Ranking buffel: Comparative risk and mitigation costs of key environmental and socio-cultural threats in central Australia

John L. Read, Jennifer Firn, Anthony C. Grice, Rachel Murphy, Ellen Ryan-Colton, Christine A. Schlesinger

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Abstract

Changed fire regimes and the introduction of rabbits, cats, foxes, and large exotic herbivores have driven widespread ecological catastrophe in Australian arid and semi-arid zones, which encompass over two-thirds of the continent. These threats have caused the highest global mammal extinction rates in the last 200 years, as well as significantly undermining social, economic, and cultural practices of Aboriginal peoples of this region. However, a new and potentially more serious threat is emerging. Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris L.) is a globally significant invader now widespread across central Australia, but the threat this ecological transformer species poses to biodiversity, ecosystem function, and culture has received relatively little attention. Our analyses suggest threats from buffel grass in arid and semi-arid areas of Australia are at least equivalent in magnitude to those posed by invasive animals and possibly higher, because unlike these more recognized threats, buffel has yet to occupy its potential distribution. Buffel infestation also increases the intensity and frequency of wildfires that affect biodiversity, cultural pursuits, and productivity. We compare the logistical and financial challenges of creating and maintaining areas free of buffel for the protection of biodiversity and cultural values, with the creation and maintenance of refuges from introduced mammals or from large-scale fire in natural habitats. The scale and expense of projected buffel management costs highlight the urgent policy, research, and financing initiatives essential to safeguard threatened species, ecosystems, and cultural values of Aboriginal people in central Australia.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)12745-12763
Number of pages19
JournalEcology and Evolution
Volume10
Issue number23
DOIs
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

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