Indigenous rangers are key to a radical plan to stop cane toads wiping out native species in Western Australia’s Kimberley region – one of the last biodiversity strongholds in tropical Australia.
Traditional owners recently gathered at Fitzroy Crossing to be briefed on the strategy, which ironically involves releasing small cane toads ahead of the large toads at the frontline of the invasion.
The workshop was organised by Macquarie University and the Parks and Wildlife Service Western Australia and funded by the department.
Both are members of the Cane Toad Coalition – a group of research, conservation and land management organisations trialling the largest cane toad mitigation strategy to date: teaching native predators not to eat toads. Other members of the Cane Toad Coalition are the Kimberley Land Council; Australian Wildlife Conservancy; Dunkeld Pastoral Co Pty Ltd; Rangelands NRM; Matso’s and the World Wide Fund for Nature-Australia.
Dian Fogarty, a Parks and Wildlife Service Cane Toad Education Officer, explained that since being introduced to Queensland in the mid 1930’s cane toads have changed: “They have evolved longer legs, they’re bigger, stronger, faster and they’re continually heading west”.
When attacked, cane toads excrete a poison. The dose from the large toads at the invasion front can kill rapidly. Some predators die before even before swallowing a toad.
Goannas, snakes, fresh water crocodiles, northern blue tongue lizards, and northern quolls are severely impacted. Yellow spotted monitors, a large goanna, can suffer declines of 90% through to local extinctions, after the arrival of toads.
Macquarie University’s Dr Georgia Ward-Fear said that by releasing very small cane toads, called metamorphs, predators get sick, but don’t die, and steer clear of the big toads when they arrive.
“The science says that all of our native predators impacted by cane toads can learn to avoid cane toads if they have a small dose of toxin first,” said Dr Ward-Fear.
Metamorphs are released in areas with the highest conservation value and that’s where Indigenous rangers are key.
“They are our ‘consultants for country’, identifying areas of high biodiversity, providing ecological understanding of local areas and helping to run the works on the ground,” said Dr Ward-Fear.
Cane toads cling to water holes during dry periods then move when the monsoons arrive and can travel 50km in a year depending on the wet season.
Cane toads are now roughly half way across the Kimberley. They have been seen in low numbers around Fitzroy Crossing for two years and have reached the Mitchell Plateau in the Kimberley’s north. They could reach Broome in two to five years.
WWF’s conservation field officer for the Kimberley, Ellie Boyle, said the Cane Toad Coalition wants to prevent localized extinctions.
“The Kimberley is a unique place and we’re really lucky that we’ve not seen any species extinctions in this region. However, with toads continuing their march west a lot of our native animals are facing a huge threat,” she said.
Indigenous ranger groups located across the Kimberley region and who work together as part of the Kimberley Ranger Network are proving critical to reducing the impact of the cane toad.
Balanggarra Ranger James “Birdy” Gallagher, who is based at Wyndham in the Kimberley’s north-east, witnessed the devastation after toads arrived in Balanggarra country.
“There were dead goannas everywhere. One creek we walked up we found 20 dead goannas. It’s really shocking, a bit disheartening and a bit sad,” he said.
The Bunuba People care for country in the Central Kimberley including Fitzroy Crossing. Bunuba Ranger Monique Middleton knows the urgency of trying to protect native species from the cane toad threat.
“If I go out on the country and a lot of our wildlife is gone I’ll feel like we’ve lost everything. I’ll feel like there’s nothing here, empty,” Ms Middleton said.
To help protect native species against the arrival of cane toads in the Kimberley visit www.wwf.org.au/toadpatrol
or for more information on the Cane Toad Coalition visit www.canetoadcoalition.com