Mon, Jan 25, 2010 - Page 5 News List

Aussies hopping mad on toad-busting stance

AP , SYDNEY

When the enemy reached Australia’s largest state last year, the Kimberley Toad Busters knew the battle was on. But they didn’t expect that officialdom might strip them of their most effective weapon.

The enemy? The cane toad. The weapon? Plastic bags full of carbon dioxide — long considered the animal-friendly alternative to whacking the creatures with golf clubs or cricket bats.

But Western Australia’s Department of Environment and Conservation isn’t so sure that euthanizing Bufo marinus with carbon dioxide is the kindest way to go, and says further tests are needed. Should the tests prove the toads are suffering, the carbon dioxide option could be banned across Western Australia. And that, the Toad Busters fear, would make the war against cane toads virtually unwinnable.

Keep on whacking them instead, says the government. But to many, that makes no sense.

“Oh my lord, what are they saying?” cried Lisa Ahrens, a veteran toad fighter. “That’s going right back to giving people a golf stick and telling them to go forth and conquer!”

This all may sound like a simple matter of bureaucracy and humane pest control, but cane toads are a 75-year-old Australian nightmare.

The toads, native to Central and South America, were deliberately introduced to Queensland, on the other side of the continent from Western Australia, in 1935 in an unsuccessful attempt to control beetles on sugarcane plantations.

They bred rapidly and now threaten many species. They spread diseases and their skin exudes a venom that can kill would-be predators.

In recent years, Australians have held festive mass killings of the creatures. Ahrens, of Cairns in Queensland, organizes the state’s annual “Toad Day Out,” when people gather to collect the creatures and either freeze them or expose them to carbon dioxide.

But by early last year the toads had migrated more than 2,400km from their original landing point in Queensland to the Western Australian border.

Lee Scott-Virtue, an archeologist in the Kimberley region of Western Australia, saw it coming. Five years before the toads reached her state, she founded the Kimberley Toad Busters to mount a pre-emptive offensive across the border into the Northern Territory.

Since then, the group’s thousands of volunteers have killed more than 500,000 toads, largely with carbon dioxide, which she says is fast and painless. By the time toads finally crossed into Western Australia, their numbers had been reduced to the point “where we’re only picking up handfuls.”

But the state Department of Environment and Conservation says it ran tests in 2008 that showed the toads regained consciousness after initially passing out. That, the department says, might violate the state’s Animal Welfare Act.

Pending further tests scheduled for next month, the department advises people to go back to the freezing and clubbing options.

Shane Knuth, a Queensland state legislator, says freezing them takes too long. Besides, he said: “Mums and dads don’t want toads in their freezers.”

“We can go on and spend the next 50 years debating on how to dispose the toads — but in reality, they’re one of the greatest environmental catastrophes Australia has ever seen,” he said. “The do-gooders need to see the painful death our native animals go through after coming in contact with a cane toad.”

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