Elephants seen as Australian 'landscapers'

Feb. 1, 2012 at 8:11 PM
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HOBART, Australia, Feb. 1 (UPI) -- A scientist who proposed importing elephants to Australia to control wild grasses known to fuel wildfires says the idea may seem absurd but may be "practical."

Biologist David Bowman, writing in the journal Nature, argues that wild elephants could act as handy "mowers" for hardy species such as African gamba grass, currently invading tropical north Australia, and fill an ecological niche left vacant by the disappearance of ancient "uber herbivores"

"A major source of fuel for wildfires in the monsoon tropics is gamba grass, a giant African grass that has invaded north Australia's savannas," Bowman, a professor of environmental change biology at the University of Tasmania, said. "It is too big for marsupial grazers (kangaroos) and for cattle and buffalo, the largest feral mammals. But gamba grass is a great meal for elephants or rhinoceroses."

While introducing wild elephants to Australia "may seem absurd," Bowman said, "the only other methods likely to control gamba grass involve using chemicals or physically clearing the land, which would destroy the habitat.''

"Using mega-herbivores may ultimately be more practical and cost-effective, and it would help to conserve animals that are threatened by poaching in their native environments," he said.

Other scientists expressed mixed feeling about Boman's proposal.

"We had better develop the technology to clone sabre-tooth tigers to eventually control the elephants," Ricky Spencer, a senior lecturer with the native and animal pests unit at the University of Western Sydney, told The Australian.

Patricia Werner, at the Australian National University's Fenner School of Environment and Society, agreed, asking, "Are we in Australia prepared to try yet another landscape-scale 'experiment'?"

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