Picking up a fist-sized toad that bleats like a goat and urinates when threatened isn’t everyone’s idea of a holiday. But a growing army of eco-conscious travellers visiting WA’s vulnerable Kimberley are volunteering to do just that. Fleur Bainger hops (aha!) on board to help combat the inexorable march west of the insidious cane toad. (An audio file that accompanies this piece can be found here)
Looking down at a muddy mess of kicking, clambering, poison-riddled toads is enough to send anyone running for the hills. Unless that anyone is you, and you’ve just amassed said pile in a heavy duty plastic bag and are proudly parading its contents to a fellow Toad Buster. It’s in this unusual situation that an increasing number of travellers are finding themselves – me included – as the fight against the invasive cane toad gains popularity as a fully-fledged eco-voluntourism activity. And an unrivalled one, at that.

Click here to listen to author Fleur Bainger on her first toad busting mission.

Introduced into Australia in 1935 to control beetles that were destroying Queensland’s sugarcane crops, the ineffective, predator-less cane toad rapidly became a serious pest. It’s been making its way across the top of Australia ever since, wiping out swaths of native species on its westward approach. But its march is being somewhat hampered in WA’s East Kimberley. Each evening as the sun sets and the warm, dusky sky fades to star-sprinkled black, several hundred of these warty amphibians are removed by a motley crew of environmentalists, tourists and community members, nearly every one a volunteer. All have been inspired by the work of the Kununurra-based Kimberley Toad Busters (KTB), which has been running field trips for the past five years. In that time a half-million toads have been euthanised. What started as a few curious extra helpers tagging along on weekends has evolved into a full-scale operation, with two new 21-seater buses required just to accommodate the eager eco-travellers.

The chance to add a slice of adventure and visit otherwise inaccessible outback lands, all while helping preserve a stunning and fragile environment, is proving a powerful lure. Mix in some all-too-rare genuine Indigenous interaction and the pay-off for lending a hand is more than reciprocated.

Six Alarming Cane Toad Facts:
1. The can etoad frontline is now 30km from Kununurra.
2. Cane toads can travel up to 1.6km in an evening.
3. 21 cane toads have been found in Kununurra’s outskirts in 2010 so far.
4. KTB has euthanised 500,000 cane toads over the past five years.
5. A single female cane toad can lay up to 70,000 eggs per year.
6. Cane toads are so toxic they’ve even proved lethal to freshwater crocs 10 times their size.

Welcome to the frontline
On the day I put my hand up to be initiated into the world of cane toad cleansing, we’re bundled into a 4WD stained with the region’s rusty red dirt and driven an hour across the NT border to face the Toad Frontline, now roughly 650km long. We arrive at a stunning billabong on a cattle station off the highway. Still water mirrors the pale blue sky, wind tickles the fringing gums and dry leaves crackle underfoot as we make camp for the night. During daylight there’s not a toad in sight. By the time we tap in tent pegs, build a rock-rimmed fire and nosh down some communally prepared scrub grub, they’re beginning to emerge. Under a cloak of darkness, they’re free to roam across the vast landscape.

Pulling on sturdy boots, we’re ready for action. After arriving at a nearby site, we stand in vehicle headlights while each of us is handed a survival kit of sorts: surgical gloves, headlamp, safety jacket and a thick bag about a metre deep. No golf clubs or cricket bats? Nope, Cane Toad Busting is very much a non-violent activity.

“One of the things we’re trying to do is create respect,” says KTB co-founder and revered archaeologist Lee Scott-Virtue. “It’s a menace, but it deserves our respect. It didn’t ask to be invited into this country; we brought it.”

Indeed, each novice Buster is given a demo on how to handle the toads before we set off across the station paddocks and scrubland. It turns out the only way the poison can harm you is if you consume it, and that’s unlikely.

Did you know? There’s a cane toad-themed playground near Cairns called Cane Toad World, with murals that trace the introduction of the pest into Qld.

I’m keen for an ambitious start. Squelching out towards a billabong, I spot a big one – a female, according to Scott-Virtue, as she directs my maiden bust. “Come up quietly behind it,” she says. “With your gloved hand, grab behind its glands – you can see they’re quite swollen at the front. Just pick it up gently.”

It’s impossible not to screech as I latch on to the victim. The toad is nearly as large as my hand, and its muscular physique shocks me. As it attempts to hop away from my tentative clutch, I feel a remarkable strength in the toad’s legs, and grasp it harder. I also feel a fair amount of liquid flowing over my gloves. This toad has just had the final say . . . by urinating on me. Apparently it’s a fight or flight response, a lightening of the load in an effort to abscond. These toads aren’t stupid. While the initial squirt is horrifying, it’s something I become oddly blasé about as the night wears on.

I place the trophy toad in the bottom of my bag and immediately sense the feeling that’s simultaneously fallen over each of my Toad Busting colleagues: a wild-eyed desire to clean up every last cane toad in sight, as quickly and expertly as possible.

A new breed
Looking through the torchlight, the number of toads leaping around us is alarming. It’s not quite mouse plague proportions – I’m certainly in no danger of being engulfed by a writhing mass – but the ground is moving all the same, with another wet hop seen at least every metre. Boy, do they move fast. They know they’re being hunted and they’re on the run. When caught, they make a curious, soft, high-pitched bleating sound, a bit like a goat.

“They’re so different to the ones found in Qld initially. They’re much stronger, they’re bigger . . . and they’re moving faster. They are super toads.

While my horror movie vision of the toad front was worse than the reality, the devastation on native wildlife is far greater than I could’ve imagined. “It is most unfortunate that our native biodiversity – virtually all our native biodiversity – has absolutely no resistance to the toxin of the cane toad,” says Scott-Virtue. Native species are hit with a double whammy; many are a food source for the toad, and others attempt to eat it, thinking it’s just another frog, discovering too late that its poison is lethal. There’s been no time to evolve with the introduced creature. Using already-infested Kakadu as a guide, the KTB knows what’s in store for its precious region when – rather than if – the toad front arrives.

In the NT’s far-reaching wetlands, the northern quoll has been wiped out, the yellow spotted monitor is soon to disappear, and other species like goannas, native frogs, skinks and even birds are under serious threat. Evidence shows that the toads have no problem finding food sources as they move from region to region. “The toads we’re confronting at the frontline are utterly remarkable,” says Scott-Virtue. “They’re so different to the ones found in Queensland initially. They’re much stronger, they’re bigger, the back legs are longer, they deal with saline conditions better, their survival rate is much higher, and they’re moving faster. They are super toads.”

Scott-Virtue’s son, Ben, who recently took over running the KTB field trips, is blown away by the toads’ predatory behaviour. “Rainbow bee-eaters are another bird species at risk by the toad,” he says. “A study was done by some University of Sydney students, who found that these toads will wait by a bee-eater’s burrow for the young chicks to emerge. The students even removed the toads a full 5km, then radio tracked them right back to the same burrow.”

Everyone is a soldier
That news motivates my busting efforts even further. My green plastic bag is starting to bulge ominously as I lug it over to a patch where a group of Aboriginal kids is excitedly pursuing the toads, competing to see who can fill their bags fastest. For me, this sort of interaction is priceless. Rarely do you see Indigenous children being so uninhibited, boisterous and chatty. And when I ask them why they’re out here, they’re full bottle on the scourge of the cane toad. Several Aboriginal communities have joined the KTB, fully aware of the damage being done to their local environment. Their energy and enthusiasm is infectious; any negative stereotypes some volunteers undoubtedly harbour are quickly erased. At one of the most vigilant communities, Cockatoo Springs southeast of Kununurra, the colonising front has been completely broken up, with toads numbering only in the tens.

As our bags become too weighty to carry, we return to the 4WDs and store them for the night. The next morning, the scientific side of Operation Toad Bust begins. A procession of volunteers hands toads to Scott-Virtue, who assesses each one and calls out its attributes for recording. “A lot of time is spent looking for abnormalities,” she says. “Finding toads that are sick, measuring their size, sexing them so we can work out whether we’re dealing with a colonising front or a major breeding area. We’re essentially trying to understand the behaviour of the toad. And it’s only by understanding that, that we’ve actually been able to do something about mitigating its impact.”

This is the kindest extermination method available. “Within a couple of minutes they’ve gone to sleep. Within half an hour they’ve died.”

Now that Scott-Virtue junior is on board, autopsies of a select number are also carried out. Data is supplied to independent researchers investigating whether the KTB’s manual control methods are effective, and identifying trends in the toad population. “Working out what they’re eating is incredibly important,” says Ben. “We’re able to then forecast what impact this is going to have on the environment. We want to understand every facet.”

With the scientific data recorded, the inevitable end is nigh for the toads. By now they’ve been transferred into white garbage bags, 25 a pop. Carbon dioxide is hissed into each one, which the KTB claims is the kindest extermination method available. “Within a couple of minutes they’ve gone to sleep,” says Scott-Virtue. “Within half an hour they’ve died.”

The euthanasia complete, our band of now bona fide and completely devoted Toad Busters reluctantly packs up and settles in for the return journey to Kununurra. It hasn’t cost us a cent, with food and tents provided by the KTB. But what we’ve gained bears lifelong value; the camaraderie, cultural insight and gratifying sense of goodwill earned from having contributed to a worthy cause. And we have extraordinary tales to ham up when we get home. Our admiration for those who do it day in, day out has magnified tenfold.

Who you gonna call? You can Toad Bust for one night, one month or one year. Food supplies, transport and tents are provided; just bring bedding. (08) 9168 2576, www.canetoads.com.au

While we return to homes comfortably oblivious to the ongoing environmental destruction caused by the cane toad, Scott-Virtue and her team will refill, refresh, turn around and do it all again. “All of us are out there because we love the Kimberley,” she says earnestly. “We think it’s probably one of the last major, pristine areas left in Australia. We’d really like to keep it that way.”

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