The Guardian 2 March, 2005

Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

The toad war

On February 12 Richard Morecroft presented a nature documentary on the ABC called Goannas And The Rubbish Frogs. I hope you saw it. Everyone should see it.

It dealt with an environmental disaster right here in Australia. My write-up of the program in Worth Watching began with this statement:

"While Johnny Howard splurges money on the military, very little money is being provided for stopping the devastation being caused by the steady advance across the Top End of the toxic Cane Toad."

Cane Toads have been part of the Australian scene (at least in Queensland) since 1935, but it was only in the last quarter of the 20th century that the country as a whole became conscious of the ecological nightmare they represented.

Originally from South America, the toads were introduced into Queensland in 1935 in a disastrously ill-considered attempt to biologically control the sugar cane beetle. The toads ignored the beetles and instead settled in to wreak havoc on our environment.

Sometime in the 1970s, it seems, their numbers reached a critical mass and they began to expand their territory. They are now steadily but slowly spreading south. They are rapidly spreading across the tropical north of the country.

They have already reached the matchless world heritage area of Kakadu. The ABC documentary revealed that in parts of Kakadu there are already an alarming 20,000 cane toads per square kilometre.

Cane Toads are not the only foreign animal to be deliberately introduced into this country and then allowed to run wild to the detriment of our wildlife and our pastures. Rabbits and hares, foxes and Indian Mynahs, goats and pigs, donkeys and camels, buffalo and more have all played a part in this ongoing catastrophe.

Rabbits at least entered the food chain and helped to sustain the enormous population of foxes we acquired. Wedgetail eagles also prey on rabbits, but a pair of wedgies cover a vast territory. You don't see them all that often.

On the other hand, if I make the 20-minute drive into Wyong of an evening I will see numerous foxes caught in the headlights and again on the return trip.

I don't know what foxes think of Cane Toads, but Kookaburras, quoll, snakes and goannas regard them as natural prey, with fatal results. For Cane Toads are poisonous and predators who eat them die quickly. Too quickly for them to learn to avoid the toads.

The Cane Toads' tadpoles are large and very active, and the toad spawns vast numbers of them. They render pools unfit for other amphibians to breed or survive in.

The unchecked march of the Cane Toads puts Australia's unique wildlife at risk of catastrophic collapse; whole species could disappear. Finding a way to stop the toads should be a national priority and a very urgent one.

Back in 1999 (six years ago now), Nature Australia carried an advertisement from a Northern Territory tourist enterprise specialising in walkabout tours in Kakadu, the Kimberley and the Red Centre.

The ad was headed "Kakadu's wildlife is about to change dramatically". It went on to warn that sometime between 2001 and 2005 "many populations will crash. Some will recover in part. Others may never do so."

The reason for this? "The cane toad is coming. When they reach Kakadu's wetlands:

  • Their population will explode

  • They will eat many small animals

  • Animals which eat them will die."

    The ad called on readers of Nature Australia to take action: "Cane toads are a national problem. Write to the Federal Minister for the Environment and demand that:

  • Cane toad research funding be increased.

  • Research be integrated with on-ground eradication programs."

    This was and still is good advice. The ad was not all gloom and doom.

    It noted that "there is hope". In some areas cane toad populations had declined and average toad size had also decreased.

    Pointing to the importance of research funding, it said: "If we knew why, we could minimise their impact. Sadly, funding for cane toad research has almost disappeared."

    That was in 1999. In February of this year, the ABC documentary Goannas And The Rubbish Frogs, after stressing the urgency of the situation, noted bitterly that "at the present rate of funding, an effective genetic control is at least a decade away. Meanwhile, wet season floodwaters are carrying the cane toads ever deeper into previously pristine wilderness areas."

    It's time the Federal government came under real pressure to fund a genuine research and eradication campaign against cane toads before it is too late.

    Back to index page