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The Cane Toad Disaster: Potential Problems Associated With Eco-Friendly Pest Control

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To control pests, governments must often consider different methods. Pesticides and chemical treatments are not always desirable, particularly where there is a risk of groundwater contamination, so it's often useful to consider alternative, organic pest control methods. Unfortunately, these ecologically friendly methods can also sometimes fail, and the cane toad is a perfect example of good intentions gone wrong. Learn why the Australian government initially introduced the cane toad, and why thousands of farmers now rue the day this amphibian ever landed on Australian shores.

Why the sugarcane industry is important to Australia

The Australian sugarcane industry has been a significant contributor to the country's income for over 100 years. Sugarcane fields occur along a 2,100 kilometre stretch of coastland from North Queensland to New South Wales, and you'll find these distinctive crops in some of the most beautiful parts of Australia. Today, the industry is worth $2.5 billion per year, offering employment and economic stability to many of Australia's coastal towns and villages.

The sugarcane industry in Australia invests significant sums of money into research and development, and manufacturers continue to refine the processes they use to improve yields and protect the surrounding environment. As such, farmers and local authorities take every possible step to control any serious pest threats.

How the cane toad arrived in Australia

Until 1935, several types of frog existed in Australian trees and mangrove swamps, but the country did not have a single native species of toad. Senior figures in the sugarcane industry learned that farmers in the Caribbean and Hawaiian islands were successfully using the cane toad to control an invasive insect called the cane beetle. The cane beetle presented a significant threat to Australian crops, and the toad seemed like a logical way to control the insect without using chemicals and pesticides.

As such, Australia received a small shipment of just 102 cane toads in 1935, which arrived in Gordonvale in North Queensland. Researchers initially held the toads in captivity and bred the animals to increase their numbers. After successful experimental trials to prove the toads would feed on the beetles, farmers eventually released the toads into the sugarcane fields of tropical North Queensland.

Why the cane toad experiment failed

Mature sugarcane crops are relatively high. Indeed, the sugar-rich stalks grow to between two and six metres tall. Growers generally find the cane beetle on the upper stalks of the sugarcane plant – which was disastrous for the cane toads.

After growers released the cane toads into the wild, they discovered that the animals couldn't jump very high. As such, they were unable to get to the beetles that the farmers needed them to consume. To make matters worse, at the time of year when the beetle larvae emerged from the ground, there were no mature cane toads in the fields. Unsurprisingly, the cane beetles continued to thrive, and the cane toads were largely useless.

Cane farmers had to continue to use chemicals to kill the cane beetles. Unfortunately, the cane toads went on to become an even bigger issue.

The impact of cane toads

The farmers quickly found it difficult to control the cane toad population. The toads bred rapidly. One pair of toads could lay 33,000 eggs per spawning cycle. The baby toads (tadpoles) developed more quickly than native frog species. In turn, Australian frogs struggled to compete and find food, which led to a decline in these native animals.

The farmers also discovered that the cane toad had no natural predators. Throughout the animal's lifecycle, the toad is poisonous. Any snakes, fish or other native Australian animals that fed on the cane toads quickly died. Vets started to treat a lot of domestic animals that became ill after licking a cane toad during a garden encounter.

With no predators and a plentiful food supply, the cane toad spread across Queensland and the Northern Territory. Many experts believe the cane toad is responsible for the worst environmental disaster in Australian history. 

The cane toad is a significant threat to the Australian environment. If you find a cane toad on your property, contact the local environmental office for advice, or hire a pest control service to remove the unwanted amphibian from your premises.