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Proposal for elephants to reduce bushfire risks

February 5, 2012
Australia could introduce large herbivores such as elephants as part of a radical biological solution to the problem of bushfires and invasive species, according to a University of Tasmania academic.
The argument is laid out in a provocative commentary from Dr David Bowman, Professor of Environmental Change Biology at the University of Tasmania, published this week in the journal Nature.
Dr Bowman stated "I'm being as provocative as possible to try and wake everybody up to say, 'Look, what is currently happening is not sustainable. We have to think outside the square. "
Dr Bowman says the short-term programs designed to address Australia's serious problems with bushfires and invasive species are piecemeal, costly and ineffective, believing that the measures are not succeeding in controlling the invasive gamba grass that leads to frequent intense fires in Australia's north.
Dr Bowman stated "iIt's out of control. Last year we had a fire in the outback in Central Australia the size of Tasmania. These things are very bad."
Dr Bowman says the sheer magnitude of the landscape makes short-term slashing and aerial spraying programs impractical, and biological solutions are needed instead.
The article proposes that large herbivores like elephants be used as "grass-eating machines" and, used alongside traditional Aboriginal patch burning, could help manage fire risk in the north.
Dr Bowman argues that short-term programs designed to poison feral animals, fence them out of sensitive areas or shoot them from helicopters are expensive and ineffective.
Instead, top predators like dingoes could be reinstated to control foxes and cats, and Aboriginal people should be encouraged to hunt feral animals, adding "we could pay Aboriginal people to hunt and burn ... not for a program, but forever."
Dr Bowman says research suggests the health of Aboriginal people would also improve if they were given these important tasks.
Dr Bowman spent 20 years working as a wildlife biologist in northern Australia, often with Aboriginal people, managing weeds, fire and feral animals.
Dr Bowman acknowledges many will think his idea is stupid and he says he is not committed to elephants, but says the challenge is on to find a more holistic solution to problems like grass fires, adding "it might be a stupid idea, but is having a world-famous, out-of-control grass-fire cycle a clever idea?"
Dr Bowman says past mistakes call for confronting solutions that need to be based on science, not emotion and cultural prejudice, stating that people need to ask themselves why it is okay to shoot donkeys and camels but not horses, and says people need to accept there is no such thing as "pristine nature", adding "buffalo, pigs and cane toads are now part of the landscape and we need to work with them."
Dr Bowman's article argues that evidence suggests low levels of camel and buffalo are beneficial because their tracks form firebreaks and emphasises any animals introduced would need to be managed properly with their spread controlled by, for example, GPS collars, sterilisation or contraceptives.
The article says that while the case of the cane toad is used to scare people about biological control, adaption of wildlife suggests reactions to biological controls may not be as bad as we expect.
Dr Bowman added "if we stand back and do nothing, it's just as bad as making a mistake."
Dr Don Driscoll, a fellow at the Australian National University's Fenner School of Environment and Society, says Dr Bowman's idea of introducing elephants will be unpopular because the animals are a threat to trees and would be difficult to confine behind fences.
Dr Driscoll suggested that "introducing elephants to Australia would likely be rather quickly rejected as a method for controlling invasive gamba grass."
However, Dr Bowman's proposal to reinstate dingoes appears to have met with some support, Dr Driscoll adding "evidence is mount

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