Science Interviews


Sun, 5th Feb 2012

Elephants in the Outback

David Bowman, University of Tasmania

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Sarah -   Since humans first set foot in Australia, 50,000 years ago, we've pretty much spelled disaster for the continent.  The first settlers wiped out the continent’s megafauna, including species of giant kangaroo, and the early English colonists introduced foxes, cats, camels, rodents, rabbits, and even poisonous cane toads, and rampant African grasses – all of which had a devastating effect on the ecology of the country and have driven many of the native species to extinction.  So, when an Australian Professor of ecology published a paper suggesting that the answer might actually be to accept that we’re never going to return Australia to how it once was and to introduce even more non-native species including elephants to at least stabilise the status quo, it was bound to be controversial.  Chris Smith spoke to the author of that paper, the University of Tasmania’s David Bowman...

ElephantsDavid -   I've recently published a paper in Nature which is a very controversial opinion piece about the environmental management challenges in Australia associated with uncontrolled fires, feral animals, and how they've interacted with the unusual biogeography of the Australian continent.  We’ve sort of started a cake mix - we’re mixing up all of these ingredients, now do we try to actually make this cake rise and work as a cake or do we just leave it as some sort of weird slurry?  Because all of the introductions which have been made and the changes to fire regimes have all been effectively accidental.  So, we already have a very mixed up ecology and the possibility of returning our ecology to anything like Captain Cook would have seen is an impossible dream given the record extinction rates which have occurred in Australia. 

We’re in a real predicament and I think that the lesson is that humans have to manage nature, we’re in the Anthropocene.  We can't just assume that natural systems are going to be self-righting if we’ve really hammered the natural systems with quite dramatic stresses and introductions.  It’s very controversial thinking, but I've been living with these problems for 30 years and it was about time somebody said something.

Chris -   So what you would argue is that in the past, these introductions and these things have been either mistakes or ill-conceived.  But actually, if we use our brains now and start making changes which are based on science and clear evidence, then we could actually work with the problem we’ve got to help to resolve it and arrive at a better outcome than if we just let things go and try and conserve the status quo, because the status quo is an unstable one.

Yalgoo shire boundary on the Great Northern Highway Near Mt Gibson.David -   I think that's the key point.  We’ve moved on and obviously as ecologists, we have much greater understanding of the need for stabilising food webs and the impact of trophic cascades - when you disrupt food chains and how that can actually result in dramatic landscape scale changes.  All of this thinking is really ripe to trialling things because what we should be striving to do in Australia is forget about the extermination paradigm and "return Australia to its 1788 Captain Cook status", and more to manage impacts and reduce the impacts of these "threatening processes".  Through that, with that human engagement and possibly using some animals as ecological machines to achieve certain outcomes, we can basically steer or stabilise our systems way better than if we just let nature take its course.

Chris -   How has this gone down with the Australian public?  If you talk to people in Australia, they have been very heavily educated about the impact that introductions and feral animals have had on Australian ecology and for an Australian ecologist to then turn around and say, “We need actually to do this more,” they must have quite a strong reaction to that, don't they?

David -   Yeah, it’s very interesting.  Amongst my colleagues, I've been very pleasantly and warmly surprised by the “elephants, a crazy idea but wow!  Isn't it great?” response.  The people are putting all of the options on the table and stiring up this debate, so a lot of support.  Amongst the media, it’s a little bit polarised between people just treating it as an absurd joke, who laugh or others who say "yeah, that's a big idea -  how do we control some things which are uncontrolled if our plan A approaches aren’t working?"  Because we’re about to run into these problems and I think that the way to advance this is that you have lots of debates and some trials so we can start being a lot more adaptive.  We haven’t even talked about climate change which is another layer on top of this horrible complex mess we’re in.

Chris -   So how would you do this in a safe way so we don't see the cane toad problem all over again?

David -   Right.  Well one thing which is really important to bear in mind is that there's a global dimension.  I got a fascinating email from a game manager in Namibia pointing out that when you project at the hundred to a thousand-year perspective on Africa, it’s very difficult to see a future for a lot of animals.  Just the sheer environmental changes driven by people pressure.  Here, we’ve got a low population density in Australia, we could have game parks.  A lot of Australians think that's repugnant, but a cattle farm is okay.  But how would we do it?  Of course, we’d have to trial things and we’d have to invest money.  I would like to see somebody work through the calculation of saying, “Well let’s look at all of the available options and a few crazy options to control this out-of-control grass.  Let’s look at it all and let’s cost them with the knowledge we’ve got available and start a genuine engagement".   At the moment, all that's happening is that people are saying, “This is a very bad weed” but in a holistic sense, nobody is doing anything.  I would call that an out of control situation and you know, I'm certain that there are solutions to stabilise this, but I'm not quite certain how to do it.



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It sounds slightly less sensible than introducing cane toads. Bored chemist, Tue, 7th Feb 2012

Interesting idea.

I've been thinking about "Megafauna". 

One point is that if the experiment goes bad...  they would be reasonably easy to target and wipe out, whereas specifically targeting a toad is a much more difficult task.

Yesterday I went to the Wildlife Safari in Winston, Oregon.  It is only about a square mile, but has quite a number of wild species in a semi-wild like environment, although they do feed all the animals, at least in the winter, and likely have strict population controls.  Many of the animal species are allowed to mix somewhat, although the large cats are kept penned up.  Apparently they used to allow people to drive among the elephants, but the story is that they had gotten a second-hand circus elephant, and one day it chose to sit on someone's car.  And after that the elephants were also penned up.

Anyway, I could imagine, not necessarily releasing the elephants into the wild, but rather making a 10,000 square mile (100x100) African Megafauna Theme Park in the middle of Australia, with elephants, Zebras, Rhinos, & etc.  Would one also introduce the cats?  The Elephant pen at Wildlife Safari was built with railroad irons.  It would take a lot of railroad iron to make a 400 linear mile fence.  Especially if one wanted to build it to withstand everything from elephants to lions.

I have wondered why Africa hasn't wiped out their megafauna long ago, but it may be just a matter of time before they just disappear like the Northern White (wide mouth) Rhino (which apparently is down to 7 in the world).  Or the Quagga, with the all too familiar story...  and then there were none.

It may not be a bad idea to make a backup reserve on another continent.

North America used to have wild camels, mammoths and mastodons. 

It is quite possible that the mammoth will be cloned in the next decade or so.  Yet, I have to wonder whether it would be compatible with Modern American life to reintroduce herds of wild mammoths (or elephants) to range freely like the elk and deer.  I doubt the elephants would bother to even jump over fences. CliffordK, Tue, 7th Feb 2012

Even before I read this interview, I have to say that I admire the Australian stance on the import of non-native species, even for pets.

I can imagine the horror of the thought of introducing yet another species to run rampant across the continent. They already have Cane Toads, as BC mentioned, and rabbits and even the Dingo is a non-native species. Don_1, Wed, 8th Feb 2012

Invasive species constitute a global issue.  Certainly we have many invasive plants in the USA, and a few invasive animals.  I believe the Burmese Python is invasive in Florida.

What may seem to be a good idea at one time, becomes a very bad idea later.  I think Britain has invasive mink.  It may have seemed to be good idea for the garment industry a century ago, but it is less popular now that animal pelts are not being used as frequently in coats and hats.

Did the British spread foxes around the world for sport-hunting?

Megafauna (elephants, giraffes, & etc) could likely be reasonably well controlled in large wildlife parks, especially if care was done to build and maintain sturdy fences.  And, if they would get loose, they could be recaptured or hunted.  African Poachers might line up for the opportunity to legally hunt wild elephants.

If done right, the parks could evolve into a lucrative tourist business. 

The cats contribute to stability in Africa, but would be more controversial to import into a situation where they might escape. CliffordK, Wed, 8th Feb 2012

Elephant proof fence is very hard to do. Even an electric fence with lethal voltage will not deter them if there is green food and water on the other side. They drop 2 trees to down a section of fence and walk across. If there are no trees nearby then they will bring them. The rhino's did not notice the fence and walked right through, the shock merely made them more skittish. SeanB, Sat, 11th Feb 2012

I think Australia should covet their population density ranking of 235/241.

It makes more sense to import mildly destructive elephants compared to the extremely destructive humans...  which also have a tendency to not stay behind fences. CliffordK, Sat, 11th Feb 2012

If you plant to bring elephants, don't forget to bring the right sort of dung beetle or you will really be in the ... newspapers for your foolishness. Bored chemist, Sun, 12th Feb 2012

Low population density, but do remember that most of the country is low to no rainfall. I think there is already something to handle elephant processed plant material there, otherwise there would be an equal amount of kangaroo mounds. SeanB, Sun, 12th Feb 2012

"Dung beetles tend to have a preference for a particular type of dung. "
You really do need the right sort of beetles. Bored chemist, Sun, 12th Feb 2012

I've seen maggots, but  I'm not sure if I've seen dung beetles.  I think I'll have to take a closer look next summer. 

It is interesting that they appear to be quite species and location dependent.  So, the Buffalo roamed in the central USA.  But, cattle are raised in many different climates across the USA.  And, of course, horse apples and cow pies are quite different. CliffordK, Sun, 12th Feb 2012

umm... That thought does not go down well in a country where we already have a huge problem with feral camels! damocles, Thu, 16th Feb 2012

I heard that they're good to eat!!!

We have some wild horses in some areas.  Every once in a while the government has a roundup and allows people to adopt the wild horses.

I would think one could control or eradicate a bothersome large species, although I'm sure it is difficult to get everyone to agree to do it, so you have issues with private property boundaries.

Wild camels are supposed to be indigenous to the USA, we just don't have them left here.  Perhaps you could round them up from Australia and release them here. CliffordK, Thu, 16th Feb 2012

Yes they are good to eat. Yes some are used for hunting, some are captured for export to the Middle East and other areas where there are difficulties of supply or disease with the local stock, and some are domesticated and used locally as beasts of burden, etc. But there is a huge wild population that is still a nuisance in spoiling desert environment or dryland crops, etc., and while culling can and does occur, our vast and sparsely populated interior prevents any real possibility of extermination or even control of the wild population, as I understand it.

(This is not a problem that I know a great deal about, as I live in the moderately populous and fertile SouthEast of the country, and have only rarely encountered a few domesticated camels that have been kept on local properties.) damocles, Thu, 16th Feb 2012

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