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Caughley, Graeme James (1937–1994)

by S. R. Morton

This article was published online in 2019

Graeme James Caughley (1937–1994), animal ecologist and conservation biologist, was born on 28 September 1937 at Wanganui (Whanganui), New Zealand, second of three children and only son of New Zealand-born parents John Norman Caughley, bank manager, and his wife Thelma, née Keltie. Graeme attended Palmerston North Boys’ High School. In 1955 he joined the Department of Internal Affairs as a government hunter of deer, pigs, and goats at Rotorua. There he met Thane Riney, an American ecologist working on deer for the New Zealand Forest Service, who became an important mentor.

After gaining his first degree at Victoria University of Wellington (BSc, 1960), Caughley moved to Australia for further study. At the University of Sydney (MSc, 1963) he gained skills as a mammalian population analyst through research on kangaroos. Returning to New Zealand, at the University of Canterbury (PhD, 1967) he studied the spread of the Himalayan tahr following its release in New Zealand in the 1910s. His publications announced the arrival of a brilliant mind in wildlife science. One paper, published in 1970, showed that the growth, decline, and eventual stabilisation in feral populations of tahr were demographically identical to natural populations of mammalian herbivores fluctuating in response to variations in plant production. His interpretations contradicted conclusions from a study of deer populations on the Kaibab Plateau of Arizona popularised by Aldo Leopold, the doyen of American wildlife management. Leopold’s story disappeared from textbooks and Caughley’s career took flight.

Caughley’s burgeoning reputation led to a series of consultancies for the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, including in Nepal (1968), Kenya (1969), and Afghanistan (1969). In 1969, as a research fellow at the University of Sydney, he prepared an influential paper that identified previous inaccurate calculations of the rate of increase of mammalian populations and presented a better methodology. On 30 December 1970 at Wesley College Chapel, University of Sydney, he married Judith Ada Badham, a divorcee and a doctoral student in the faculty of science.

While in Zambia in 1971, Caughley described a two-hundred-year-long process in which elephants reduce forests by stripping trees and then decline through starvation to such low densities that forests recover, thereby allowing elephants to flourish again. This ‘stable limit cycle’ (Caughley 1976, 265) greatly influenced wildlife managers. After rejoining the University of Sydney as a lecturer in the school of biological sciences in 1973, he published Analysis of Vertebrate Populations (1977), cementing his reputation globally. In 1979 the university awarded him a DSc. That year, he moved to Canberra as senior principal research scientist in the division of wildlife research (later the division of wildlife and ecology) at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). He developed methods for repeated estimation of kangaroo numbers across the Australian inland and collaborated with the New South Wales National Parks and Wildlife Service in a unique field-study linking weather, plant growth, rate of increase of kangaroos, and sustainable harvesting. In 1989 he was appointed special commissioner with the Resource Assessment Commission’s inquiry into forests and timber resources. Judging that his advice was being censored for political purposes, he resigned in 1990. He was elected a fellow of the Australian Academy of Science in 1992, and received CSIRO’s highest honour, the chairman's medal, the following year.

Although widely liked for his bursts of boyish enthusiasm and acuity, Caughley had a rapier wit that was feared by some. He was a wiry man, whose thin frame supported a formidable intelligence dedicated to the search for scientific truth. Despite his professional travels, he never lost sight of home; his book The Deer Wars: The Story of Deer in New Zealand (1983) was a song of praise to New Zealand as much as a vigorous account of human environmental perceptions.

A long-term smoker, Caughley died of cancer on 16 February 1994 at Macquarie, Canberra. That year, he was posthumously awarded the Species Survival Commission’s Sir Peter Scott award for conservation merit. His second partner, Anne Gunn, completed a partially finished book on conservation biology in 1996. The Australian Academy of Science’s Graeme Caughley Travelling Fellowship commemorates his work.

Research edited by Rani Kerin

Select Bibliography

  • Canberra Times. ‘International Reputation in Large-Mammal Ecology.’ 20 February 1994, 4
  • Canberra Times. ‘Tough Guy in a Trendy Discipline.’ 12 December 1993, 21
  • Caughley, Graeme. ‘The Elephant Problem—An Alternative Hypothesis.’ East African Wildlife Journal 14 (1976): 265–83
  • Caughley, Graeme. ‘Eruption of Ungulate Populations with Emphasis on Himalayan Thar in New Zealand.’ Ecology 51 (1970): 53–72
  • Tyndale-Biscoe, C. H. ‘Graeme James Caughley 1937–1994.’ Historical Records of Australian Science 12 (1999): 363–81

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Citation details

S. R. Morton, 'Caughley, Graeme James (1937–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caughley-graeme-james-28256/text35958, published online 2019, accessed online 20 November 2019.

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