‘Public Enemy Number One’: On the hunt with Queensland volunteer cane toad hunters | invasive species

The sun has set southwest of Brisbane and cute kimber she marches into a pasture dragging a plastic-lined shopping cart behind her and shining a headlamp in front.

Yards to her left, Jo Davies walks a parallel path into the gathering gloom, also carrying a custom baby carrier: hers is a large bag of dog biscuits hung from a rope with a downspout protruding from its sealed top.

Joan Sheldon, to Kimber’s right, completes the human chain, carrying a bucket. The women methodically illuminate under the bushes, next to the puddles and, especially, in the dung.

European lords organize deer hunts, Inuit chase whales under waves and ice. Kimber is leading a quintessential queensland fetch. This company of women is on a toad hunt.

They are not alone. Across three states and one territory, a small army of Australian volunteers embarks on a week-long event called the Great Cane Toad Bust.

Now in its second year, it’s a competition taken very seriously in the city of Boonah.

How To Catch A Cane Toad: Tips From Australia’s Great Cane Toad Bust 2023 – video

Kimber’s group, WACT (Women Against Cane Toads), are the defending local champions, having caught 928 of the district’s 9,468 toads in last year’s bust.

“A lot of the ladies were a little apprehensive at first,” Kimber says. “But it got to a point where it was really hard to come home if you didn’t have 150 toads.”

Deliberately brought from Hawaii in the 1930s, the cane toad has since become a poster child for an introduced animal going rogue.

like the invasive species continues its expansion, it decimates naive predators to its toxins and devours almost anything that can fit in its mouth. And it’s not just wreaking havoc on other species.

Boonah Toad Buster Jo Davies at the Boonah Golf Course in Queensland.
Boonah Toad Buster Jo Davies at the Boonah Golf Course in Queensland. Photograph: Glenn Campbell/The Guardian

While the toad has shown little appetite for the cane beetle that sugar growers originally hoped to control, it considers the dung beetle a delicacy. This means more dung is left on the paddocks, exacerbating fly and parasite problems among cattle and reducing nutrients returned to the soils.

Chris Bonner, on whose farm the women hunt, speaks for nearly all Queenslanders when he describes his feelings for the large, warty amphibian.

“He’s public enemy number one,” says Bonner.

In the front line of his march towards New South Wales and through in Western Australiacane toads can form writhing mats as they explode into new territory.

But the toad has been established on the east coast of Queensland for decades, as has toad hunting.

“You wouldn’t be a kid in Queensland if you hadn’t hit some toads with a golf club,” says Kimber.

Women Against Cane Toads use the fridge-freezer method to kill their prey.
Women Against Cane Toads use the fridge-freezer method to kill their prey. Photograph: Glenn Campbell/The Guardian

But that is a cruel technique that she neither approves nor abides by. Her hunters use only the most humane way to destroy her prey: the fridge-freezer method.

After 24 hours in the fridge, the cold-blooded creatures peacefully fall into a state of torpor. The freezer induces sleep from which they never wake up. However, this leaves the obvious problem of what to do with so many frozen toads.

“We emptied a 120-litre freezer three times a day last year,” says Kimber.

Emily Vincent of Watergum, the nonprofit organizers of the Toad Bust, recommends that enthusiastic participants take matters into their own hands.

“If you like to hunt toads, an extra fridge-freezer in your garage is definitely a worthwhile investment,” he says.

But Watergum has set up permanent drop-off stations in south-east Queensland where people can get rid of the toads all year round.

From these toads, the environmental charity extracts venom glands which it uses to make bait for tadpole lures. Watergum is beginning to deploy these traps commercially in an effort to turn the tide against this invasive species.

Boonah Toad Hunters (L-R) Jo Davies, Alison Green and Linda Kimber on the Boonah golf course.
Boonah Toad Hunters (L-R) Jo Davies, Alison Green and Linda Kimber on the Boonah golf course. Photograph: Glenn Campbell/The Guardian

But Vincent is under no illusions. No amount of human effort will eradicate the Cane Toad, of which scientists estimate there are over 200m in Australia today.

“They’ve been here 90 years,” says Vincent. “Australia is a very large country, often inaccessible, we are too far away for that.”

Fortunately, a growing number of species are learning ways to eat toads safelywhile others become resistant to its toxins.

The Great Bust of the Cane Toad, says Vincent, is about buying nature more time to deal with this problem in your own way.

“Native species will one day be able to manage cane toads on their own,” she says.

“But for now, if cane toads keep multiplying and multiplying, we risk wiping out our native species.”

And anecdotal evidence shows that hunting toads can help control local populations. This year the WACT women are receiving dozens of toads where last year they got hundreds.

That’s partly due to a cooler summer, but their organized efforts couldn’t have hurt.

And besides, says Jo Davies, it’s the right thing to do. Initially, the Boonah woman says that she was uncomfortable with the ethics and practicality of killing toads. But now, seeing the unmistakable silhouette of a cane toad, she deftly places a Doc Marten on its back, rips off a hind leg, and coldly drops the toad down the pipe and into her bag of dog biscuits.

“This is a mistake that humans made,” she says. “We all see this as our offering to nature.”

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