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A Proposal to Introduce Elephants to Australia: Really?

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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elephantsWhy not bring elephants to Australia? That’s the proposal made by biologist David Bowman of the University of Tasmania in a comment published February 2 in Nature. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

The pachyderms could help to polish off gamba grass, introduced from Africa to Australia in the 1930s as fodder for cattle. Nowadays, it also provides fuel for devastating fires, such the one that killed 173 people and burned 400,000 hectares on February 7, 2009. Neither local cattle nor kangaroos consume enough of the weedy grass to keep it in check.

But African savannah elephants eat plenty of it, so why not import them to control the fire fodder? The approach also could start to remedy 50,000 years worth of human impacts—from the hunting of ancient giant marsupials to the introduction of alien species such as gamba grass. It’s an attempt to begin to restabilize food webs that have been “out of balance,” according to Bowman, for tens of thousands of years.

In fact, no continent has a worse record of human ecological devastation, some of it even well-intentioned. Australia is a hotbed of introduced species: a whole suite of European mammals runs wild there, from buffalo to rabbits. Even camels have gone feral after being imported in the 19th century for transportation. Perhaps most famously, the cane toad was introduced to control an agricultural pest but found the antipodes to its liking and is now frog-marching through the outback with devastating effects on indigenous marsupials.

So, Bowman’s plan is well-intentioned: imported African elephants or other “uber-herbivores,” such as critically endangered rhinos, could help to control the gamba grass. But unlike other “re-wilding” schemes around the globe, no member of the modern day elephant family has ever lived in Australia in the wild, though giant marsupials of the past may have played a similar role in that ancient ecosystem now long gone. And elephants can become pests—witness South Africa’s practice of culling herds to protect native flora. “The greatest challenge would be managing the density of herbivore populations so that their demand on resources does not degrade the ecosystem,” Bowman wrote. Indeed, and there is nothing to say that introduced elephants might not chomp on embattled native plants along with gamba grass.

Bowman also suggests importing the Komodo dragon from Indonesia to fill the predatory role once played in Australia by ancient giant lizards or, perhaps least controversially, stopping the poisoning of a predator that still exists—the dingo. Letting dingoes rebound could act as a check on the spread of other feral mammals. Of course, that would aid and abet an ecological process kicked off by the ancestors of Aborigines when they brought the wild dogs to the continent tens of thousands of years ago. It seems that humans have been messing with the ecology down under for a very long time and show little inclination to stop.

© / Alexander Fortelny


David Biello About the Author: David Biello is the associate editor for environment and energy at Scientific American. Follow on Twitter @dbiello.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. manyfaucets 8:13 pm 02/1/2012

    Why not? You could hardly do worse. Let’s be honest with ourselves. Any hope of preserving a pristine Australian ecology is long gone.

    Doubtless, there will be many who will decry this idea on principal alone. When these same purists migrate to new territory they are usually the first to bring along with themselves, the worst introduced species, their beloved dogs and cats. Humans and their minions are by far the most destructive aliens. Look at Hawaii, another place where it is too late, fleas, mosquitoes, coqui frogs, and on and on.

    While I would try to limit introductions to species that are not obviously problematic, rattlesnakes for instance, I can’t see the harm considering that it’s going to happen anyway. Pythons in the everglades, where does it end.

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  2. 2. Rachelle 8:33 pm 02/1/2012

    I like this! Perhaps those tortured baby (& adult ) elephants can relocate & have a safe home!

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  3. 3. billsmith 1:44 am 02/2/2012

    Manyfaucets has a point. The introduction of elephants would doubtless do at least some damage (elephant dung might prove a disruptive nutrient source, for example). But I can’t imagine them doing more harm to biodiversity than, say, the rat.

    Also, in the event that one did want to get rid of the elephants, locating them would not be too difficult.

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  4. 4. fyngyrz 10:47 am 02/2/2012

    There’s a very useful truism: “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” There is also a corollary, not as commonly spoken, but just as true: “If it isn’t fixed, keep working on it.”

    Here’s what we know: Australia is in a non-naturally configured ecological state. Leaving the situation alone results in overrun of rabbits, cane toads and so forth. So leaving it alone isn’t the right answer.

    Consequently, further attempts to ameliorate the problem are called for. Elephants? Well, at least they wouldn’t be difficult to find, should they prove to be a problem in and of themselves. Certainly much easier to deal with than rabbits or cane toads.

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  5. 5. hanmeng 6:48 pm 02/3/2012

    Who do I contact about harvesting the ivory?

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  6. 6. jgrosay 6:30 pm 02/6/2012

    At least, elephants would be easier for Australia to get rid of if they prove a wrong choice, you can’t say the same about rabbits, rats and foxes…

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  7. 7. Bort123 4:50 am 05/2/2012

    Strange that they say it’ll help reduce bushfires, we WANT bushfires in Australia! Eucalyptus, Hakea and Banksia NEED fire to germinate. no fire?.. no trees!

    Which makes question the other motives for introducing these species.

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  8. 8. tempedan 4:56 pm 07/5/2012

    Hey Hanmeng, use plastic. Technology has come a long way. Not sure about you though.

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  9. 9. jonathanseer 5:53 pm 07/5/2012

    Elephants do NOT eat only one type of plant. They will eat anything that tastes good and isn’t toxic, including trees.

    Australia has a terrible track record in preserving their native species, because of stupid, idiotic poorly thought out ideas like this one.

    So poorly thought out that it assumes elephants would stick to the imported grass and eschew anything native.

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  10. 10. Quinn the Eskimo 4:08 pm 07/7/2012

    Let’s put some elephants in David Biellioooe’s office — he’s not using it.

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