In 1988 film-maker Mark Lewis made a 47 minute documentary, Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, that traced the successful career of the Cane Toad in Australia. The film became a ‘student and teacher favourite’ in schools and colleges across the country. Lewis has now updated his earlier project with a longer, more three dimensional film – Cane Toads: The Conquest 3D. You don’t need too see the film in 3D specs to appreciate its vivid stories.
The tale starts with a history lesson, before turning into a comedy horror. Cane Toads are native to Hawaii, but were introduced to Queensland in 1931 to control the cane grub – a nasty little bug which likes nothing better than feasting on the sugar cane that grew in the area. The toads didn’t eat the cane grub, instead they bred and spread. By the time the original documentary was made, they had hopped far beyond the few original farms where they had been introduced and covered the whole of Queensland, a state almost seven times larger than the United Kingdom.
The story of the cane toad is awesome and frightening in equal measure – it’s hard not to feel some admiration for such a successful creature in pure Darwinian terms. However, these creatures seem to be unstoppable. The trouble is, they can produce 30,000 eggs during mating season, which occurs twice a year. Native breeds only manage 100 eggs once a year.
The facts are mind-boggling and Mark Lewis conveys the unbelievable scale of the invasion with a cheeky Aussie wink in his eye, while giving you the creeps. He interviews a host of scientists, municipal authorities, farmers and ordinary citizens and manages to find some great stories and marvellous examples of native eccentricity. Among others there’s the man who has made a stuffed toad roadshow called The Toad Travelling Show, and a very amusing sequence about a tripping dog.
Unlike Richard Attenborough’s forensic examination the natural world, Lewis favours the human response. There are those who hate the horny creatures and those who love them, and others who are grimly resigned to the hopping plague. As one farmer puts it cane toads are “nothing more than vacuum cleaners wandering around trying to find food.” If their breeding powers are extraordinary, these toads are very accomplished wanderers too. They have now spread far beyond Queensland across the Northern Territory (six times the size of the UK) and encroaching on the borders of Western Australia. This journey, or conquest, is chillingly conveyed.
Cane toads may or may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but they do have a very real impact on the native wildlife. The animals, we learn, have poison-secreting glands that kill most would-be predators. Crocodile populations in the northern Australian swamps have been seriously affected by the toads.
In the end it seems no one can prevent the invasion spreading. Lest we draw any easy lessons from Cane Toads: The Conquest 3D, Lewis lets the varied Australian voices paint a picture of a phenomenon that is not simply sobering, but funny, strange and, mostly, perplexing. The one thing we do see is human beings outclassed by Mother Nature once more.