SYDNEY — When the enemy reached Australia's largest state last year, the Kimberley Toad Busters knew the battle was on. But they didn't expect that officialdom might strip them of their most effective weapon.
The enemy? The cane toad. The weapon? Plastic bags full of carbon dioxide — long considered the animal-friendly alternative to whacking the creatures with golf clubs or cricket bats.
But Western Australia's Department of Environment and Conservation isn't so sure that euthanizing Bufo marinus with carbon dioxide is the kindest way to go, and says further tests are needed.
Should the tests prove the toads are suffering, the carbon dioxide option could be banned across Western Australia. And that, the Toad Busters fear, would make the war against cane toads virtually unwinnable.
Keep on whacking them instead, says the government. But to many, that makes no sense.
"Oh my lord, what are they saying?" cried Lisa Ahrens, a veteran toad fighter. "That's going right back to giving people a golf stick and telling them to go forth and conquer!"
This all may sound like a simple matter of bureaucracy and humane pest control, but cane toads are a 75-year-old Australian nightmare, and they amount to a cautionary tale about the difficulties that can crop up when humans try to reverse their environmental blunders.
The toads, native to Central and South America, were introduced to Queensland, on the other side of the continent from Western Australia, in 1935 in an unsuccessful attempt to control beetles on sugarcane plantations.
The toads bred rapidly, and their millions-strong population now threatens many species across Australia. They spread diseases, such as salmonella, and their skin exudes a venom that can kill would-be predators. They are also voracious eaters, gorging on insects, frogs, small reptiles and mammals, and birds. Cane toads are harmful to humans only if their poison is swallowed.
In recent years, Australians have held festive mass killings of the creatures, complete with prizes.