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Elephants the answer to bushfire problem? That’s dumbo, scientists say

Elephants, rhinoceroses, Komodo dragons and other large animals are the unorthodox but most effective solution to the spread…

Can elephants help prevent bushfires and eradicate feral animals? Flickr/TheLizardQueen.

Elephants, rhinoceroses, Komodo dragons and other large animals are the unorthodox but most effective solution to the spread of flammable grasses and feral animals in Australia, a scientist has proposed.

David Bowman, a professor of biology at the University of Tasmania, says the world’s largest herbivores should be brought in to eat their way through introduced grasses in the savannas in northern Australia.

Writing in today’s edition of the journal Nature, Professor Bowman says that gamba grass, a giant African grass that is a major source of fuel for wildfires in the monsoon tropics, “is too big for marsupial grazers (kangaroos) and for cattle and buffalo, the largest feral mammals. But gamba grass is a great meal for elephants or rhinoceroses.

“The idea of introducing elephants may seem absurd, but the only other methods likely to control gamba grass involve using chemicals or physically clearing the land, which would destroy the habitat. Using mega-herbivores may ultimately be more practical and cost-effective.”

Professor Bowman also proposes using Aboriginal hunters to curb feral animal numbers.

His provocative suggestions have attracted criticism from some scientists, who say introducing animals could create more problems in the long term.

Dr Ricky Spencer, a senior lecturer with the Native and Pest Animal Unit at the University of Western Sydney, described Professor Bowman’s comments as “careless given recent proposals for the establishment of game reserves in NSW and introduction of new potential feral animals into these reserves”.

“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.”

Professor Patricia Werner, from the Australian National University’s Fenner School of Environment and Society, said that elephants and rhinoceroses were browsers, not grazers.

“They eat not only grass but leaves, twigs, fruits, roots they dig up, and even bark … are we in Australia prepared to try yet another landscape-scale ‘experiment’ as we did with foxes, rabbits and so on, and merely hope that the elephants don’t find our native Australian trees tasty?”

Other scientists applauded Professor Bowman for thinking unconventionally, but said the costs and risks involved would render the option of introducing animals such as elephants unattractive.

Professor Bowman acknowledged that his proposal would be seen as radical, but said that three years on from Black Saturday - when a massive firestorm killed almost 200 people in southern Australia - “the usual approaches to managing these issues aren’t working”.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Gamba grass should not be burned nor eaten by Elephants (!!!) – it should be harvested and converted to biochar.

    Burning cellulose and hemicellulose (the bulk of Gamba grass) or indeed in vivo biological oxidation yields the Greenhouse gas (GHG) CO2: (CH20)n + nO2 -> nCO2 + nH2O i.e. 30 g cellulose -> 44 g CO2 or 1 g cellulose -> 1.47 g CO2. Burning 100 kg cellulose -> 147 kg CO2 and burning 200kg cellulose -> 266 kg CO2.

    An Elephant consumes about 200 kg cellulosic material per day of…

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  2. Gideon Polya

    Sessional Lecturer in Biochemistry for Agricultural Science at La Trobe University

    Correction to para 2: "burning 200kg cellulose -> 294 kg CO2".

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  3. Richard Dobson

    logged in via Facebook

    I think its a great idea! And I don't think Dr. Spencer need worry about an over-proliferation of Elephants so much that it requires sabre-tooth tigers to control them. After all Ivory is a valuable resource which poachers in Africa go to great lengths to acquire illegally.

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  4. Yolanda Newman

    Learning support coordinator

    I love reading about ideas which are unconventional. They are not only fun but often help to push the mind into being more creative. I can't accept that 'introducing' another non native species though is appropriate. But there are a large number of elephants surely in various zoos across Australia. What about organising for them to go on a little grass eating holiday a few months before bushfire season? Could create some work for the locals in bush fire zones and be an added tourist attraction for visitors. Also for the elephants would give them a change from their enclosures and refreshment for their spirits.

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  5. Vanessa Wronski

    Software Developer

    A creative proposal but I think white rhinos are a better option when compared to African elephants.

    David, isn’t it more likely that African elephants will destroy trees and crops? As far as I am aware African elephants prefer acacia trees over grass, and who knows what other Australian native plants/trees they might go for.
    Also, introducing elephants to a new area is very risky to themselves and other animals. For example, young male elephants are known to try and rape rhinos and then kill them if they don’t have older males around to control their testosterone levels.

    In my opinion, white rhinos would be a far better option. They are grazers and can be introduced as solitary individuals without causing problems. I’d imagine they wouldn’t be so into destroying native vegetation and crops too.

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  6. Michael Burrows

    Mr

    I too love the left field thinking and varied discussion this has raised.

    Pretty big 'cane toads' though.

    Risk to native grasses and local ecosystems?

    Cattle grazing in the high country may have kept the fuel levels down but was frowned upon by the 'other damage' they caused.

    Rhinos are known killers as are rogue elephants.

    Keep pushing the envelope people; as an opportunity for resolution: is now open.

    Feed for drought or flood stricken areas - Hmmm.......?

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  7. John Holmes

    Agronomist - semi retired consultant

    Not sure if the failure off currently economically valuable grazing animals to control Gamba grass is due to the inability of those animals to do so or a failure of the stock management system. If the grass is so productive, this would seem to me that the current management system is limited. Issues of land ownership/accessibility, and markets. It was quite interesting to see the contrast in management ideas when improved pastures raised the productivity of some Top End properties by a factor of 1 to to orders of magnitude.

    Sure bio fuels are an option. Again, infrastructure, not charging 20 time as much to get a container to the Top End from Brisbane as from Tokyo, plus issues of land use.

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    1. Shirley Birney

      retiree

      In reply to John Holmes

      I fail to see the benefit of importing elephants when mass deaths are occurring among our native fauna. This calamity also includes thousands of birds dropping from the skies after searching for water, only to die from an agonising thirst.

      The unintended consequences of having Jumbo on rampage in outback Australia could spell disaster.

      Those who ignore the history of the introduction of non-indigenous sheep and cattle to these now degraded lands are bound to repeat the same mistake.

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  8. John Harland

    bicycle technician

    Elephants are big-enough that the numbers required might all be sterilised before being let out into the environment. They might even be radio tagged.

    We do not have to allow reporduction in the wild and the associated problems of unregulated spread.

    If elephants don't behave as we expect, we can recall them.

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  9. James Dodd

    writer

    I love the idea that a product, all be it an introduced one, being utilised in the way that it is suggested above in relation to gamba grass. That is exactly what the motivation should be for Australia; reaping her inland harvest, sustainably. If our country thrives off a fire regime, then let us not deny it that. The question is about us learning to befriend fire, not casting it aside as the enemy. Restore the songline trails which once bordered the patch burnt mosaic, ignited just before rain. Populate the inland by allowing the people to hunt and harvest-- restore the correct populations of kangaroo, emu,, all original species. esp tourists to make the seasonal harvests. It can be the largest traditionally managed landscape on earth and Black Saturdays will become a thing of the past.

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  10. David Arthur

    resistance gnome

    In East Africa, elephant numbers are declining due to human population pressure and to poaching for the illegal ivory trade.

    Now, the demand for ivory is not going to go away; since there always will be a market for ivory, the question becomes whether this market be supplied without killing elephants.

    As it happens, the answer is yes. The tusks of captive ('domesticated') elephants can be surgically shortened and/or bluntened under anaesthetic without loss of either tusk or elephant.

    Gamba infestations on degraded savanna could therefore provide the basis of an ivory production industry in Northern Australia with elephant husbandry, which would provide employment and income for Indigenous people.

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