‘belonging’ or ‘not belonging’ to a more nuanced appreciation of how context may influence shifts in perspectives and processes resulting in less rigid positions on management options. An appreciation of how culture shapes people’s views on introduced species reveals where the views of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people overlap – and where they don’t – and highlights the implications of cross-cultural differences in conservation management. We have shown why it is important to take account of Aboriginal understandings of recently introduced species as well as those of native species. The DKCRC camel project underlined the significance of attending to the complexities of Aboriginal cultural interactions with camels through time and space and of combining these insights with scientific knowledge in conservation and land management considerations.

Following the DKCRC study, the Australian Government announced that it would provide $19 million over 4 years to manage the impacts of feral camels across Australia, under the Caring for Our Country programme. This present phase of camel management involves government agencies meaningfully engaging with Aboriginal people and land councils in the implementation of a cross-jurisdictional management framework to manage the impacts of camels. In doing so, the risk of prioritising Western land management agendas at the potential cost of local ones is minimised. By trying to appreciate and come to terms with the dilemmas feral camels create for Aboriginal people, it is our belief that the DKCRC feral camel project has ultimately helped to determine a more sustainable and locally participatory approach to natural resource management – an approach that is centrally based on a meaningful dialogue between Indigenous and Western worldviews. It has created awareness among Western land managers and policy makers about issues that feral camels pose for Aboriginal people and has resulted in an increased cross-cultural understanding of the support that is needed to enable Aboriginal communities to manage the impacts of feral camels and strengthen two-way land management.


This paper draws on Vaarzon-Morel 2008, 2010 and Edwards et al. 2008. Work reported in these publications was supported by funding from the Australian Government Natural Heritage Trust through the Desert Knowledge Cooperative Research Centre. The views expressed herein do not necessarily represent the views of the Australian Government or the Desert Knowledge CRC or its participants. The authors thank Jim Wafer and anonymous referees for comments on earlier versions of this paper. We also thank Keith Saalfeld for preparation of the map.