By Ellie Boyle
Conservation Field Officer, WWF-Australia
Up here in the Kimberley, the cane toads are just coming.
These large, toxic toads pose such a huge threat to our native wildlife. To them, these toads look like existing prey - an easy, tasty, frog-like snack. Except the difference between their usual frog prey and cane toads, is that cane toads produce a powerful poison called bufotoxin that can cause heart attacks for animals that choose to snack.
The first encounter with a cane toad is usually the last.
Cane toads have already blasted their way across Queensland and the Northern Territory where they’ve caused devastating local extinctions in Kakadu National Park. They’re now marching into the last biodiversity strongholds in Western Australia - the Kimberley.
If we do nothing, we are looking at local extinctions of native species. Some populations may never recover, especially when we’re also fighting against other threats like inappropriate fire regimes, feral animals and climate change.
We need to do something fast, and now.
Will you help protect native species from the cane toad invasion in the Kimberley?
At this stage, there’s no way we can stop the cane toad invasion from proceeding through the whole of the Kimberley. Female cane toads can lay up to 30,000 eggs twice a year, and they’ve adapted extremely well to our Australian landscape, inhabiting areas that they previously couldn’t. They’re an unstoppable beast, spreading five times faster than they used to at about 50 kilometres a year. They’re even spreading down south, adapting to cooler climates. Unless there’s a new scientific control that comes out, killing single cane toads just won’t work.
So, in order to save our native species, smaller cane toads are being released in the Kimberley ahead of the invasion. Sounds like a crazy idea, right?
A handful of organisations, including WWF-Australia, have come together to form the Cane Toad Coalition. By coming together we’re using innovative methods to teach native predators not to eat toxic toads.
The idea behind rereleasing smaller cane toads (called metamorphs) in vital habitats is that we’re exposing our native predators to a small taste of cane toad toxin that makes them sick - but doesn’t kill them. This is called taste aversion training.
Everyone talks about it like bad food poisoning. You go to a restaurant, you get sick… and you never go back. If we can train native animals to adapt their behaviour and learn to avoid the toads, this could be our best bet to save species that are endangered, like the northern quoll and yellow-spotted monitor lizard.
Even if we can save small pockets of native wildlife, we can help save the species.
Right now, the Coalition are holding educational workshops throughout the Kimberley so that people are aware and prepared for cane toads and the threats they pose to our native wildlife. When the wet season hits in December through to March, the Coalition will be releasing cane toad metamorphs throughout the landscape ahead of the cane toad front where there are a high number of predators, including goannas, snakes and freshwater crocodiles.
The group will also be doing pre and post-population estimates before and after the cane toads, to study the survival rates of wildlife.
The scale of this project is huge. There are so many people coming together and working really hard on this project to make a big difference.
The Cane Toad Coalition are working with local Indigenous rangers and Traditional Owners in the Kimberley who are doing pretty much all the on-ground work. They’re operating on their own country, areas that they’ve managed for a really long time.
It’s expensive, but important work. Some of these areas are only accessible by helicopter, and a lot of the main roads through the Kimberley close down during the wet season, so it’s possible to get stuck out there for three months in one place. The Coalition also have to breed toads to produce enough cane toad metamorphs to make a difference, educate communities and have the appropriate field equipment.
Projects like this really reduce the probability of native species like the northern spotted goanna from going extinct. Australia doesn’t have a great track record - we’ve already lost 29 mammals to extinction over the last 200 years, so this is our best chance at making sure it doesn’t happen again.
Will you help protect native species against the arrival of cane toads in the Kimberley, before the wet season begins?
This work is made possible by the Cane Toad Coalition. A partnership between a group of research, conservation and land management organisations. Partners include Macquarie University; Parks and Wildlife Service Western Australia; Kimberley Land Council; Australian Wildlife Conservancy; Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd; Rangelands NRM; Matso’s and WWF-Australia.
This project is supported by Lotterywest.