Project Management Institute

Unnatural selection


More than 70 years ago, Australian scientists tried to eradicate the damaging cane beetle—and ended up with a pesky new problem.

IN 1935, AUSTRALIAN SUGAR CANE FARMERS were desperate to get rid of the cane beetle larvae feeding on their crops and causing extensive damage. So a group of Australian scientists decided to bring in the cane toads, which, it was presumed, would gobble up those nasty larvae. In July of that year, 3,000 cane toads (Bufo marinus), bred from about 100 specimens imported from Hawaii, USA, were released into several fields in Queensland.

No one had tested how successful the toads would be in controlling the beetles, however, and the results were disappointing. The sugar crops where the cane beetles and their larvae lived were high enough to protect them from the ground-dwelling cane toads. The toads found other sources of food, and after only six months, their ranks swelled to 60,000 in Australia.

Within five years of the the toads' introduction, an effective insecticidal spray became available, and the sugar industry lost interest in the creatures. Their effects on Australia have been lasting, however. The toads spread 30 to 50 kilometers per year in Australia's Northern Territory and about five kilometers in northern New South Wales. This movement made finding a solution more urgent because unaffected areas soon would be populated with the harmful toads.

The toad's voraciousness makes them a threat to Australia's wildlife, and the venom they produce is hazardous to many animals, including dogs, cats, fish, snakes, marsupials and crocodiles. The toad also is reportedly dangerous for humans.

Australia now is trying to control the invasive toads by distributing traps and creating genetically modified viruses to interrupt their development cycle. The country also has launched public-awareness projects to deter the further distribution—deliberately or negligently—of the toads.

“More than 70 years ago, the Australian sugar industry launched a project that today shows what risks are related to not having a proper impact assessment, which includes the entire environment of a performing organization,” says Oliver F. Lehmann, PMP, director at large (case analysis) for the PMI Troubled Projects Specific Interest Group.


The toads found other sources of food, and after only six months, their ranks swelled to 60,000 in Australia.

“They could have easily tested whether or not the cane toad was actually an effective weapon against the cane beetle before releasing the animal into wildlife,” he says. “Today, the borders of the toads' habitat are moving forward by up to 125 miles (200 kilometers) a year. It is important that current and future projects limit the further spread of these toads and do not duplicate the errors already made. Only proven effective measures should be taken. In addition, it must be verified that the methods do not threaten the Australian wildlife.”

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