Books: A Point of View: Bright Side of the Cane Toad |
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Bright Side of the Cane Toad : on invasive predator species

(S05E03, broadcast 10th and 12th April 2009)

"Raising cane"

People who despair for the future of life on earth should take heart from the capacity of living creatures to adapt when threatened. In the last few days there has been news about an inspiring instance of this capacity. Once again the focus of international media interest is on my homeland, Australia. I speak of the cane toad. The size of a cheap handbag and covered in warts, the cane toad can be found in many parts of Australia. Indeed the cane toad can be found in so many parts of Australia that experts predict there will be soon no part of Australia in which at least one cane toad, or more likely several thousand cane toads, cannot be found.

No matter what the degree of force and ingenuity employed, there has so far been no getting rid of the cane toad. We are invited to worry about this, but I prefer to be encouraged, and to worry just that little bit less about Iranian atomic bombs, North Korean multistage rockets, and the imminent immersion of the inhabited world under a rising ocean dotted with the charred corpses of polar bears. Earthly life-forms are tough, and the career of the cane toad shows just how tough they can be.

You probably know most of the cane-toad story already because my country of origin, in order to ensure that its high standard of living should not be threatened by a population of excessive size, has a kind of anti-tourist board dedicated to making Australia look less attractive than it might be in the eyes of the world. After World War II, the anti-tourist board spread stories through overseas outlets about Australia’s teeming range of poisonous spiders and snakes. There were stories of the red-back spider that hides under the toilet seat to avoid publicity, and the taipan snake that was so poisonous it could kill a man on a horse after killing the horse, and would do both these things unprovoked, because it liked publicity. The anti-tourist board was scarcely obliged to exaggerate. Australian spiders and snakes are really like that. So you’re a prospective migrant and you’re afraid of getting bitten a little bit? What are you, a man or a mouse? If you’re a mouse, you’ve got no business going near a taipan anyway.

More recently, the anti-tourist board positioned its enormous influence behind a film called Australia, which was plainly designed to put immigrants off going to Australia by presenting, at enormous length, a prospect of a country where nothing happened except a hundred and fifty thousand cattle moving slowly across the parched landscape, each beast pausing for an individual close-up at any moment when the director thought the pace was too hectic. But the most reliable weapon in the armoury of the Australian anti-tourist board has always been the story of the cane toad.

Scarcely believable on the face of it — and the face of it is the face of the cane toad, which is scarcely believable in itself — the story is true in every respect. The first few of the unprepossessing creatures were imported into Queensland in 1935 because it was thought that they would help protect the sugar-cane crop by eating the grey-back cane beetle, a pest. So the cane toads were doing pest control. The thought that the creature imported to do pest control might itself become a pest had not yet occurred to anybody.

1935 was a big year for Australia because Mutiny on the Bounty, with Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, was the top box-office movie in the world and therefore the attention of the entire planet was on the South Pacific, a circumstance which always tends to turn the collective head of the Australian media. In such a climate of glory, even a cane toad looked good. Not as good as Clark Gable, perhaps, but at least as good as Charles Laughton.

Alas, it soon became apparent that the cane toad was less interested in eating the grey-back cane beetle than in eating everything else whether living or dead and, most disastrously, in being eaten itself, with stunning results for whatever ate it, because the cane toad was poisonous. Its body is composed largely of poison glands which produce a narcotic that is currently classified officially in Australia as a Class One drug along with heroin and marijuana. Toad licking, we are told, can result in death.

Lucky I was told that soon enough, or I might have tried it as the next step up from the hash cookie. But inevitably, this classification as a drug in Class One induces some people to try it out. The results of ingesting the toxin, however, are seldom good for humans and they can be lethal for almost any other creature, up to and including crocodiles. These facts were found out quite soon after the cane toad was introduced. These facts were found out by the same experts who had thought that the cane toad would be good for pest control. But by the time it was discovered that the cane toad was a lot better at being a pest itself, the cane toad had revealed its other characteristic, a fantastic ability to increase in numbers.

By now, as I speak, there are more than three hundred million of them and their number has increased significantly since the start of this sentence. And as their numbers increase, they travel, because there simply wouldn’t be room for all the cane toads if they stayed in one place. They didn’t even stay in Queensland for long, and by now they have moved a long way west. You have only to see a close-up of even one of these creatures to know what it would mean for vast tracts of the country to be covered with them even if they were harmless and tasted like hamburger.

A creature with few successful predators ranged against it — and most creatures who want to eat the cane toad die on the spot a few minutes after they try to — usually won’t be kept down just because human beings like the taste of it. The first big pest problem introduced into Australia was the rabbit, which, back in the nineteenth century, was brought in to provide country gentlemen with good hunting. In short order there were untold millions of them. Rabbits made good eating but they were eaten only by the poor. When we ate rabbit in our house while I was growing up I was encouraged not to mention it in case we were looked down on. But even if everybody in the country had eaten rabbit three times a day it wouldn’t have made a dent in the rabbit population, which went on increasing until a specifically anti-rabbit disease called myxomatosis was let loose.

After an initial reduction in the rabbit population, the long-term effect was the emergence of a super rabbit. Those of us who remember that will be suspicious of plans to introduce a genetic switch in the cane toad that will turn them all into males and therefore extinguish the cane-toad population. The performance of the cane toad so far suggests that even if they all turn into gay males and start collecting Judy Garland records they will go on taking territory at the rate of fifteen miles a year, which more or less means that there will soon be enough of them in Canberra to demand voting rights.

The news last week was that there are new plans to unleash a predator against them, the meat ant. Confidence in the meat ant is high. Whereas frogs and other kinds of toad will flee at the mere sight of a meat ant, we are told, the cane toad will just sit there cooperatively waiting to be attacked and killed. But there are two things wrong with that story. One thing wrong is that that’s exactly what the grey-back cane beetle was supposed to do when the cane toad showed up, and the other is, what if it works and the meat ant becomes the new unstoppable success? Much wiser to concentrate on those voting rights.

If the cane toad can survive so much, then it can evolve, and the signs are that it’s already doing so. The evidence was buried in last week’s report, but I underlined it and I’ve got it here in front of me. This is the bit you probably haven’t heard yet, but I think it might be crucial. As the advance guard of the cane toad mass moves west, its leading members are developing longer and stronger legs. Have you got that? The cane toads are getting bigger and smarter. Soon they’ll be learning to drive. There is a school of thought, not necessarily paranoid, which holds the opinion that cane toads with human skills have already penetrated the Australian media and are even appearing as presenters of reality television shows. That might be a fear too far, but surely it makes sense to start thinking of how the cane toads can be dealt with in another way than warfare.

It’s time to negotiate. We need to find out what their demands are. What do they want? One thing they might want is aid. You have to believe me when I say that the same scientists who have measured the longer and stronger legs of the vanguard toads have also diagnosed arthritis. Limping toads, wincing with pain as they advance. Common humanity demands that we should make an antidote available. I say it’s time to sit down with their leaders and discuss matters of mutual benefit. If they can evolve that fast, maybe they’ll turn into a better version of us. Maybe they already have. Maybe some of them have got on planes to spread the cane-toad message to the world. But no, take it easy. I’m just croaking. I mean I’m just joking. Croak, croak.


During this period, in the press, mankind, because of its irresponsible abundance of emissions, was routinely held responsible for threatening the death of ten different species every day, or a hundred a week, or ten thousand a year, or whatever figure sounded impressive after the previous figure had begun to sound unimpressive. It was seldom mentioned that in the natural world most species are threatened continually by several other species: that rendering each other extinct is what species are trying to do all the time. The plundering baleen whale is not telling itself that with its next mouthful it will take just enough krill to ensure the continuance of the species. It just goes whumpf.

Somewhere about this time, the bandicoot was revealed to have become lethal on a scale hitherto unprecedented, but no doubt this was due to Climate Change, because finally mankind had to be the culprit. Nevertheless some species theoretically on the road to extinction were getting there by a circuitous route, especially the polar bears, which continued to increase in numbers. Unfortunately for chiliasts at the IPCC and in the mainstream media, there are responsible government officials paid to count polar bears. The more the polar bears were pronounced doomed, the more polar bears there turned out to be, despite regular appearances in all media of the lone bear standing on the tiny ice floe. The tiny ice floe proved to have been Photoshopped but nothing could threaten the existence of the idea of polar bears running out of ice. The idea went on turning up even in BBC climate-change surveys of supposedly impeccable prestige. Mankind, it was agreed, threatened the lives of all creatures except one. Mankind’s bad environmental behaviour could do nothing about the cane toad. Mankind could sit in its Range Rover with the engine running all night and not a single cane toad would even cough. Speaking of which, you will notice that this script ends with a sound effect, in which I imitate a cane toad. In performance, I managed it, but only because I kept it short. The non-comic broadcaster who wishes to be entertaining can’t be counselled too strongly against vaudeville.