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Move elephants into Australia, scientist proposes

Feb. 1, 2012
Courtesy of Nature
and World Science staff

Aus­tral­ia may need an in­fu­sion of ele­phants and oth­er large mam­mals to solve its per­sist­ent ec­o­log­i­cal and wild­fire prob­lems, a sci­ent­ist pro­poses.

Ecol­o­gist Da­vid Bow­man of the Uni­vers­ity of Tas­ma­nia in Aus­tral­ia cites out-of-con­trol fires and bur­geon­ing fe­ral-animal popula­t­ions as quan­daries af­flict­ing the Land Down Un­der. Both could be solved by in­tro­duc­ing large mam­mals, as well as pay­ing ab­o­rig­i­nal hunters to con­trol the fe­ral an­i­mals and re­store the old prac­tice of patch burn­ing, he ar­gues. Patch burn­ing is a form of con­trolled burn­ing in­tend­ed to clean out and re­new bio­lo­gical re­sources.

“I real­ize that there are ma­jor risks as­so­ci­at­ed with what I am propos­ing,” as any tin­ker­ing with the en­vi­ron­ment can lead to un­planned con­se­quenc­es, said Bow­ma­n. “But the usu­al ap­proaches to ma­n­ag­ing these is­sues aren’t work­ing.”

Bow­man de­scribes his idea in this week’s is­sue of the re­search jour­nal Na­ture.

Feb. 7 will mark the three-year an­ni­ver­sa­ry of “Black Sat­ur­day,” when nearly 200 peo­ple died in a mas­sive fire­storm in south­ern Aus­tral­ia. Fires are a con­stant con­cern in the con­ti­nent, said Bow­ma­n, but so are its thriv­ing popula­t­ions of fe­ral pigs, camels, hors­es and cat­tle, among oth­ers.

Bow­man pro­poses to ma­n­age Aus­tral­ia’s trou­bled ec­o­sys­tem by in­tro­duc­ing beasts such as ele­phants, rhi­noc­er­os and even Ko­modo drag­ons. These would help con­sume flam­ma­ble grasses and con­trol fe­ral-animal popula­t­ions, he ar­gues.

The larg­est liv­ing land mam­mal na­tive to Aus­tral­ia is the red kan­ga­roo, which as an adult weighs about as much as an av­er­age ma­n. Larg­er mam­mals used to roam the con­ti­nent—such as a hippo-sized mar­su­pi­al re­lat­ed to the wom­bat and called di­pro­to­don, from the Great Ice Age—but they are no more.

The de­lib­er­ate in­tro­duc­tion by hu­ma­ns of po­pu­lations of over­sized, non-na­tive mam­mals to a new conti­nent would be un­prec­e­dent­ed in modern times. One group, though, has pro­posed in­tro­duc­ing large Af­ri­can mam­mals in­to the Great Plains of the Un­ited States, for some­what diff­erent rea­sons than those moti­vating Bow­man.


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Australia may need an infusion of elephants and other large mammals to solve its persistent ecological and wildfire problems, a scientist proposes. Ecologist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania in Australia cites out-of-control fires and burgeoning feral-animal populations as quandaries afflicting the land Down Under. Both could be solved by introducing large mammals, as well as paying aboriginal hunters to control the feral animals and restore the old practice of patch burning, he argues. Patch burning is a form of controlled burning intended to clean out and renew natural resources. “I realize that there are major risks associated with what I am proposing,” as any tinkering with the environment can lead to unplanned consequences, said Bowman. “But the usual approaches to managing these issues aren’t working.” Bowman describes his idea in this week’s issue of the research journal Nature. Feb. 7 will mark the three-year anniversary of “Black Saturday,” when nearly 200 people died in a massive firestorm in southern Australia. Fires are a constant concern in Australia, said Bowman, but so are its thriving populations of feral pigs, camels, horses and cattle, among others. Bowman proposes to manage Australia’s troubled ecosystem by introducing beasts such as elephants, rhinoceros and even Komodo dragons. These would help consume flammable grasses and control feral-animal populations, he argues. The human hunters could contribute by both patch burning and controlling feral animals, he proposes. The largest living land mammal native to Australia is the red kangaroo, which weighs about as much as an average man. Larger mammals used to roam the continent—such as a hippo-sized marsupial related to the wombat and called diprotodon, from the Great Ice Age—but they are no more. The deliberate introduction by humans of oversized, non-native mammals to a new landscape would be unprecedented, though one group has proposed introducing large African mammals into the Great Plains of the United States.