By Kate Boston

Today a friend of mine drew my attention to a piece in The Australian which was discussing a comment in Nature called “Conservation: Bring elephants to Australia?” by David Bowman. 

In a nutshell the article says that Australia has some pretty big environmental problems.  The extinction of megafauna (giant birds, marsupials and reptiles) in Australia left a gap in the food web.  This niche has, since European arrival, been filled with things like buffalo, pigs, cattle, horses, camels, goats – feral animals we now regard as pests.  We’ve also introduced new plant species which compete with native flora, further reorganising eco-systems.

The answer?  Introduce animals that can control the pests!  The example given is elephants – they eat gamba grass which is too big to be eaten by native animals or cattle, and is a pretty massive fire hazard. 

We could also introduce komodo dragons to fill the niche left when the giant lizards inconveniently went extinct during the Pleistocene.  Unfortunately komodo dragons have a nasty habit of attacking humans too.  (But increasing hunting pressure in other ways – ie more dingos or hunting by humans – could work too).

At first I laughed.  Yes.  Let’s introduce a species to control an introduced species.  (My friend quipped that we could have a roaring ivory trade to control the elephants, which would boost the economy through exports and tourism.  Nice).  But my mind inevitably sprang to The Cane Toad Environmental Disaster* (yes, the capital letters are necessary).  Another such disaster is exactly what we don’t need.

Obviously, I don’t have a solution.**

But I do think we need to stop playing god and start facing facts: we don’t know everything about a) our environment, b) native animals or c) the effect of introducing a species.  When we mix these three Giant Unknowns together we are likely to get a Big Pot of Trouble.

But Prof Bowman does draw attention to the piecemeal approach that governments usually take when dealing with complex issues such as conservation, resource management and climate change.  Policy makers need to be made aware that such issues are part of a larger system, and changing one part without considering the rest is not likely to work, and may even make things worse.

*  Cane toads were introduced in the 1930’s in an effort to control cane beetles.  As it turns out, cane toads aren’t any good at controlling cane beetles.  This is further evidence that if there is a creator, He/She/It has a very dark sense of humour – but that’s another story for another time.

**  If I did I’d be typing this whilst lounging on my yacht, sipping on mango daiquiris and wondering whether I’d prefer to buy a Scottish castle or a Pacific Island (or both, why not treat myself?!).