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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.

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14 Comments sorted by

  1. Jon Altman

    Research Professor in Anthropology at Australian National University

    David you raise some really important issues about Australia's inability to grasp the extent of the threats to continental biodiversity from feral animals, exotic weeds, altered fire regimes and depopulation, let alone climate change, pressures on fresh water, sea level rises and salt water intrusion. And within reason, lively debate might lead to the national attention and policy frameworks that might save Australia's environment, although some argue that significant biodiversity loss is inevitable…

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  2. Dennis Alexander

    logged in via LinkedIn

    Well said David. To take up Andy's point, there is a range of positions between dogma (received truth) and heresy (beyond the scope of accepted explications of extensions to received truth). In fact, except perhaps in seminaries, hersesy is not necessarily a bad thing. And, if we accept the postulate of Pangea (or even Gondwanaland), the notion that there are species "native" to different continents is not a necessarily eternally valid or true proposition. That is, we can afford some mixing, matching, adapting and evolving in various ways but not all.

    Our stewardship responsibilities requires us to consider, pursue and foster some introductions and manage, control and, if possible, eradicate others. As David says, this is rightly the zone of public and political debate with all possibilities on the table, some for longer than others.

  3. Vincent O'Donnell

    Honorary Research Associate of the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University

    Certainly a thoughtful contribution to the debate, but I have but five words of caution concerning the importation of non-native animals: rabbits, prickly pear, cane toads.

    1. Mark Duffett

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Vincent O'Donnell

      Interesting you should mention prickly pear, since the moth Cactoblastis cactorum imported to control it stands as one of the great success stories of one exotic species being introduced to suppress another.

  4. Vincent O'Donnell

    Honorary Research Associate of the School of Media and Communication at RMIT University

    Quite so, Mark, but I relish the irony that we had to import a second species to eliminate one that wiser heads should not have imported in the first place. And while the pear infestation is not even one hundredth of its earlier intensity, parts of my brothers property on the northern tablelands of NSW show the resilience of the plant.

    Of course the modern problem is that foreign species like the Asian bee are not imported by human agents but by careless quarantine, or natural migration, so sometimes biological countermeasures are the only option.

  5. Emma Burns

    Executive Director, Long Term Ecological Research Network; Fenner School of Environment and Society at Australian National University

    Great article David. Based on current politics and social attitudes there seems to be little evidence of attention or care when it comes to large social problems. We don't seem to be able to see passed our own personal agendas and political cycles. Socially we react to aggressive baseless policies and politics with applause or indifference, regardless of feasibility. It is all about the rhetoric and not problem solving. Hopefully this will pass and we can move into an era where we don't reward promises but focus on performance. Effective management of exotics has been a fundamental issue that we have had sufficient knowledge to start to effectively address for a number of years-what has been lacking is political will and a long-term funding source. One can only hope that the Biodiversity Fund might have the potential to change this.

  6. Bernie Masters

    environmental consultant at FIA Technology Pty Ltd, B K Masters and Associates

    Well done for writing an article that challenges orthodox and current 'politically correct' thinking.
    In my view, your most important sentence is this one: "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?" Absolutely spot on! Even as state governments…

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  7. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    I certainly agree with Professor Bowman's call for unfettered public debate about critical environmental issues such as environmental sustainability.

    While for 50 years I have wished for something like The Conversation in Australian public life - a popular magazine with articles written by credentialled experts - I am a bit disappointed with the contributions of scientists in particular who in general seem rather timid (probably from real fear of anything adverse affecting their research grant…

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  8. Beat Odermatt

    Environmental Consultant

    The “media outcry” about releasing elephants to control noxious grasses certainly did awake the politically correct mafia from its self-righteous sleep. It needs somebody with the necessary academic credentials like Professor Bowman to highlight real environmental issues in Australia. It seems that everyone is happy that the environment in Australia is in good hands. It seems that the carbon tax is going to fix all evils and all the current laws will provide for “happiness for ever after”. The fact…

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  9. Dick Clarke

    Building Designer, Director Sustainability

    This discussion is so urgently needed across a wide range of stakeholders. Bill Gammage's excellent work "The Biggest Estate on Earth" shows it from another angle. How do we get some structure around this, to ensure it is elevated into a sensible ongoing and focussed debate that remains visible to the media and all stakeholders (sorry - there's that word again), esp those who regulate land use and fire/ecology management?

    Any ideas?

  10. Ben Carr

    Landscape Ecologist

    Thanks David for helping to open up the debate about our ongoing biodiversity loss. What I think is important is the need for evidence based assessment and evaluation of environmental and specifically biodiversity conservation outcomes. For too long we have been feed and digested the line that natural habitats and their biodiversity values can be saved by simply changing tenure and incorporating in in the public or private conservation estate. However there is growing advocating for evidence based…

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  11. Jim Donaldson
    Jim Donaldson is a Friend of The Conversation.

    PhD Scholar at Fenner School of Environment and Society, ANU

    David - a great article to open minds and the necessary debate but while we constantly hear calls for biodiversity conservation to be taken more seriously, apart from bemoaning the loss, ecologists seem incredibly poor at explaining why it really matters! Why does it matter? In your second last paragraph you say as a scientist you are interested in evidence-based approaches, which may be great for documenting the losses and making that transparent, but as you note, at the same time, the debates are largely run off the back of 'values'. So why does it really matter? Is it just an expression of human preference or something more than that?

  12. James Walker

    logged in via Facebook

    I've been mullng over this for the last few weeks, and I think that your idea can be made safe by a simple modification:

    Only bring in female elephants.

    Elephant overpopulation is likely to be a serious problem in Africa soon - killing males achieves nothing, killing females traumatises the rest of the herd.

    If an entire herd of female elephants was brought into Australia, they would still have their social network, African overpopulation stops being a problem, we have our feral grass eaten, and they can't create a feral problem because they can't breed.

    Obviously we would need to keep an eye on the herd for a couple of years so that after already pregnant females deliver males, the males can be shipped back to Africa.