Yesterday I attended a meeting on tackling environmental issues in the Greater
Darwin area, and all everybody talked about was gamba grass. This weed,
imported as pasture for the beef industry, is native to the African savannah.
Ungrazed it is a bulky grass reaching nearly 5 m. high. It is a transformer
weed, meaning it transforms other vegetation communities to monocultures by
carrying destructive fire, and by outcompeting native plants for water and
nutrients and space and light.
I first raised the issue of gamba grass as a threat to birds, at the launch of
the second edition of Birds of Australia’s Top End in 2005. Since then I’ve
written about this weed as a threat to both wildlife and to human beings. Yeet
for years the NT Government, bowing to the wishes of graziers, took no action.
The grass is now out of control throughout the Greater Darwin area.
Yesterday a ranger at the nearby Litchfield Park said that this one weed
covered 20% of Litchfield Park, and that in two decades it would cover nearly
half the park. Dangerous wildfire fuelled by gamba grass is a big concern,
and this ranger said it was only a matter of time before visitors died. This
situation most likely exists in other parks as well. Consequently I suggest
that birders visiting the Top End from June to November, be aware of the danger
from fire. And if you’re going off road then hire a vehicle that uses diesel,
not petrol. In my experience some tour operators and guides don’t recognise
the threat, so check!
I called for a cost-benefit analysis comparing the cost of gamba, mission,
rats-tail and other weeds brought in as cattle pasture or as contaminants,
against the so-called worth of the beef industry. I doubt it will happen -
it’s a case of nationalising the problems and privatising the profit. However,
graziers are now finding that gamba is more trouble than it is worth; firstly
because it is so destructive to most native vegetation; secondly they can’t
sell properties infested with the stuff; and thirdly because any property
infested with gamba cannot be used for carbon offsets. Still, gamba has its
supporters as a grazier pointed out gleefully the other day. Unfortunately
there does not seem to be a way for consumers to access beef produced in a
According to academics and rangers present at this meeting feral cats are also
out of control, and no one present could see any way of dealing with them. One
ray of hope is to reduce the annual burning of forest and woodland which
reduces ground cover making it easier for cats to hunt. However, because so
much annual burning has occurred herbaceous under storey in much of these
habitats has been replaced by fire-encouraging speargrass.
Another ray of hope is that many landowners do their best to control both weeds
and cats. However, it may not be enough to save several species.
Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow
PO Box 71
Darwin River, NT, Australia 0841
043 8650 835
PhD candidate, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.
Founding Member: Ecotourism Australia
Nominated by Earthfoot for Condé Nast’s International Ecotourism Award, 2004.
With every introduction of a plant or animal that goes feral this continent
becomes a little less unique, a little less Australian.
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