The battle against buffel: protecting County and culture

Buffel grass is one of the worst invaders of arid ecosystems worldwide. First introduced to Australia in the 1870s, buffel grass was actively planted in Central Australia around 1950s after a period of prolonged drought.  Today, the Central Australian landscapes that this tough and tenacious grass has invaded are under serious threat. 

Buffel grass can out-compete native vegetation, spread rapidly after rainfall, and increase the frequency and intensity of fires. It's considered a ‘transformer weed’ due to its ability to change habitats and is greatly impacting Aboriginal culture and connection to country. 

New research shows that buffel is a significant threat, however there is some good news - once buffel is properly managed, native flora and fauna can bounce back. ALEC, as a project partner of the 10 Deserts Project, supports work by Indigenous rangers to reduce the impact of buffel grass and protect and conserve biodiversity on desert country.

Key points:

  • Buffel is an incredible carrier of fire in the arid zone and competes with native grasses
  • Buffel has only spread widely in the last 20-30 years, which means its full impact has not been realised
  • Buffel ranks higher than any other environmental threat in terms of its social and cultural impacts for Aboriginal people
  • Buffel is still not considered a weed in the Northern Territory and continues to be grown on pastoral properties
  • There is an urgent need for increased management on a much larger scale, and prevention of further spread 
  • Aboriginal people from buffel-affected regions must be central to discussions and the development of solutions

Arid and semi-arid environments make up 70% of Australia. These diverse environments are highly vulnerable and have already been devastated by introduced species and changes to climate.  Historically used as a grazing crop for cattle and as a dust suppressant, new research [1] has outlined that buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris L.) is now the most significant threatening process to biodiversity in Central Australia.

Hotter, more frequent fires

Buffel grass fires are bigger and hotter than fires in surrounding ecosystem as it is more flammable than native grasses. Combined with impacts from climate change, buffel grass has transformed fire regimes and fire risk in Central Australia.

As well as being more intense, buffel grass fires spread to places that are usually protected by creek lines which act as a blockade because buffel can grow in the dry creek bed soil, where other grasses cannot.

More intense and frequent fire regimes are contributing to the damage and complete destruction of ecological communities of flora and fauna which cannot respond to such substantial changes to fire patterns.

Threatening Country and culture

The rapid invasion of buffel grass and the dramatic change it has wrought on ecosystems is increasingly impacting Aboriginal culture and connection to country and the health of many Indigenous communities.

Buffel affects the viability of bush foods, bush medicines and plant materials to be harvested, in addition to altering hunting practices. Culturally significant animal and plant species are to also be impacted.

‘We Can Be Buffel Free’ looks at the devastating effects buffel grass has on native flora and fauna and the things community members can do to help become buffel free. This video was made for the 10 Deserts Project and presented by Arid Lands Environment Centre as part of the Buffel Free Great Victoria Desert Project.

Action on buffel grass is urgently needed

ALEC has long advocated for the protection and improved management of Central Australia’s rangelands from invasive weeds and feral animals. These diverse environments are highly vulnerable to climatic and ecological changes, particularly those that move quickly. ALEC’s considers buffel grass a direct threat to the health of our region and urgent action to manage this invasive species is needed to ensure healthy futures for arid lands and peoples.

Research [1] shows that buffel management is expensive and can cost up to 40-50 times more than maintaining sanctuaries from other key threats. Therefore early intervention is vital for buffel to be managed effectively and as economically as possible. Management must include the creation of buffel-free zones prior to its aggressive advance across the landscape. Focusing on areas not yet invaded or areas at the buffel grass front is considered to be the optimal and most pragmatic strategy and will support native flora and fauna to be more resilient.

Priority actions include:

  • A coordinated national inquiry on buffel as a key threatening process and recognition that there are severe environmental and cultural impacts produced by buffel grass
  • Funding for buffel-free sanctuaries to protect our rangelands from invasion
  • Greater understanding and awareness by communities and industries of the threats posed by buffel
  • The development of a national monitoring tool to track the spread and impact of buffel and further research on buffel’s impacts upon different ecological communities
  • Further research biological agents to limit the advancement of buffel grass in our environments 

ALEC recognises that buffel grass is a significant threat to Central Australia. We support greater advocacy, research and funding at the national level, but also at the localised community-scale. Affected communities ought to be at the forefront of a coordinated buffel management strategy. 

References and resources

  • The buffel kerfuffle: how one species quietly destroys native wildlife and cultural sites in arid Australia, The Conversation
  • The Buffel Grass Disater, Rebel Films
  • Invasive buffel grass soon part of international focus, Alice Springs News
  • Central Australian wildlife warriors fight introduced grasses in the outback, ABC Rural
  • [1] Marshall, V.M. & Lewis, Megan & Ostendorf, Bertram. (2012). Buffel grass (Cenchrus ciliaris) as an invader and threat to biodiversity in arid environments: A review. Journal of Arid Environments. 78. 1–12. 10.1016/j.jaridenv.2011.11.005.

 

'Unwelcome Strangers' focuses on weed issues faced by Arrernte people in central Australia. However, the video also shows how each group at the different locations is confronted by invading plants that threaten cultural, environmental, economic, and social values. It shows the commitment and approaches taken by Aboriginal people, especially the critical work of Aboriginal rangers. 

This film was created during a collaborative project between CSIRO and Aboriginal rangers, organisations and community people from five locations in Queensland and the Northern Territory.


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