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Elephants on grass: only lively debate can save Australia’s environment

Last week I published an opinion piece in Nature attempting to crystallise debate on a number of issues in Australian environmental management: bushfires, weeds, feral animals, management of Aboriginal…

Just because an idea seems ridiculous, doesn’t mean it’s not worth discussing. moirabot/Flickr

Last week I published an opinion piece in Nature attempting to crystallise debate on a number of issues in Australian environmental management: bushfires, weeds, feral animals, management of Aboriginal land, control of native predators, the role of hunting, and ex-situ conservation of non-native species.

All of these debates are near boiling point and my piece triggered an explosive response nationally and internationally.

The hook was the left-field idea that large African animals like elephants and rhino may be required to control one of Australia’s worst environmental weeds, gamba grass, which could transform north Australian landscapes such as Kakadu. The media delighted in focusing on this zany idea, but many journalists explored other issues too.

The crux of my argument is that Australian land management is in a crisis. Management issues like feral animals, fire management and weed control have been handled by a mix of ad hoc responses, or in some cases, denial.

Contradictory positions abound. Why are Australians so relaxed about the ongoing small mammal extinction crisis that marks Australia as having the highest mammal extinction of any country on Earth? Why are some exotic animals that are now wild accepted as “good” or at least tolerable (trout), “iconic” (brumbies) or coldly expendable by lethal control (camels and buffalo and pigs)? Why have we handed environmentally degraded lands back to Aboriginal people who manifestly don’t have the sufficient means to management the multiple environmental threats?

Why not have an open debate on why we love some introduced species and revile others? Tony Marsh

Why, despite all the interest in the environment and recognition of its importance to national identity and tourism, have we allowed national park agencies' budgets to contract to a point where non-government organisations have become leaders in conserving the remnants of Australia’s unique biodiversity?

Clearly current management approaches are not working. This was the key message of the recent Hawke review into the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999. The challenge is to find a way forward. I believe a basic first step is to put everything on the table and work through options that may be unsound ecologically, impractical, or socially unacceptable.

It has been suggested that that canvasing all sorts of options publicly damages scientific credibility and that going “softly softly” is a more responsible approach for scientists. The question of scientific responsibility is an interesting one and not as straightforward as it seems.

Is it scientifically responsible to chronicle the destruction of ecosystems without giving any guidance to society about how to mitigate the catastrophic effects? In the case of gamba grass the scientific evidence is compelling that this grass radically changes fire regimes and can totally transform savanna ecosystems. This is evidenced by fires so severe that fire managers in the Darwin hinterlands are having to use control methods akin to those used in southern Australia.

I have been concerned about the threat of gamba grass for over a decade and remain unconvinced that there is any hope to contain this threat. Gamba grass could cover 380,000 km squared, or about 5% of Australia.

Not every introduced species is a disaster. ucumari/Flickr

The idea of introducing new species of animal to control plants adapted to grazing (and introduced to Australia to feed grazers) triggered the knee jerk response, “what about cane toads?” This default position that “all introductions are bad” ignores the facts. For example, the introduced banteng, a highly endangered south-east Asian cattle species, has had negligible impact on Garig Gunak Barlu National Park in the Top End of the Northern Territory. In any case why are cattle leases a “better” use of land than a putative game park that could protect endangered species in their native ranges?

Scientific credibility is also strained if scientists continually report problems publicly but fail to help craft solutions. For example, if ecologists emphasise the threats of climate change in their work, I believe they are morally obliged to explore potential solutions. This must include considering heterodoxies - ideas that challenge the status quo.

Indeed, the threats of global ecological crisis has lead some thinkers about the environment crisis to let go of the old orthodoxies and opened their minds to a new nature.

If the threats of climate change are as great as some fear, they will compound the ecological dysfunction we already can’t manage. Hosing down debate is a strategy doomed to failure. It engenders a sense that we really are stuffed.

Managing the Australian biodiversity crisis demands fresh thinking: there could be numerous wins for the environment and society. Obviously there are plenty of ideas that are non-starters once given serious thought, or can be rejected after some research and trialing.

The key message I have learnt from the recent debate about Australian land management is that it is a necessarily political subject, charged by sentiment as much as reason. Views differ on acceptable risk, the need for reform, the price worth paying and personal values and philosophies. Such political debates surround other sensitive issues like nuclear energy, gay rights, and drug laws. Nonetheless, as a scientist I believe in evidenced-based approaches to vexed issues.

The basic first step in getting evidence is framing hypotheses through open and honest debate. Such debate is the hallmark of democracy.