Elephants could help prevent bushfires, expert says

Elephants could help prevent bushfires, expert says

02 February 2012

published by www.abc.net.au

Australia — Australia could introduce large herbivores such as elephants as part of a radical biological solution to the problem of bushfires and invasive species, says one expert.

The argument is laid out in a provocative commentary from Dr David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, and is published in today’s issue of Nature.

“I’m being as provocative as possible to try and wake everybody up to say, ‘Look, what is currently happening is not sustainable. We have to think outside the square,'” Dr Bowman said.

He says the short-term programs designed to address Australia’s serious problems with bushfires and invasive species are piecemeal, costly and ineffective.

For example, he says, they are not succeeding in controlling the invasive gamba grass that leads to frequent intense fires in Australia’s north.

“It’s out of control,” he said. “Last year we had a fire in the outback in Central Australia the size of Tasmania. These things are very bad.”

Dr Bowman says the sheer magnitude of the landscape makes short-term slashing and aerial spraying programs impractical, and biological solutions are needed instead.

“Biology doesn’t sleep. Biology is a 24/7 program,” he said.

The article proposes that large herbivores like elephants be used as “grass-eating machines” and, used alongside traditional Aboriginal patch burning, could help manage fire risk in the north.

Dr Bowman argues that short-term programs designed to poison feral animals, fence them out of sensitive areas or shoot them from helicopters are expensive and ineffective.

Instead, top predators like dingoes could be reinstated to control foxes and cats, and Aboriginal people should be encouraged to hunt feral animals.

“We could pay Aboriginal people to hunt and burn … not for a program, but forever,” Dr Bowman said.

He says research suggests the health of Aboriginal people would also improve if they were given these important tasks.

Dr Bowman spent 20 years working as a wildlife biologist in northern Australia, often with Aboriginal people, managing weeds, fire and feral animals.

He acknowledges many will think his idea is stupid and he says he is not committed to elephants, but says the challenge is on to find a more holistic solution to problems like grass fires.

“It might be a stupid idea, but is having a world-famous, out-of-control grass-fire cycle a clever idea?” he said.

He says past mistakes call for confronting solutions that need to be based on science, not emotion and cultural prejudice.

He says people need to ask themselves why it is okay to shoot donkeys and camels but not horses, and says people need to accept there is no such thing as “pristine nature”.

“Buffalo, pigs and cane toads are now part of the landscape and we need to work with them,” Dr Bowman said.

In fact, the article argues that evidence suggests low levels of camel and buffalo are beneficial because their tracks form firebreaks.

Risk assessment

Dr Bowman emphasises any animals introduced would need to be managed properly with their spread controlled by, for example, GPS collars, sterilisation or contraceptives.

“I’m not saying let’s pull up with a barge and randomly release a whole lot of African animals,” he said.

The article says that while the case of the cane toad is used to scare people about biological control, adaption of wildlife suggests reactions to biological controls may not be as bad as we expect.

“If we stand back and do nothing, it’s just as bad as making a mistake,” he said.

Dr Don Driscoll, a fellow at the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, says Dr Bowman’s idea of introducing elephants will be unpopular because the animals are a threat to trees and would be difficult to confine behind fences.

“Introducing elephants to Australia would likely be rather quickly rejected as a method for controlling invasive gamba grass,” he said.

But Dr Bowman’s proposal to reinstate dingoes appears to have met with some support.

“Evidence is mounting that dingoes have enormous environmental benefits with little increased risk to the cattle industry,” Dr Driscoll said.

“It is crucial to consider all of the management options for dealing with invasive species, even ideas that might seem crazy at first.”

Dr Ricky Spencer of the Native and Pest Animal Unit at the University of Western Sydney describes the dingo proposal as “irresponsible” as there is not enough evidence available to support it.

Dr Charles Krebs from the University of Canberra’s Institute for Applied Ecology emphasises the need for caution in the face of Dr Bowman’s “interesting” suggestions.

“Beware the law of unintended consequences,” he said.

He and others say more should be done to make current approaches more effective.

“Maybe we need to come to terms with the fact that some of our ecosystems may remain changed because of the species we’ve already introduced, rather than introducing more in the hope that they can fix things for us,” Professor Richard Hobbs, an Australian Laureate Fellow with the School of Plant Biology at the University of Western Australia, said.

A leading environmental group has also labelled the idea as too radical.

The Pew Environment Group’s Patrick O’Leary says Australia has a bad track record of introducing animals.

“We certainly don’t need a 10-tonne cane toad in the Top End or anywhere else in Australia – and that’s the kind of risk that you run with introducing new species into the environment,” he said.

“I don’t think we can treat that as a serious option. We know how to control some of these species like gamba grass, but we have to apply the science, we have to apply the funding.”

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