Buffel ravaging Australia’s deserts



Steve Morton would be the first to admit his book is not all-encompassing but a tantalising survey of desert ecology as we know it.

Ruth [who commented on this report], I too would like to have seen a colossal chapter addressing the buffel grass story, along with a rapidly expanding suite of exotic grasses and other impacts, including feral camels and cats that are destroying biodiversity.

Incidentally, I strongly recommend “Amongst the Pigeons” written by buffel grass warrior from South Australia, Dr. John Read, a detailed and compelling book on the environmental impact of cats! I feel sure he is writing the buffel grass award winner as we speak.

In fairness, Morton had his hands full explaining the ecology of Australia’s deserts. What to leave out was a difficult task for the writer and a great many worthy subjects and photographs were set aside.

His work reflects a seven year undertaking and certainly pushed the publishing boundaries of cost and return. I’m very pleased that he received the Whitley Medal for his outstanding contribution to environmental literature.

Sadly, no single chapter could have done justice to the ecological threats ravaging Australia’s Deserts.

I posted three buffel essays on the Alice Springs News during 2021 and I’m currently working on part four, mostly set in South Australia where, for example, quandongs are still abundant in the absence of camels.

This conclusion to my essays is a more hopeful one that reveals ecological innovators who are working with determined land managers to confront the buffel threat.

Accordingly, the opportunity to publish on the buffel grass tragedy will definitely be realised in coming years and I for one, while not an eminent scientist, hope to leave no significant politician, scientific institution or seed merchant, unturned.

PHOTO by MIKE GILLAM: “Buffel invasion of the APY Lands (image east of Kalka) massively accelerated by road works and absence of weed control at the road side. Mr Gillam contributed most of the outstanding photographs for Steve Morton’s book.


  1. The ecology of deserts has an echo of the ecology of humanity and the present predicament of the original central desert dwellers.
    R. M. Williams prophesied that the introduction of alcohol into the remote tribal lands in the 1930s would have devastating effects, but nobody took him seriously.
    It’s business as usual for the alcohol industry, except for the fact that there’s a 40% increase in their political party campaign funding this year, which contradicts the estimable Alex who posted elsewhere that nothing has changed.
    I remember, only a few years ago, when political party campaign donations were around $300k pa, now it’s $2.165m, which means that things are changing for the worse in terms of government credibility, trust and ability to challenge the Orwellian future which the alcohol industry promises.
    It’s no secret that people drink when they’re feeling vulnerable or despairing, but this doesn’t mean anything to the profit motive on which the alcohol industry takes its stand.
    I was a BUGA-UP activist against the tobacco industry in the 1980s. We won considerable sanctions against their pseudo-science and gained smoke-free public spaces.
    Human ecology is more important than desert ecology, but they are both related.
    I think it’s insane that we cannot do more than token, farcical limit restrictions to a drug that takes lives in the womb.
    Thanks Mike. Your photographs are windows into the miracle of life.

  2. Thanks for your posts Mike. More power to you in your quest “to leave no significant politician, scientific institution or seed merchant, unturned”. May your efforts help reduce the apathy and ignorance of the buffel threat.

  3. Having repaired many older (pre 1970s) style houses, collapsing ceilings, I saw the red dust stains down the walls from cracked ceilings under the weight of several inches of the fine talc red dust that used to migrate into homes with the dust storms that were so common in the past.
    They were such a scourge long before buffel saved the wind-swept dusty plains soils from being blown away.
    I cannot help but marvel at the amazing difference buffel has made to the landscape.
    Can we post pictures of the huge rolling dust storms in Alice Springs to remind us of the past – the massive blinding ones from 1920 to the 1950s, not the tame thin ones from the last 30 to 40 years that the NT News has in their archives from when buffel had only started to take hold.

  4. @ Douglas Draeger: Buffel grass did not end the dust storms, “the massive blinding ones from 1920 to the 1950s” – for starters, there were not constant dust storms through most of the period you claim.
    There was a long drought in the 1920s and early 1930s, that’s true, but the township of Stuart (as it was then) had very few buildings during that time.
    The notorious dust storms you refer to occurred mainly during the major drought that commenced in 1958 and abruptly ended with widespread flooding in late January 1966.
    The Centre erupted in greenery but virtually none of it was buffel grass as it was not yet widely planted across the region. There were only a few small, scattered occurrences of it.
    There had been buffel grass trials on several stations in the late 1950s and early 1960s but these proved unsuccessful. The CSIRO researcher who conducted these trials came to the conclusion that buffel grass was unsuitable for introduction into the Centre!
    However, a pasture species evaluation trial conducted by the CSIRO at AZRI during the early to mid 1960s (which was under irrigation) indicated that buffel grass would be useful for introduction on better class (more fertile) soil types.
    Buffel grass was established in a large area around the Alice Springs Airport in the late 1960s and early 1970s as a dust control measure but this was years after the constant blinding dust storms of the early 1960s.
    Buffel grass was planted widely for pasture improvement and soil stabilisation during the 1970s and into the 1980s; which coincided with a run of well above average rainfall years from 1972 to 1979, a time when dust storms were a fading memory.
    It was during this time that buffel grass gained its foothold in the region, aided by the rainy wet years.
    Sure, buffel grass suppresses dust storms but so does any vegetative ground cover, including native species. History clearly shows it was not buffel grass that ended the dust storms of decades ago, it was the return of native ground cover species that made the vital difference at the time.
    The reason we had big dust storms was because the native vegetation was eaten out by too many cattle. It was always due to inadequate pasture management and over-estimation of the productivity of the land.


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