The cane toad was brought to Australia for pest control - since when an army has marched across the continent, multiplying as it goes. But surely its own example questions the logic of trying to wipe out this gamekeeper turned poacher, says Clive James.
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 multi-stage 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.
Australia the movie: 150,000 cattle... oh, and Nicole Kidman
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 150,000 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.
Nineteen-thirty-five 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.
Finger lickin' bad
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.
Rugby's Scott Quinnell gets snared into some anti-tourist board work
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 19th Century, was brought in to provide country gentlemen with good hunting. In short order there were untold millions of them.
The performance of the cane toad 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 15 miles a year
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 fact will be suspicious of those plans, first mooted in 2006, 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 15 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 the cane toad, 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.
Behold, the bigger, longer cane toad, which has evolved in living memory
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 army 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, croak, croak.
Below is a selection of your comments.
I went to school in North Queensland, about three kms up the road from the Sugar Research station where they let them go. It was one of my primary school's teachers grandfather who was the man who lifted the proverbial trap and released them all... and the funny thing is that we did this because they were doing it in Hawaii at the time and it appeared to work! Well there happened to be a climatic effect but our American cousins didn't work that out till years later. Luckily for them their island is a lot smaller than our one and they could remove them over a period of time. Interestingly though the local wildlife appears to be adapting to the new menace. I have seen the large toads like i did as a child. There are stories going round of birds learning to flip them over to expose the stomachs (and not the poison glands) and snakes developing immunity to the toxin.. isn't nature wonderful.
So far, the cane toads haven't reached Clive's old home suburb of Kogarah, but why not try to export this whole "criminal class" of cane toads much as Britain tried to rid itself of its criminal classes in the 18th and 19th centuries. Penal colonies of toads could be set up, for example, on that Scottish island that was used in WWII for anthrax experiments; or how about in London NW1 or wherever it is that Clive hangs his chapeau?
Martin Pooley, Marrikville, Australia
This is definitely the funniest influential writer I have ever read on the BBC news, which I've read daily for many years. While providing serious content in a memorable way, the writer couched all of it in ways that were unique yet recognizably Australian. I hope this writer becomes a permanent fixture on the BBC online news.
Jim de Witt, Hong Kong
The cane toad farce is an excellent example of how human arrogance can make a situation worse. But it's not arrogance born of knowledge or experience, it's the worst type - arrogance born of ignorance. Another excellent and topical example is the increased research and support for geo-engineering to combat AGW. Will we ever learn?
She swallowed the dog to catch the cat,
She swallowed the cat to catch the rat,
she swallowed the rat to catch the spider,
she swallowed the spider to catch the fly. . . .
James Marsden, Leeds
Excellent article! They haven't reached Vic yet, but are all over Queensland and the NT when I was up there. This does make me think though - was the arch-enemy from Dangermouse a stark gaze into the future? Scary.
Richard, Melbourne, Australia
This article is to funny... impossible to find this kind of humour in the French press. I will send it to my daughter who just arrived in Sydney and will live there for four years, she should learn the toad language right away!
Marc Wuyts, Tronget, France
This story was great. I was thoroughly entertained, especially as I will be visiting Australia in 2 months time. I will most probably encounter these toads on my visit, and I will be sure to think back to this article, especially the part about toad licking resulting in death.
Mary Catherine, Maple Glen, Pennsylvania, USA
Wow this article tried to fluff itself up with so much wordsmithing the entire points of it are lost. I think it had some good points about evolution in pest control (which is why it is rarely called extermination anymore) but trying to specifically dig them out is like going through a root canal.
Jacob Kinnun, Tucson, AZ
That article made me laugh till I croaked - I mean choked, so perhaps the cane toad is a threat to human survival after all.
Marion Monahan, Bristol
Having learned of Cane Toads several years ago from a movie by the same name, I have been following their growing notoriety in the press. The toads have finally found in the author of the article a worthy and noble proponent of their cause. Their rapid expansion, toxic composition and insatiable quest for filling every corner of their environment is reminiscent of the species chronicling their ascendance. Perhaps in one regard, the toads exceed the accomplishments of homo sapiens. No record exists of toads making war on each other, except for the occasional accidental case of toad self ingestion. Perhaps we could learn from them, or perhaps they've learned from our mistakes and will soon establish a superior and less self destructive civilization on the remnants of our own. We dominated for 10,000 years. That was yesterday. This is Toad Day.
Roland Schnippering, Exeter, NH, US