Tyrhys (pronounced ‘tyreece’) is nine years old. He speaks in a TV American accent and has street-wise confidence learnt from his brothers who live in the remote northwest town of Kununurra. He’s a typical plucky nine year-old, full of energy and cunningly affectionate.
Tyrhys is also an important associate of ‘Toadbusters’, an alliance of thousands of landowners and Aboriginal titleholders throughout the northern Kimberley. Before Cane Toads reached Kununurra in 1997, the Scott-Virtue’s, Lee and her son Ben, began a campaign to quell the toad’s advance and stem the devastation they had caused to wildlife elsewhere across the Top End, where little affirmative action was taken.
Cane Toads were released in Australia as an ill-conceived eradication program for sugar cane beetle. “It only takes one toad to kill a freshwater crocodile”, says Toadbusters co-founder Ben Scott-Virtue, a self-proclaimed reptile enthusiast. “The toads are amazing creatures ... my hat goes off to them for their resilience but unfortunately, the poison they contain paralyses muscles that enable animals to breath. Almost anything that eats a toad will go belly-up”.
Ben has seen the number of harmless Freshwater Crocodiles decline by 90% across the region but believes they’ve managed to save enough of the northern Kimberley’s unique wildlife to provide hope - Mulga Snakes, Yellow-spotted and Merten’s Water Monitors, even Golden Bandicoots can still be found.
“It’s worth the effort if it gives researchers enough time to come up with the silver bullet and once and for all rid Australia of this noxious pest”, says Ben.
This is Ben’s home and his childhood fascination for reptiles combined with an obsession for the Kimberley wilderness, drives his ambition and those around him.
Ben estimates that Toad Busters has collected and humanely euthanised over 2 million toads in eight years, providing critical data for scientists all over the world. That’s not an insignificant number when you consider they move along wetland corridors and a concerted effort in these places, yields a certain reduction in the number of breeding females throughout the wet season.
Lake Argyle, a man-made legacy of failed attempts to create a new rice economy in the 1970s, is about two hours from Kununurra and is both a blessing and curse. In some respects it provides a focus for eradication efforts but it’s also a major dispersal route.
“The toads can easily swim across the lake” says Danielle, Ben’s business partner. With a background as an environmental scientist and teacher, Danielle, whose nine-year old daughter Reilly tags along, has dedicated herself full time to Toad Busters and coordinates the group’s community work which goes way beyond toad busting. It’s also one of a number of projects in the Kids at Risk Program in Kununurra that takes Aboriginal children (some as young as four years old) off the streets. Toad busting, she explains, get them into the bush and a long way away from domestic violence and a life of street crime.
Tyrhys is fortunate to have a supportive family around him and a purpose that gives him an outlet for his burgeoning confidence. His eagerness to capture Cane Toads and the passion for what he does, shows a commitment and wisdom way beyond his years. He lost his mother to suicide a few years ago and was adopted by a loving grandmother Ju Ju, an aboriginal elder.
Ju Ju is short and stocky but kind-looking with charcoal skin and a weathered face that gives way to a gleaming smile when Tyrhys turns up the cheekiness. Ju Ju has known Ben for years. She comes on camps and helps rally support from aboriginal groups and politicians all over Australia.
Ben, Danielle, Reilly, Tyrhys, Ju Ju and we headed to Lake Argyle, to a place where last year during the wet, they removed 6,400 toads in a single evening. Tyrhys was just two years old when he joined the first of these trips.
Camp was below a large acacia with a view of the lakes. Magpie Geese honked overhead and a cool breeze blew off the water as we prepared for the evening. Ben unloaded the gear - an eight wheel drive amphibious vehicle, quad-bike, swags, awning, camp billies and food. We prepared a stew as the sun set over the escarpment to the west and a lone Freshwater Crocodile drew up on the bank to bask in the last rays of evening light.
We weren’t expecting many toads as the numbers contract in the dry season but we headed out anyway, donning rubber gloves and gum boots to collect a few and bagging them for later disposal. The team treat the toads with a profound respect. It’s not their fault they’re here and they deserve their dignity. For the kids it’s great fun ... swaggering out in knee-deep mud and water to collect a toad from the shallows with several pairs of red glowing eyes from Freshwater Crocodiles looking on.
Ben says “we have everyone come through here, from doctors and lawyers to kids on the dole and tourists from all over the world ... when people bend down to pick up a toad, everyone is equal”.
Later that night we let the camp fire succumb to the falling nocturnal temperatures and laid back in swags staring at the Milky Way, being lulled to sleep with the gentle piping of whistling ducks. It reminded us of a comment from nature guide Mike Jarvis in Darwin who once told us how he chooses to sleep in a swag outside his clients‘ lodgings when on tour. When they ask why, he replies “why do I need four star when I can have a thousand stars?”
We left knowing we’d been treated to something very special. Ben, Danielle and Ju Ju’s hospitality is a tradition they’ve built to connect people to nature in a way that’s truly unique. It’s a movement that binds a community and does something extraordinary that few in the world can boast to have achieved. It's given us the chance to make a difference. After all, what more simpler than picking up a toad? It’s an action that could save the life of a native animal and may be a crucial step in preserving the future of the Kimberley ecosystem.
Writer, photographer and founder of Wildiaries
Simon has been studying and observing wildlife for over 40 years and for about 30 of that, writing stories, taking photographs and making short films. His observations and experience extend to travelling extensively through Australia and eastern Indonesia discovering new and exciting travel opportunities, as well as contributing to science and conservation. Simon is passionate about conservation and the impact travel can have on the lives of people in remote places.