Australia is now overrun with damaging African gamba grass that exacerbate wildfires. Almost impossible to eradicate without copious amounts of equally damaging chemical pesticides, these invasive plants may require fresh thinking, says Professor David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. His solution: Bring in African elephants, zebra, or rhinoceros to control these species. This approach could also help ensure there are multiple populations of increasingly rare elephants and rhinos, which are still hunted across Africa. The Australian outback could become a kind of ark.
According to The Guardian, the giant African gamba grass was brought in to feed livestock in the 1930s. In fact, a team of Australian ecologists searched for plants throughout Africa and decided to test these out. Now, they are nearly uncontrollable, providing “dangerous fuel for wildfires” across northern and central Australia.
In an interview, Bowman explained: “Most of these grasses were introduced when the Australian government had people trying to improve range production. They found this plant in West Africa called gamba grass; they thought: ‘Beauty! It’s big, it has deep roots and it grows like fury.’ They did trials and one thing led to another and it escaped. Weeds often sit and then something happens and they take off. And that take off happened with gamba grass during my lifetime in the Northern Territory. I wrote a piece in 1999 saying that in the next two decades we’ll know whether this thing will go crazy or not, and it has. It’s a grass cane toad, if you like.”
At least 5 percent of the Australian continent burned in fires last year (an area three times the size of England). This is largely because gamba grass, which has eight times the “fuel load” of native grasses and grows up to four meters high, has almost completely replaced native vegetation in many areas, covering about 5 percent of the country.
Given gamba grass can grown really tall, kangaroos, cattle or buffalo can’t control it. Instead, Bowman calls for African mega-fauna species to be brought in as an “ecological tool” for managing the grass. He argues that other non-native species — camels, buffalo, and the banteng (an endangered Asian cattle species) — have done well in Australia, so it’s not a huge stretch. Understanding that elephants can bring their own challenges — they eat crops, destroy trees with equal opportunity, and can attack people — Bowman said wildlife managers could use GPS to track them and manage their fertility.
However, others in Australia still disagree, arguing that elephants would bring too many problems, even if they were managed. Ricky Spencer, senior lecturer with the Native and Pest Animal unit at the University of Western Sydney, said: “If we did go down the road of introducing elephants to Australia, we had better develop the technology to clone saber-tooth tigers to eventually control the elephants.”
Perhaps not saber-tooth tigers, but Bowman also thinks Australia needs to bring back its top predators, which were effectively killed off by European settlers. The predators are needed to “control the ferals that periodically degrade ecosystems.” Dingos, packs of wild dogs, were killed off, but he says bringing them back could bring issues. Komodo dragons could be used to replace the giant lizards that use to exist on the continent. Actually, he thinks Aborigines could serve a better role, hunting animals, being employed in the type of land management they have been long used to. Also, this time around their way of life could even be supported and they could be paid for their work. This is important given Aborgines face extreme poverty and health issues and lack employment opportunities.
On his seemingly wild ideas, Bowman made a point worth considering: “We’re not advocating restoration of the ecosystem, rather reconstructing ecosystems to return ecological functions. All the big marsupials are extinct, so you use what’s on offer.”
In other news, just to demonstrate how difficult Bowman’s idea would be in practice, legal battles are raging over 63 bison that were recently reintroduced to the Great Plains landscape of Montana. According to The New York Times, just “three days after the transfer, a livestock and property rights collective sued, saying that the bison could spread disease and compete with their cattle for grazing.”
Image credit: (1) Gamba Grass fire, Australia / Annie Katec blog, (2) African elephant eating grass / Art.com