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Australia's Newest Firefighters: Elephants?

To help curb the problem of deadly wildfires down under, one scientist is proposing a novel idea: import elephants to eat the grass that fuels the flames. Crazy? Maybe—but not any crazier than what’s already happening to Australia’s ecosystem.

The deadly fires that struck Australia three years ago wiped out whole towns, destroyed livestock and property, and claimed almost 200 lives. Controlling a repeat event is of national importance. But the fuel for such outbreaks—gamba grass—grows in vast expanses across the continent and isn’t curbed naturally: The grass grows too big for Australia’s small herbivores to eat through, and removing vast fields of it is expensive.

Australia is in need of bigger, bolder ideas to prevent wildfire outbreaks and control invasive species. So says an Australian ecologist, David Bowman, who is calling for a re-think of existing strategies. To kick things off, he’s proposing one truly outside-the-box creative solution: bring in elephants to chew up the rogue grass.

For elephants and other "mega-herbivores" like rhinoceroses the grass could be "a great meal," Bowman supposes, in a new essay published today in the journal Nature. He’s fully aware his radical idea is going to cause a bit of a stir; people can be very protective of elephants. "I’m trying to be provocative and stimulate fresh thinking… maybe even stimulate new research," he tells Co.Exist. These conversations, he believes, will be essential to Australia’s ecological future.

Far out as this sounds, Bowman’s ideas make some sense if you consider Australia’s somewhat bizarre ecological history. Australia lost 85% of its biodiversity during the Pleistocene extinction event 50,000 years ago, coinciding with humans’ entry on the continent. Large herbivores, predators, and reptiles vanished, leaving gaps in the ecosystem. When European colonizers arrived and brought in domesticated cattle and other foreign species, this only upset the balance further. "It’s like they found an empty house—and moved in," Bowman says.

Years later, Australia is still in a state of ecological crisis. It has vast populations of camels, runaway buffaloes, and breakout wildfires. Land management practices for fires and invasive species have been implemented on a small scale. But more needs to be done, Bowman argues. "We need to be sustained, more imaginative," he says. "My concern is that we’re not canvassing the full range of options that we have." Another suggestion of Bowman’s is to introduce komodo dragons to the environment, to fill the gap left by large lizards that died out thousands of years ago.

This isn’t the first time ecologists have throw out "Bring in the elephants" as a possibility for ecological good. In 2005, a group of researchers made an argument for bringing large herbivores and predators to North America. In a careful, controlled manner, the suggested repopulating certain parts of North America where the elephant ancestors, or closely related ancestor species, lived several thousand years ago. (North America, like Australia, also encountered a Pleistocene loss of large mammals and predators.) This "re-wilding" as they called it would save species threatened in their current habitat—elephants caught in war zones, for example, or tortoises endangered by shrinking habitats—without resorting to zoos.

But in Australia, the idea of elephants is a bit harder to swallow. Ancient elephants did not live there, as they did in North America several thousand years ago. If the idea survived a rigorous cost-benefit analysis, it’s possible the large mammals would be brought in from places where their habitat is being threatened, or they were being poached. And they’d start out in very small, controlled numbers. "It’s not like, 'Lets pack up a bunch of elephants into a van and dump them onto the landscape,'" Josh Donlan, author of the North America elephants paper told Co.Exist. "We’re not going to have a runaway population of elephants. … It’s a thought experiment and there are some major challenges."

Still, Bowman’s statement is a valid and timely one, Donlan says. "We live in a managed world now. Humans are impacting ecosystems by default or design, he says. "And we need to decide how we want to manage the world we live in." And not doing anything, Donlan says, is also doing something. "We need new solutions. We need more, perhaps riskier solutions. We should put those on the table and we should debate them."

That’s Bowman’s view too. Existing proposals to control the fire threat involve controlling the growth of wild grasses with herbicide, but that could destroy entire habitats. Small-scale programs to control animal populations haven’t been effective. "What’s plan B?" he asks. "We’ve tried plan A—I’m saying, what happens when the interventions don’t work? What do we do then?" Bring on the elephants.