Cane Toads: a tale of sugar, politics and flawed science

Nigel Turvey, Adjunct Professorial Fellow in the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University

A Sydney University Press book launch

11 November, 2013

Launched by Professor Rick Shine, ARC Federation Fellow, Professor in Evolutionary Biology, Faculty of Science, the University of Sydney

Cane Toads Book cover

Before the birth of modern insecticides, farmers and gardeners used predatory and parasitic wasps and flies, insect-eating birds, lizards and toads as agents of biological control. In the late 19th century sugar cane scientists carried cane toads from the South American mainland to Barbados, then to Puerto Rico, Hawai‘i and Queensland to control pests in sugar cane. Toads were introduced to some 138 countries, and are now ranked among the world’s most invasive species.

Queensland’s sugar scientists released the toad into cane fields in 1935. They were supported by cane growers, politicians, the nation’s leading scientists, the premier of Queensland and the prime minister of Australia. Only a lone voice objected. In the following 70 years they have spread as far as western NSW and Western Australia.

This story is about good intentions, unintended consequences and of simple acts leading to catastrophic outcomes. It is about scientists so committed to solving a problem, serving their country, their leaders and the industry that employed them, that they are blinkered to adverse impacts. There are lessons to learn from the toad’s tale. And as the tale shows, we still come perilously close to repeating the mistakes of the past.

Nigel Turvey resides in Darwin where, as an Adjunct Professorial Fellow in the Research Institute for Environment and Livelihoods at Charles Darwin University, he supervises postgraduates and writes. Nigel is the author of Terania Creek: rainforest wars. He also manages planted forests in Queensland and is Executive Chairman of KeeptheHabitat, tackling ways to stop tropical deforestation.

A special guest at the event will be Michael A. Lilly, grandson of Cyril Pemberton, who was Chief Entomologist at the Hawai’i Sugar Plantation Association and involved in cane toads in Hawai’i.