Australia — An exotic African grass is slowly infesting thousands of square kilometres of northern Australia.
Gamba grass was introduced decades ago to boost cattle production, but it’s now listed as a noxious weed.
It can grow four metres tall, and when it catches fire, it burns at temperatures many times hotter than for natural bushfires.
Environmentalists like Stuart Blanch from the group WWF call it the “green bulldozer” because of the devastation it causes.
“It creates such hot wildfires that it effectively cooks the native plants and it excludes native animals because it can be so dense,” he said.
“That of course has an impact on climate change because it releases so much carbon into the atmosphere.”
Gamba grass was introduced to northern Australia from Africa in the 1950s as a super grass.
It is so rich in nutrients that it can feed up to 40 times more cattle than natural grasses, and pastoralists in the Top End still use it today.
But it is also a rampant weed that has since infested 15,000 square kilometres of tropical grassland savanna from Cape York in Queensland to the edge of the Kimberley in Western Australia.
Mr Blanch believes that if it’s not banned or brought under control, gamba grass could threaten human life.
“Where there are isolated farm properties, big stands of gamba grass, and the fires get in and they’re extremely hard to fight,” he said.
“I understand that the Northern Territory government is starting to use choppers to fight gamba-fuelled fires because they’re so hot.”
Last week Western Australia declared a ban on gamba grass to stop it invading the Kimberley, and conservation groups now want Queensland and the Northern Territory to consider similar action.
But NT Cattlemen’s Association executive director Stuart Kenny says as long as the grass is kept under control, a ban is unrealistic.
“I think we need to be looking at the management, and if it’s managed in an environment such as a pastoral property, well I think that’s fine,” he said.
“If it’s not managed, certainly it needs to have restrictions put around it.”
The WA ban is based solely on the damage that gamba grass has caused in the Top End. Yet the NT Government is making no such move.
Environment Minister Len Kiely, who is reluctant get the huge pastoral industry offside, says a weed risk assessment that has already run for two years will continue indefinitely before he decides for or against any ban.
“What we’re doing is getting together and having a risk management review of it,” he said.
“And from that science, taking into account all of the stakeholders involved, we’ll make our decisions then.”