“The introduction of a few rabbits could do little harm and might provide a touch of home, in addition to a spot of hunting.” Thomas Austin (1815-1871) “The difference between animals and humans is that animals change themselves for the environment, but humans change the environment for themselves.” Ayn Rand (1905-1982)
You’ve definitely come to the wrong place if you’re looking for a long-lost Beatrix Potter tale or an updated version of Kenneth Grahame’s beloved Wind in the Willows. Sadly, this is a true story of how deliberately-introduced rabbits and toads have ravaged some of the most unique ecosystems in the world – that being the tropical rainforests, deserts and savannahs of Australia. Like any decent moral tale, you need a bad guy to pin the blame on and in this case it is none other than Homo sapiens, which despite its large cranial cavity and capacity to reason, is still proving to be one of the stupidest species on this planet. This story of ecological disaster begins in 1859, when an avid hunter named Thomas Austin thought it would be a good idea to release a dozen rabbits in the wild so he could have something new to kill – apparently the abundant kangaroos, wallabies and possums simply weren’t enough. Those twelve rabbits would eventually multiply into millions of hungry bunnies grazing native plant species to extinction and killing trees, leaving behind barren erosion-prone landscapes. Things got so bad that by 1907 a continent-wide barrier fence (over 2000 miles long) was erected in a desperate attempt to hold them at bay…but it didn’t work. I recently came across another such fence (albeit on a much smaller scale) whose sole purpose was to protect a reforested meadow from the ravages of these same rabbits, although in this case it had also become an incidental trap. My daughter and I were on our way to the Forrest caves on Phillip Island when I noticed something fluttering in the wire fencing that flanked the parking lot. When I walked back to the spot I found a Muttonbird or Short-Tail Shearwater tightly wedged between two layers of fencing. He or she was in pretty bad shape and had obviously been stuck there for quite some time, so I pulled up the wire on one side to provide enough room for it to maneuver. After a bit of gentle prodding we managed to guide it out but surprisingly, it threw itself right back into the fencing. It had me wondering if its nesting site (they always return to the same in-ground burrow) was on the other side. Rather than leave it thrashing against the fence, we gently chased it to the other side of the parking lot, where it finally settled down and started grooming. Ironically, we didn’t actually see any rabbits in Australia, with the exception of a handful on an early morning hike near Ayer’s Rock. Our next encounter with an invasive species occurred about a week later while we were on a night hike tour in the Queensland rainforest. Our guide, an avid naturalist, pointed out a Cane Toad on a log and explained how it had been introduced to control a sugar cane pest. That was back in 1935 and since it had no natural predators or parasites (it is native to Central and South America), it has managed to spread an average of 25 miles a year. The other problem is that native species such as lizards, crocodiles and snakes are killed by poisonous glands when they try to eat the toad. The extent of this problem became quite apparent on our last night in Australia. We were driving back from the lava tube caves in Undara when we hit some very heavy rains. By the time we were passing through the rainforest the roads were literally covered in Cane Toads. There was no way of avoiding them without crashing the car, but I was still worried that we might skid or slide when we hit one of the larger ones, as Cane Toads can get up to 4 pounds in weight. I can only describe the experience as something along the lines of a biblical plague, albeit a man-made self-inflicted one. Of course, Australians aren’t the only people making environmental blunders with long-term and sometimes irreversible consequences. Back here in North America we have Zebra Mussels in the Great Lakes, Kudzu Vine choking southeastern forests and the European Starling plaguing farmers continent-wide – proving that when the arrogant lead the blind, the results are about the same wherever you go in this world of ours.