Science, Tech & Environment

Elephants as Possible Solution to Stop Australia's Wildfires

For the Geo Quiz we are looking for a vast, but sparsely-populated territory of Australia.

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It is summertime there with temperature averaging around 95 degree Fahrenheit.

The place we are talking about borders the Timor Sea to the north and to the south it abuts South Australia.

The southern region is mostly a desert with little rain in the forecast at least until March.

European miners arrived in this area in the 17th century, but long before they arrived, indigenous Australians had settled dating back as far as 40,000 years ago.

Nowadays there is a nickname for folks living there: territorians.

Australia's Northern Territory is the answer to the Geo Quiz. It is a federal territory of Australia occupying much of the center of the mainland continent, as well as the central northern regions.

The Northern Territory is a vast region and has experienced an unusually high number of wildfires in recent years. One cause is an exotic grass that is a major fuel for fires.

An Australian scientist is now proposing a controversial solution: importing elephants and rhinoceroses to eat the grass.

Australia has witnessed a growing problem with deadly wildfires in recent years.

Scientists say there are many causes. Global warming may be one. Another is a kind of exotic grass that provides fuel for the fires.

It's called gamba grass, and it was imported from Africa in the 1930s. Scientists brought it to Australia for cattle farmers because it produces a lot more feed for livestock than native grasses do.

But over the decades, gamba grass has spread across a large portion of Australia's Northern Territory.

"Now it's become very rampant, and it's producing tremendously intense fires," said David Bowman, an environmental scientist at the University of Tasmania.

Bowman is the author of a new commentary in the journal Nature, in which he proposes this solution to Australia's gamba grass problem: introduce elephants and rhinoceroses.

"I'm thinking of using a big animal as an ecological machine to otherwise control something for which we don't have any other options," said Bowman.

Once gamba grass matures and becomes tall and woody, it is no longer edible to cattle or to native species, like kangaroos.

Elephants and rhinos, on the other hand, love the grass. Bowman thinks they would slow down the spread of the grass.

The idea may make sense on some level, but Bowman's colleagues aren't welcoming it.

"It's not a solution at all," said Stephen Garnett, a conservation biologist at Australia's Charles Darwin University.

He says Australia is already overrun by a range of exotic species, including camels and water buffaloes. The country is spending millions of dollars trying to cull these feral animals.

Garnett says Bowman's idea is a bit like the children's song "There Was an Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly." The woman swallows a spider to eat the fly, then swallows a bird to eat the spider, and so on, each time creating an even bigger problem than the one she sought to solve.

"And the last verse is that she swallowed a horse, and then she died, of course," said Garnett. "Well, David's idea is a bit like swallowing a rhinoceros. It'd be yet another feral animal on Australian land."

David Bowman says he is not proposing that elephants and rhinos be allowed to run wild.

"If we're going to use these things, we'd use them in a sophisticated way," said Bowman. He suggests sterilizing the animals, tracking them with GPS collars, and containing them with fences.

Bowman says he expected resistance to his idea, but he insists something must be done to reduce Australia's wildfire risk. If scientists don't want elephants and rhinos, he hopes he has at least provoked them to come up with other creative solutions.

  • elephant.jpg

    African Elephant in Addo National Park, South Africa. (Photo: Gorgo/Wikipedia)

  • fire.jpg

    A NASA image showing fires(red marks) in the Northern Territory in Australia. (Photo: NASA)