Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) is a tall (4 metres high), multi-stemmed plant introduced to Australia in the 1930s as cattle fodder (Csurhes, 2005). The potential danger this grass posed was recognised early on, but despite assurances that it could be safely contained within paddocks heavily grazed by stock, gamba quickly escaped into surrounding savannah woodland (Petty, 2013) and elsewhere via “wind, water, animals and vehicles” (Beaumont, Keily & Kennedy, 2018). Now a weed of national significance gamba infests more than 1.5 million hectares of the Top End. The Top End is fast becoming a monoculture of gamba, and a ‘field of nightmares’ (Petty, 2013) for all concerned.
Gamba devastated the flora of woodland and even wetlands by crowding out trees and other plants, changing the nutrient status of the soil so that it better suits gamba than native vegetation, and fuelling wildfire so hot that even trees cannot survive - one study from Adelaide River 120 kms south of Darwin found 140 dead trees per hectare (Brooks, Setterfield & Douglas., 2010). A property near us lost 50-60% of it mature trees in one fire.
Gamba carries high-intensity crown fires more like those seen down south than the cool low fires once typical of the north. But unlike southern fires these Top End conflagrations can occur annually or ever more often (Kurucz, 2019). Every year our property southwest of Darwinis threatened at least once. Landholders have expressed both despair and fear at the amount of gamba grass infesting their land. We’re actually putting in a firegate at the east end of our property so that neighbours have an escape route should their property go up in flames. Tourists and locals alike have nearly died in gamba-fuelled fires.
A few months ago, a message appeared on Facebook. Posted by a family member living in Arnhem Land it told of the electrocution of a child. The women present did not administer CPR or call for medical assistance. Rather, they prayed over him.
When the coronavirus pandemic threatened there was another message from the same person, but the tone was more anxious this time. It consisted of a photograph of a woman praying and below the message in large letters that God and prayer would protect people from the coronavirus. As before several other women supported her post and they all sounded scared.
The juxtaposition of these two messages led me to fear that if COVID-19 did make it to Aboriginal settlements, prayer would be the first port of call, at least for some. An infectious diseases specialist friend has described the potential ramifications as ‘horrifying’.
A calendar depicting Australian birds from which are endangered by increasingly ferocious bushfires is helping to raise funds to support a volunteer brigade which battles these blazes near Darwin River.
Designed by bird photographer and ecotourism expert Denise Lawungkurr Goodfellow, the Birds of Australia’s Top End 2020 calendar contains pictures of birds including the Crimson Finch, the Partridge Pidgeon, the Varied Lorikeet, the Little Kingfisher and the Red-backed Fairy Wren.
Most disturbingly, the penultimate page of the calendar contains photographs of gamba grass - an African grass introduced to Australia as cattle feed - and a ferocious fire fuelled by this invasive grass. All profits raised from sales of the calendar will go to support the work of the Darwin River Volunteer Bushfire Brigade, of which Denise and her husband Michael are both members.
Denise Goodfellow has a long history of promoting environmentally sensitive tourism to the NT. This includes her role as a founding member of Ecotourism Australia, receiving nomination by Earthfoot for Condé Nast’s International Ecotourism Award in 2004 and winning the Individual Champion Award, Natural Resource Management, Northern Territory in 2016.
NT residents are calling for urgent action to fight a fire-prone grass introduced to Australia as cattle food that’s devastating native plants and animals in the Top End and threatening the lives of locals and tourists this Dry Season.
Gamba grass (Andropogon gayanus) is a tall African grass that the Australian cattle industry has embraced for its ability to support many more cattle than native pasture and its tolerance of tropical seasons. Gamba grass is highly flammable, growing in clumps as tall as four metres with stems as thick as bamboo.
Australian eco-tourism expert and long-time NT resident Denise Goodfellow describes the gamba grass infestations of the Top End as “verging on the catastrophic”. "While the NT Government has put much effort into fighting gamba grass, we need to recognise that it’s more than a nuisance weed – it is a disaster waiting to happen,” she warns.