Elephants in the Outback?

The introduction of elephants, rhinoes and other huge herbivores has been proposed as a radical solution to Australia’s bushfire problems.
The provocative plan would see the giant mammals used as ‘grass-eating machines’.

“We have to think outside the square,” said Dr David Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania. “Last year we had a fire in the outback in Central Australia the size of Tasmania … these things are very bad.”

In an article in Nature magazine, Dr Bowman says Australia’s sheer size made slashing and aerial spraying programs impractical.
“I’m not saying let’s pull up with a barge and randomly release a whole lot of African animals,” he said. “It might be a stupid idea but is having a world-famous, out-of-control grass-fire cycle a clever idea? If we stand back and do nothing, it’s just as bad as making a mistake.”

One major source of fuel for wildfires in northern Australia is gamba grass – a giant African species that is too big for native fauna and even feral buffalo to handle.

“Gamba grass is a great meal for elephants or rhinoceroses,” Dr Bowman said. “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,”
He suggests that elephants could be used alongside traditional Aboriginal patch burning to help manage fire risk.

Dr Bowman further argues that top predators like dingoes could be reinstated to control foxes and cats, and Aboriginal people should be encouraged to hunt feral animals. He says short-term programs designed to poison feral animals, fence them out of sensitive areas or shoot them from helicopters are expensive and ineffective.

He says past mistakes call for confronting solutions that need to be based on science, not emotion and cultural prejudice.
Dr Bowman emphasises that any animals introduced would need to be managed properly with their spread controlled by, for example, GPS collars, sterilisation or contraceptives.

Opponents of the elephant plan say the animals would be a threat to trees and would be difficult to confine behind fences. One environmental group says they would become the ‘10-tonne cane toads’ of the outback if they were introduced.



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