Australia vs. the cane toad: Fair fight?
A plague of cane toads -- the Godzilla of the amphibian world -- is overrunning Australia. Breeding faster than rabbits, impervious to predators, the cane toads are gradually making their way south and west across the continent.
And Australians seem powerless to stop them.
The cane toad -- "Bufo marinus" -- was introduced to Australia in 1935 to keep down pests. It can locate food by smell, shrug off water loss and migrate 85 kilometers during a wet season.
As drought-breaking rains have smothered the continent, the toads have gone forth and multiplied. And multiplied again. And again.
Once confined to tropical north Queensland, the toads have migrated as far south as Sydney and have swum, hopped and croaked their way through the Northern Territory, across to Western Australia.
It is estimated there may be as many as 2 billion cane toads in Australia. Dry and warty female toads can lay as many as 25,000 eggs at once.
A spokesperson for the federal Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, said, “There is currently no 'silver bullet' solution to cane toads.”
Native Australian animals are at the toads' mercy. They excrete Bufotenin, a mildly hallucinogenic, poisonous substance released from glands behind their eyes and back. Toxic, it is feared it could devastate native populations.
Now, even the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals advocates euthanizing cane toads by freezing them.
In Western Australia, the toads are preparing for their next invasion: the delicate and -– until now –- untouched eco-system of the Kimberly Ranges is at their slimy webbed mercy.
There seems to be no answer as Australia shakes its head and ponders that it only has itself to blame.
While many people believe attempts to stop the all-conquering pest are futile, some communities are fighting back. Masses of volunteers are collecting toad corpses in a last-ditch attempt to protect their land.
The spread of the cane toad
The Queensland Government first imported cane toads from their native central and southern American habitat to contain cane field pests in 1935. Eating as many as 22 insects per feed, they were seen as an ideal solution.
They were also imported to the Caribbean, Florida and Pacific islands including Hawaii – where they now occupy every island.
In Australia, they have become a resilient, undeniable breed. Their migratory speed has increased eight-fold. They conquered Kakadu National Park a decade ago. It was federally declared a “key threatening process” in 2005.
This wet season, which brought floods to much of the continent, the amphibious attackers have made astounding progress.
They have spread as far south as Port Macquarie, and Sydney held its collective breath last year when micro colonies of the dreaded toad were found were found on the outskirts of the city.
They threaten sensitive populations of much-loved bell frogs, which are adorned in the green and gold national colors.
Professor Ross Alford, a tropical biologist at James Cook University, said, “They could certainly live as far south as Sydney. Some suggest they’ll make it all along the south coast to Adelaide.”
“The Queensland experience suggests [the cane toad] has effects but it doesn’t cause anything to go extinct. Lots of goannas die –- at the time it looks like a disaster, but they recover.”
“The exception are quolls (a marsupial predator) where populations crash but don’t recover,” said Professor Alford.
He said the cane toad is a ‘keystone predator’ and could have unknown effects on the eco-system.
A government spokesperson said, “The Threat Abatement Plan (2010) will help identify priorities and activities that could receive funding in the future.”
“(The) Caring for our Country project, through the University of Sydney, (is) targeting the impacts of cane toads on the northern quoll by training the quolls to avoid cane toads by providing small toads laced with a nausea-inducing chemical."
The community front lines
But it’s the cane toad's march through northern Australia that has communities concerned. Brown snakes, the sand goanna, the blue-tongued lizard and the frill-necked lizard are at its mercy. The cane toads look like prey, but any living thing that mistakes them for a native frog and eats them will surely die.
The toads are now in Western Australia and the government has allocated funds to community organizations on the front lines.
One such organization is the Kimberley Toadbusters, based at the foot of the fabled Bungle Bungles, a breathtaking, pre-historic mountain range.
“We’re at the front lines, the colonizing lines," says Lee Scott-Virtue of Toadbusters. "We’re pulling large numbers of toads out and getting at their breeding cycles.”
Along with her husband and son, Scott-Virtue initiated Toadbusters seven years ago and have gathered more than 7,000 volunteers, including backpackers. They work through the night, spotlights beaming and bags at the ready.
“It’s very addictive busting toads,” Scott-Virtue said.
Fight as they may, even Toadbusters concede that the invaders’ path into the Kimberley is only a wet season away. But they fight on.
“Toads are now hopping away instead of just sitting when walking up to them,” said Toadbusters administrative coordinator, John Cugley. “Gone are the days of seeing a toad on the road, having time to park the car and casually walk up to the toad. These days it is all split timing, otherwise they are off into the bush and the chase is on.”
Even in Queensland, the largely defeated locals are fighting back. A maverick state politician, Shane Knuth, has been inspired by a “Simpsons” whacking-day episode and initiated an annual Toad Day Out, which sees more than 10,000 toads captured and frozen. He pleads for everyone to play his or her part.
But it’s not a fair fight. The cane toad's progress seems relentless and the cane toad empire unstoppable. Will the final round go to Godzilla?