This article was released yesterday on the New Scientist website under the environment section, preposing an interesting but controversial remedy for wildfires in Australia caused by the excessive growth of introduced grass species:
Ecologist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania in Hobart, Australia, argues that large herbivores including elephants should be introduced to Australia to bring balance to a country ravaged by uncontrolled wildfiresand non-native animals that have gone feral.
Fellow ecologists including George Wilson of Australian National University in Canberra and Peter O’Brien of the University of Canberra say Bowman’s proposal is preposterous, given the disastrous consequences of past animal introductions in Australia. Others, however, including Josh Donlan of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and Tomás Carlo-Joglar of Pennsylvania State University in University Park say Bowman may be on to something.New Scientist talked to Bowman to find out more about his controversial plans.
Australia has a notorious history of ecological problems caused by alien species. Why introduce elephants, given the disastrous consequences of introducing cane toads, rabbits, feral cats and camels?
We have disrupted our ecology dramatically. To stabilise it we need fresh thinking. Clearly the current management strategy is not optimal and has to be changed.
Don’t most ecologists see introducing more alien species to Australia as taboo?
Not all introductions have been bad. Banteng, a type of wild cattle, thrives in the wild here but is endangered in its native south-east Asia. We’ve always used that as an example of the capacity to use the Australian landscape as an ark. Maybe we could also use introduced animals as tools for conservation services.
But why elephants?
We have introduced really invasive grasses like gamba grass from Africa, which is a major source of fuel for wildfires and could radically transform our savannas. Five per cent of Australia burned last year – some fires were the size of Tasmania – and this is clearly dysfunctional.
I cannot think of a way of controlling invasive, fire-prone grasses in our savannahs without large herbivores. In Australia the option of reintroducing large herbivores that used to live here doesn’t exist, because all big marsupials have gone extinct. So we would have to introduce non-native herbivores.
People immediately think it’s ridiculous, but who says it has to be wild elephants? It could be sterilised, domesticated elephants that can be tracked by GPS. I’m asking people to critically assess these ideas and if they really are mad, fine – put a line through them. But introducing a big herbivore with stringent controls is not such a big step if they could control giant grasses and associated extreme fires.
You suggest the impact of events like the Black Saturday bushfires, which killed 173 people in February 2009, would be reduced with elephants. But those fires were in the forests of south-east Australia – nowhere near the savannahs of northern Australia where you propose introducing elephants.
We had to contextualise. People know about that 2009 bushfire, but do they know about other massive wildfires that occurred elsewhere last year? There are a mix of solutions, which include controlled burning and the introduction of large herbivores.
Kangaroos and other marsupials are well adapted to Australia’s climate. What would happen to elephants during prolonged droughts?
I’m not proposing introductions for the whole of Australia, but elephants would thrive in the monsoon tropics. We know that water buffalos from Asia thrive there.
My first response as a zoologist and scientist was a some what visceral ‘NO!’, but after having read the article and seeing what Dr. Bowman actually proposes had me rethinking my initial reaction. I do agree something has to do be done regarding introduced species such as these grasses that act as added fuel and exacerbate natural wildfires in Australia, but elephants… really?
Thinking about it though, it could work if they were domesticated elephants that were heavily monitored and continuously tracked, as well as perhaps sterilised. Although their reproduction rate is incredibly slow and would hardly compare to that of something like the cane toad, fox, camel or rabbit.
Furthermore, they have soft padded feet in comparison to other introduced or domesticated livestock species (horses, cows, sheep, goats, etc), and thus have a much less potential for damaging the top soil. While in high numbers they can do a great deal of damage to forest structure, obviously what would be implemented would only allow for a specific number of free roaming elephants in an area to control pest species of grass.
All of this said, a great deal of research and science would need to be applied before any further non-native species are introduced into Australia. And I’ve no idea the cost that would be involved with implementing such a program, nor the ethics involved with doing so using an endangered species like the elephant. Maybe instead we could just send elephants already domesticated and kept in zoos along with their keepers on holidays around the northern parts Australia to battle these introduced species each year. Air drop them in from C-130 Hercules planes with huge parachutes. How awesome would that be?!
What are your thoughts my friends?