• Invasive species;
  • community groups;
  • engagement;
  • enacted natures


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Not Quite a ‘Hybrid Forum’
  4. ‘When It's Toads You're Talking About, Nothing is Ever Stable’
  5. References

This article examines the meeting between the community group Kimberley Toad Busters (KTB) and established science and government in terms of an intersection of two logics of engagement. A logic of choice and a logic of care meet in the first example where I look at the conflicts and tensions arising in a public forum on control of cane toads in the Kimberley region of Western Australia. The second part of the article presents two examples of KTB's own practices to demonstrate that the tension between the two logics also figures within these practices. Nature is enacted both similarly and differently in these events through the tension between the logic of care and the logic of choice. In the first instance the logics figure as mutually exclusive and generative of an expanding gulf between lay and scientific knowledge, while in the second the two emerge in an unfinished productive tension.

Cane toads were introduced to Australia in 1935 as a biological control agent for sugar cane grubs. Since then, they have spread with increasing pace and are today widely considered to be one of Australia's worst invasive pests and are often presented as the prime example of Australia's folly with regards to the introduction of exotic species. The toads are poisonous and potentially a threat to reptiles, marsupials and other predators. In 2004, as the toads drew ever closer to the Western Australian border, a community initiative was started in order to do something about this impeding threat, and since then thousands of volunteers, several organisations, state departments and many others have been engaged in the effort to slow down the toads' spread and mitigate their impact on native wildlife. This article is based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2012 with the Kimberley Toad Busters (KTB), one of the central actors in this tale of the toad, and explores this unique case in terms of a fraught meeting between the practices of a community group on the one hand and scientific knowledge and government policy on the other, by engaging insights from both anthropology and science and technology studies.

Against the grain of much of what has been written in the social sciences on invasive species, I aim in this paper to avoid making the case into a paradox of conserving nature by unnatural means or explaining the concern with invasive species by seeing it as a proxy for something political or societal.1 In the social sciences, cases similar to the one to be presented here are often portrayed as processes entailing a projection of political or social antagonisms upon the environment and they tend to be analyses that stem from immersions in textual sources rather than in practices and the interspecies encounters that such cases involve. Delving into practices and concrete tangible relations, I expect one will invariably discover realities that go beyond the political and social and resist dualisms of nature and culture.

Shifting the focus to practice consequently entails attending to written sources, not with a view to narratives and discourses or with questions of what is symbolised, but rather with attention to the practices in which documents are mobilised and the realities that they enact. Annemarie Mol (2002) sees enactment as a term that retains the materiality and additive aspects of ‘construction’ as well as the creative, practical and repetitive aspects of ‘performance’, all the while avoiding some of the problematic connotations of the two terms. Enactment is ontological shaping and cutting (cf. Strathern 1996) and it prompts us not to take entities for granted, but instead to look at how they come into being and are sustained and altered in practice.

Such a perspective engages me in what has often been called a relational or ontological turn in anthropology (see for instance Henare et al. 2007). The analytical focus in this article is therefore set upon how nature and the toad case are enacted in practice through different logics of engagement. Instead of explaining, the goal is to read the empirical and the theoretical through each other, working at the intersection of ever-changing trajectories. Ultimately, this means not primarily looking for backgrounds, causes and reasons, but rather—as in what Asdal (2012) calls ‘a philosophy of adding’—attending to what emerges in practice, what is enacted and performed.

In making the case for logics of engagement as the analytical prism it should be noted how I intend this to differ from the classic and much rehearsed division between local and universalising knowledge (see, for example, Scott 1998). One difference is that through equating a logic with a pattern of practices that is partially of my own delineation, the emphasis is shifted from the elusive and intangible notion of knowledge towards the very concrete practices through which a logic can be made to emerge. I also wish to avoid evoking the dualist idea of a world divided into reality and knowledge about it. I aim to shift the focus towards the different realities that emerge from practice, from different logics of engagement and from the tension the logics figure in. Through this perspective, the paper will shed light upon the differences that arise when a community group and representatives of established science and government agencies confront each other.

The KTB is a community group engaged in the effort to mitigate the impact of cane toads on the native wildlife of the Kimberley region in Western Australia. From 2004 until the present they have struggled not only with toads but also with difficult relations to other groups and individuals.

The KTB originated locally in the Kununurra community. In the beginning, ‘KTB’ was meant as a sort of umbrella term that could cover all the groups and individuals working together for the common goal. KTB was intended to be a marker that articulated a commonality and thus drew people together. But KTB also, in certain instances, became a marker that could divide, as conflicts with other community groups (especially a group called Stop the Toad Foundation) persisted. Community groups habitually negotiate tensions between being immersed in the community and maintaining an often necessary distance. Through making connections with other groups in the Kimberley, but most of all by organising so that members of the community could toadbust, the KTB extended themselves so as to share many of the parts that make up the community. In the early years, the group arranged large trips to locations as far as a few hundred kilometres away, where the westernmost toads were at the time. But after the toads reached Kununurra in 2010, toadbusting for most people became something different from the overnight camping trips of the earliest years. ‘Everybody toadbusts’—something I was told by informants on several occasions—now often means that people are out catching toads on their own property on a regular basis. Consequently, one of KTB's dilemmas as a community group pertains to the shift in their role and purpose, as they have gone from being important and indispensable when toads were new to a place to being somewhat more redundant when toads have been there for a longer time. As the toads keep on spreading, though, KTB come to hold both of these positions at the same time, but in different places, and much of their activities in 2012 took place west of Kununurra, in towns where the toads had only just arrived. KTB also set themselves apart from the rest of the community by a number of practices that are necessary in order to be able to speak authoritatively on toads and thereby extend and nurture the engagement of people in the Kimberley. One last tension of being a community group involves, in KTB's case, occupying a scientific borderland where, as we shall see, they are excluded in important ways from the realm of science even though, at the same time, this is something that is overtly negotiated and the practices of the KTB in certain ways quite strongly resemble established natural science. Being a community group, in KTB's case, also involves being wed to the specificities of the case and to a commitment to intervention. This entails making room for more than that which can be easily quantified.

Not Quite a ‘Hybrid Forum’

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Not Quite a ‘Hybrid Forum’
  4. ‘When It's Toads You're Talking About, Nothing is Ever Stable’
  5. References

In 2010, KTB held their second major cane toad forum in Kununurra, WA. Sponsored by a Caring for our Country grant, the forum was called ‘Caring for the Kimberley Environmental Forum’ and featured both ‘scientific’ and ‘community’ days. Written sources, lengthy conversations I had with participants and a set of DVDs from the forum inform this account. Evident in all of the sources is not so much the conflictual relations between KTB and other groups, but instead the strained relations between both KTB and established scientists, and between KTB and what was, at the time, the government's newly released draft for the threat abatement plan (TAP). Cane toads—officially, The biological effects, including lethal toxic ingestion, caused by cane toads (Bufo Marinus)—were named a Key Threatening Process under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999, after a forum the KTB arranged in 2005. It is the Threatened Species Scientific Committee that advises the Minister for Environment Protection, Heritage and the Arts on matters pertaining to key threatening processes. When something is made a key threatening process, a decision has to be made by the minister as to whether a TAP should be enacted. A TAP is an official document that guides action concerning research, management and other things to protect native species and ecological communities.2 In addition to the toads, twelve other threatening processes have resulted in TAPs, including those involving foxes, feral cats, feral goats, rabbits and exotic rodents.

Many of the leading cane toad scientists in Australia spoke at the forum; some expressed positivity towards KTB's volunteers' efforts, others were less positive. Some presented arguments to the effect that the impact of toads on native fauna and ecosystems has not been proven to be as great as feared. Largely, the tensions seem to have pivoted on what to do with an uncertain situation: were they to give the toads the benefit of the doubt until it is ascertained what sort of threat they are—there is, after all, very little published research that unambiguously shows the toads to have a very high impact on native wildlife—or were they to act when they could, before it turned out to be worse than expected? KTB certainly held the latter opinion, having acted for several years already, while policy makers tended towards the former, feeling that clear and quantitative scientific knowledge pointing to the destructive impact of cane toads should be a prerequisite before allocation of significant funds was warranted. One would have to know what to choose from before choices could be made. When Tony Peacock from the Invasive Species Cooperative Research Centre presented the Cane Toad TAP to a crowd of both scientists and people from the KTB, a plan that had been released for comment the previous day, the discrepancies in the realities of the different parties became painfully clear.

The TAP asserts that ‘community action, while satisfying to local communities, does not have the capacity to make any significant changes to the rate of spread of cane toads or to the densities of cane toads beyond specific local areas’. Thus, it doesn't just recognise that the effectiveness of community action is not proven, but goes even further in making it the fact of the matter that community action is futile. While KTB firmly believe they are making a difference they are also aware that their effectiveness is still very uncertain and difficult to document, something that many scientists also acknowledge.

The TAP, more so than any other cane toad document, is an entity that changes matters. Enacting the situation in a certain way as well as guiding political action is what the TAP is meant to do. It is not hard to understand that it sparked off a heated discussion at the Kununurra forum, since the TAP cuts away all the uncertainty of the matter to define community action as ineffectual. The TAP was based heavily on two documents. One was a report by Rick Shine—the most prolifically published cane toad scientist in Australia (Shine 2010); the other an interview study of communities in Queensland and the Northern Territory (Clarke et al. 2009). Shine's report was a literature review of the direct and indirect impact of toads; it found that some species decline (some of these significantly, others only marginally), while others increase, and others again show neither a marked reduction nor an increase. Further, he remarked that ‘no native species have gone extinct as a result of toad invasion, and many native taxa widely imagined to be at risk are not affected’ (Shine 2010: 253). Tony summarised the interview study as saying that ‘as you go eastwards from here [Kununurra], people care less about cane toads’.3

One of the key issues in Tony's presentation of the TAP was the process leading to plans and to policy. Around PowerPoint slides titled ‘What is threatened?’ and ‘How do we quantify?’, he pointed out that threats could be at either the level of ecosystems or at the species level, and that there would have to be clear threats to warrant action and allocation of funds. Further, he emphasised that for something to have an influence on policy, a species declining because of cane toads, for example, the species in question would have to be on the endangered species list and data regarding its decline would have to be published. Regarding a particular population of freshwater crocodiles he asserted, while acknowledging that it was a frustrating situation, that ‘the way it works is that if there are no data on these animals, the way it works under the [EPBC] Act is that they are virtually non-existent’.

Tony's talk on the TAP was followed by a flurry of questions, comments and a roundtable discussion in which a strong sense of frustration at what the TAP communicates and what it might lead to was voiced. One concern shared by scientists and community groups was that the TAP would lead to less funding for the issues that are uncertain and that it ruled out precautionary measures. KTB's president expressed frustration that KTB were being told that they made no difference, and voiced the concern that KTB were forced to align themselves with scientists because, as Tony explicitly pointed out in his talk: ‘as far as the scientific committee goes … all the stuff that's not published, doesn't exist’. The following comment, which is a part of a letter from KTB sent shortly after the forum and published by Tony on the Invasive Species Cooperative Research Centres blog, ‘Feral Thoughts’, serves to link the problems between KTB and the TAP, and between KTB and scientists:

Perhaps the greatest disappointment in the current draft of the TAP is the dismissal of qualitative information from community. Visiting locations throughout the NT people are willing to share the loss of wildlife they have experienced, they are not losses of a single species, but losses of communities including small skinks, dragons, blue-tongue and frilled-neck lizards, goannas, to a point where they are no longer seen. To people that live in those locations it is equivalent to the species becoming extinct, it is not an academic argument for them.

As the scientific community seems broadly to agree that the toads' impact amounts to a perturbation rather than a radical change, it diverges quite strongly from the KTB's point of view, which is that change brought about by the toads isn't simply ecological but is also, and equally, an experiential change and an impact upon what practices are possible to sustain in the environment—be it traditional Aboriginal hunting (see also Seton and Bradley 2004) or appreciation of wildlife. At this point then, scientific knowledge is the basis upon which policymakers can make decisions, as it elicits unambiguous answers when the questions are put in biological and ecological terms. The KTB's image of change, on the other hand, effectively challenges the assumption about what ‘impact’ means and upon what criteria decisions on cane toad policy should be made.

The cane toad forum shows how ‘community expertise’ is enacted as different from scientific knowledge in a meeting between a community group and representatives of science and governing bodies. In this example, the official documents enact a sharp division, even to the extent of excluding from consideration everything that is not peer reviewed and published. The TAP cements a strong link between science and the grounds for action, and between those who are qualified to find out what there is to choose from and government, the decision makers. This creates a framework into which it is difficult to fit KTB's community expertise. KTB and community expertise; everything unpublished; qualitative, experiential, anecdotal information—all of these things are excluded by the official documents.

Much has been written in the social sciences literature on similar meetings between communities, governments and scientists, particularly regarding the importance of not categorically dismissing ‘anecdotal’ information. For one thing, there is a literature on the concept of postnormal science (see Funtowicz and Ravetz 1993; Bidwell 2009) that resonates to a degree with the toad case. The argument for postnormal science is a normative one and a critique of ‘normal science’ (cf. Kuhn 1962) and is thus more a vision or goal than anything else. The argument goes that in cases of high uncertainty and high stakes, normal science is insufficient, and what is required is for an extended community to be involved and for criteria of factual validity to be extended. The toad case is certainly one where both the stakes and uncertainty are high, and it could well be argued that KTB's practices are, in a sense, an implicit push for a postnormal science. KTB argue ardently that community expertise, experiential knowledge and qualitative information must be heard and taken account of and that notions of impact cannot be reduced to the biological and ecological. However, what is most evident are the discordances and disagreements and there is much standing in the way of involving the broader community and extending the notion of what are considered to be facts. KTB is not quite postnormal science. Crucially, in KTB's case it is not a matter of scientists or government agencies mobilising community members to do scientific footwork or a question of whether mainstream science should include and involve communities. Instead, it involves a set of practices emanating from members of the community that quite strongly resemble the practices of mainstream science while differing in certain ways at the same time.

At first glance, the cane toad forum would seem almost perfectly to resemble what Callon et al. (2009) call a ‘hybrid forum’. They argue: ‘[F]orums because they are open spaces where groups can come together to discuss technical options involving the collective, hybrid because the groups involved and the spokespersons claiming to represent them are heterogeneous, including experts, politicians, technicians, and laypersons who consider themselves involved’ (Callon et al. 2009: 18). But it doesn't quite fit this description either—or rather hybrid forums seem, like postnormal science, to be the ideal that KTB strives for. KTB's comments on the TAP as recounted above seem almost to echo Callon and Rabeharisoa's argument for ‘research in the wild’: ‘our objective is to suggest that it might be fruitful to consider concerned groups as (potentially) genuine researchers capable of working cooperatively with professional scientists’ (Callon and Rabeharisoa 2003: 195). And whereas the forum was indeed an instance where heterogeneous groups came together to discuss matters of concern to themselves (one such matter was even that of considering whether the activities of KTB's volunteers could be considered genuine research), it didn't quite work as such. Hardly anything was changed in the official documents and KTB came out of the process with a sense of disempowerment and resentment.

To explore how this came to be the case, I suggest it is fruitful to recognise in the encounter of the cane toad forum a tension between two different logics of engagement. Annemarie Mol (2008) synthesises from research in clinics a logic of choice and a logic of care. The logic of choice is analogous to the sort of risk mentality that Callon et al. (2009) outline. A logic of risk or choice avoids ambiguities (Callon et al. 2009: 20) and presents issues as matters of choice between different clear outcomes. Product, control and calculation are central concerns and aspirations in a logic of choice. Contrarily, a logic of care (Mol 2008) or uncertainty (cf. Callon et al. 2009) instead centres on process, attentiveness and attunement, and works from the assumption of not knowing what outcomes are possible, or exactly how they might be made or become possible. The consequence of this is that in a logic of choice, the practices of knowing the world are sharply divided from the practices of intervening in the world—possible outcomes must be identified, it must be made known what toads do to the environment and what certain control strategies will do to the toads in the environment before action can be implemented. Thus, the TAP prescribes action only on the grounds of scientific papers and reports and explicitly prioritises measureable objectives, the consequence being that if it is not measureable, it cannot be an objective. Conversely, in the logic of care, outcomes are seen to emerge in the same process as one comes to gain knowledge about them—means and ends develop together. Furthermore, the logic of care is wed to particulars and their specificities as opposed to the general and universal. Techniques and solutions must stem from or be adapted to the specific place and the specific situation. In the encounter with the TAP and the allies it mobilises, the community group KTB comes across almost purely through a logic of care, as purely community knowledge-based, anecdotal, experiential, qualitative, imprecise and un-scientific. And science—through the prism of the TAP—appears as a detached and objective provider of facts. There is a clear cut division cemented by the TAP of that which can be quantified and unambiguously known, from everything else. That which is uncertain, ambiguous or equivocal has no place in policy making and the logic of choice. However, uncertainties seem to almost force themselves upon KTB volunteers as they engage with specific toads in specific places. The next section of this article will zoom in, so to speak, on the practices of the KTB and ask what characterises their particular form of engagement.

‘When It's Toads You're Talking About, Nothing is Ever Stable’

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Not Quite a ‘Hybrid Forum’
  4. ‘When It's Toads You're Talking About, Nothing is Ever Stable’
  5. References

The KTB's central practice is a so-called ‘toadbust’. Toadbusts are extremely varied, but generally involve going out bush in groups to collect toads, euthanise them and subsequently record data. In toadbusts, toads are seldom simply toads, but rather often ambiguous, rich with relations and enmeshed in uncertainty.

On an evening in early March 2012, I accompanied Robert, Carolyn and Tom,4 three KTB volunteers, on a toadbust. We travelled to one of the locations where Robert has previously taken samples for the lungworm research he does in collaboration with KTB. The lungworm is a parasite that was introduced with the toads in 1935 and has, until recently, been thought to lag quite far behind the toad frontline. Robert has a Master's degree in animal science and has been doing research on the lungworm parasite for KTB intermittently for the last 4 years. We were at a place called Matilda Creek, by the Eastern shore of the vast manmade Lake Argyle, a couple of hours' drive east from Kununurra. Matilda Creek was near the westernmost extent of the toads' range in 2009 and this is the fourth year Robert is here to get lungworm data. This involves dissecting a selection of the toads and counting the number of parasites on their lungs. He revisits these old locations in order to see temporal variation in densities of parasites in toads.

We set up camp on a large flat area, covered in grass and the odd dead tree. The creek runs out from Lake Argyle in many branches and every twenty metres or so the grassy plain dips down into shallow water and up again.

Later in the evening we took the eight-wheeled amphibian vehicle, the ‘Argo’, out to catch some toads. The Argo was a recent acquisition for KTB and toad busters were at the time in a process of figuring out in what sorts of places it worked well—in this case, Matilda Creek and the Argo seemed to be made for each other. As it got darker the toads came out from their daytime shelters and it quickly became evident that it would not take long for us to get enough toads for Robert's dissections. There were thousands of toads there and thousands more than we could ever catch. We drove only short distances in the Argo, to cross arms of the creek, and had longer stops where we collected toads and put them in large bin bags in the back of the Argo. Each of us frequently came back with large clusters of toads, which we carried in one hand by their back legs. We discussed as we went along how many of them seemed to look very thin; we also came across a number of dead ones that seemed, perhaps, to have starved to death. The lack of insects was also remarked upon—Robert said there were strikingly fewer insects here than what he remembered from previous years.

Our attention that evening was somewhat divided between toads and crocodiles. Robert's Masters degree involved a conservation project for crocodiles in the Philippines and he has an avid interest in crocodiles—including catching them. There is an intense rush involved in catching and holding these incredible animals with your bare hands that also I got to experience that evening. When stomping through water with a handful of toads Robert suddenly called me and the others over to have a look. He had found a crocodile with a toad in its mouth. It was a small crocodile and the toad was quite a mouthful. The crocodile had seized the toad from behind and had a grip over its back while the toad's hind legs were sticking out on each side of the crocodile's mouth. Robert tried to sneak closer to it to get a good picture. He took a couple of pictures before the crocodile was startled, let go of the toad and swam off. The others told me joyfully that we had saved a crocodile, but that it was still disconcerting to see so many toads here and also to see that the crocodiles were eating them. We saw one more crocodile eating a toad—this one was also provoked to let go of its prey—before we headed back with two large bags filled to the brim with toads. Back by the campfire the discussion revolved around what we had seen.

An experience of a lack of insects could have been because of the large number of toads, but it didn't have to be. We talked about how this seems to be a perfect habitat for the toads—plenty of water, open areas and not much vegetation. Still, it seemed they were under some pressure. They looked thin, many of them were dead, and in some shelters (under branches and the like) we had found between 10 and 20 toads huddled together. Could the population be in the process of regulating itself? Although the concept of population for the most part is misleading in the case of the ever-spreading toads—a conveyor belt was sometimes used as a metaphor—it might be more fitting here. Are they piling up at Matilda Creek because Lake Argyle is a barrier to going further west? Were we helping the ones we didn't catch by removing a few hundred toads this evening? Could it be that high numbers of lungworm are making them thinner?

We also talked about the crocodile situation. There is no doubt that crocodiles around Lake Argyle eat toads, even if it is the case, as seems broadly to be the scientific consensus, that crocodiles are more vulnerable just after toads arrive and then gradually learn to avoid them. But were the two crocodiles we saw eating toads just isolated occurrences or could they be indicative of an imperilled population? This idea is further complicated by a scientific study done recently by Ruchira Somaweera, a researcher from Team Bufo, who found that there wasn't any significant population decline in freshwater crocodiles at Lake Argyle. Of course Lake Argyle is huge, and as we sat there Robert was not sure exactly where Ruchira had taken his samples from, but he did not think it was here. It might have been somewhere with significantly fewer toads. Another study, done on freshwater crocodiles at Victoria River in the Northern Territory, showed a decline in excess of seventy per cent. Both of these studies were brought forth in the conversation. Then again, we did see a lot of crocodiles that evening. And what about food supply? It is said that it would only be in situations where crocodiles lack other, more preferred, food sources that they would go after a toad. Might this mean that toads at Matilda Creek are so abundant that there is less room for the crocodiles' other prey animals? Or that scientific knowledge generalized from a laboratory setting or from a different site not necessarily can be applied to this specific place and situation?

This toadbust is truly a complex encounter between different species and the conversation that followed it actualised many connections. Among them are the complex goals of toadbusting whereby knowledge of the spread of lungworm is envisioned as a means to the end of thinning out frontlines and buying more time for animals to learn and adapt. There are also the many sources of uncertainty, past experiences with other places, with this place in the past and with other toads. The scientific reports on toads and crocodiles raise as many questions as they answer, especially as the one done at Lake Argyle does not seem to accord with what we have just experienced. We are also all aware that differences in toad numbers and in the experience of how many insects there are here, however striking these differences are, could very well be on account of the season and weather. Even the fact that the toads are recognised to be skinny is only determined on the back of thousands of previous encounters with other toads, from which these ones stand out (Bear and Eden (2011) make a similar point in relation to anglers and fish).

Encounters such as this one show some temporary outcomes of enactment, centrally, toads that are relationally composed in particular places. The toads in question are very much situated toads. Matilda Creek with its habitable landscape, and its location about 4 years behind the frontline in the habitat of freshwater crocodiles on the edge of Lake Argyle, is a place that toad busters know quite well. It is also a place they know to be different from other times—some differences are experiential and felt, such as the lack of insects, whereas others have to be uncovered with scissors and a trained eye, such as the densities of lungworm in the toads at this location—and these particularities are intrinsically part of what the Matilda Creek toads are. These are toads that are individually significant because of their being a part of a large assemblage of toads at this place, and the Matilda Creek toads as a group are known in their relation to toads in other places. They are also significant in being connected as parts to the whole that is the cane toad invasion and its ecological processes, a part of which again is what happens between crocodiles and toads. Toad busters are not simply seeing toads and crocodiles, but an encounter between toads and crocodiles that is made significant because of how it can be connected to the toad invasion in which this place and time has a specific situation, to what is known (and what is not known) concerning the effect of toads on crocodiles, to the specificities of the location and the time of year and to the thousands of toads that these ones differ from. The care practices in this instance enact a Kimberley nature with toads as uncertain, unpredictable and ever-changing. These are active toads and active places that resist being easily generalised over time and space.

The next example concerns one of KTB's documentary practices, namely, that of producing maps of the ‘frontline’ that attempt to show the extent of the spread westward and southward of cane toads. On the morning after a reconnaissance trip near the northern part of the frontline, Peter is sitting by the computer in KTB's office looking at the Google Earth map on which the locations where we found the toads last night are plotted in. The maps are often used to see where toads were found the last time so as to decide from where to start a recon or where to focus a toadbust. ‘Everybody uses them’, Eric told me when I asked him one time. We had just met a road train driver who told Eric about how far he had seen toads along the Great Northern Highway going southwest. Eric has overlaid the map on the frontline and on recent recons and explains to Peter what the different lines mean. One, for example, is the current frontline; another is a prediction for the end of the 2012 wet season—a prediction that has just changed on account of the last week's recon trips. ‘I'd say it's accurate to within 5 km, they have moved since we were there’, Eric says, regarding the place marks that signify the toads we picked up at Osmond Valley about a week ago. ‘It's a bit of a stab in the dark [making predictions]. Like throwing a dart at it [the map] and see what happens', Eric continues, half in jest, as he and Peter talk about the prediction and last night's recon where we were surprised to find toads where we did. Michael comments from behind his own laptop that the predictions they have made in the north have often been quite accurate as they have done more recon work in this area, while the predictions in the southern part of the frontline have been more hit and miss. I join in too and say it must be hard to predict future toad movements, as we seem to be quite frequently surprised at what we find on recons, even in the northern part of the front. Eric replies with a truism that rings with years of toadbusting experience: ‘When it's toads you're talking about, nothing's ever stable’.

That it is impossible ever to get a complete and correct frontline map is one of the notions indicated in this conversation. We all know very well that it is nowhere near as simple and arbitrary as throwing a dart at the map and hoping for the best, and yet this resonates very well with the lived reality of toadbusting in the Kimberley. In this event, toad busters' collective experience is drawn together with a partial representation and toads translated into dots and lines in enacting the Kimberley with toads in a process of continual change. The frontline map is explicitly a ground for action, not a true reflection of where toads are. It is never meant to be divorced from its process of being created, and thus it could be seen to embody a process in which neither toadbusting, toads, nor Kimberley nature are held still, more than to the effect of letting them be kept in motion. The process of constructing maps ties together the practice of reconnaissance (of finding toads), toadbusting (catching and killing toads), and the map making itself. The maps seldom leave this loop. As a point on the map embodies the practice of reconnaissance and the practice of toadbusting embodies both the map and the reconnaissance, the lines on the map are drawn from numerous recon trips and toadbusts, and are intended to inform further action. Indeed, as ‘the toads have moved since we were there’ and the lines on the map are collated from points made from encounters with toads on recon trips over an extended period, the way the maps imperfectly reflect reality and are extended through time is conspicuously clear. This might be a shortcoming in the logic of choice, but in the logic of care—or rather in that tension between logics that the KTB expresses—the point is not that the dart hits dead on target, rather, the point is to be able to continue to see what happens. The frontline map would be pointless if it didn't facilitate further action—its very partiality is what necessitates action and, as opposed to the logic of choice, there is no aim or aspiration to be conclusive. The notion of a frontline, then, evokes at the same time a representation of where the westernmost and southernmost toads are and, in conjunction with toad busters' collective experience (of toad busters in their map making and the toads in their resistance to be clearly mapped), a thoroughly elusive and ever-changing fluidity with which to interact.

Poignantly, in this brief conversation about the frontline map, quantified toads cum place marks are juggled with the complexities that make the map more a tool than a truth. At the same time as they call for an extension of regard to qualitative knowledge, KTB hold scientific objectivism in high regard. In toad busters' practices, enactments of the world as inherently uncertain and qualitatively complex figure alongside the world as something that can be counted, measured and known. Toads are simultaneously discrete quantifiable objects and complex particulars inseparable from their environment—both one/many-generalisations—where a toad is taken as simply an example of the generic Cane Toad—and whole/part-generalisations—where a toad is seen by its specific relations and connections as a productive part of different emergent wholes (see Winthereik and Verran (2012) on these two modes of generalisation). The scientific borderland that is expressed through the KTB is also, in a sense, an effect of their making room for both quantifiable and indeterminable toads.

Although the meeting between KTB and science and government displayed a tension between a logic of care and a logic of choice, so too does any given toadbust. Whereas toad busters tinker with ever-changing places and toads, they also strive for knowledge based on established scientific criteria. Complex toads are often cut (both literally and in Strathern's (1996) sense of cutting networks) to display some limited aspect, and both toads and lungworm are counted and translated onto data sheets and maps. Robert, for example, schooled in scientific methods, counts, measures, quantifies, simplifies and maps. But he is also a toad buster with a commitment to the intervention that is toadbusting, and he is in an environment and situation that, in combination with this commitment to intervene, resists and almost defies being treated as countable and measurable. If KTB volunteers and scientists appear to produce their data in very similar ways, once produced the data seldom speaks to the same wholes. Whereas KTB's data, both quantitative and qualitative, speak to the specific nature-cultural event that is the spread of cane toads through the Kimberley, scientists' data to a larger degree speak to toads as a species, to evolution as a phenomenon and to the mechanism of bio-invasion. As the last example shows, toad busters map the seemingly un-mappable, and the toads are poor collaborators in map-making. Toads and Kimberley nature resist certain things if taken in their specificity and KTB, as a priori interveners, can only to a certain extent depend on generalisations or models, but have to deal with very specific here-and-nows, because it is the specificities of these here-and-nows that literally force themselves upon toad busters as they intervene.

The differences elucidated from the events described are not simply a matter of differences between qualitative and quantitative, scientific and community knowledge, and disagreements around what should be valued. Rather, the differences are found in the practices that enact what nature is and what engagement should be, that is, what to engage with and how. It is my claim that with different forms of engagement one comes not only to engage in different ways, but also to engage with different things. In each agglomeration of logics in practice certain things are emphasised, while others are left out, not to be engaged with, connected to or mobilised. Toad busters are committed to a range of things quite close to their own specific and experiential reality, but the toad case is one that, for scientists and many of the people involved from the governing bodies, is severed from the personal and the everyday or seen through the prism of general criteria of good science and standards of procedure. Whereas toad busters connect and attune to toad places and situated toads, both scientist and governing bodies connect to a larger degree with other publications and other things at a level that is detached and removed from the tangible toads. While KTB's practices point both backwards and forwards and are geared at the continuation of intervention, practices more strongly centred on a logic of choice—such as the TAP and its process of creation—often seek closure, conclusion and to delimit single processes from one another.

Natures and the toad case are enacted in and through a tension between the logic of care and the logic of choice. Furthermore, in seeing the two parts of this paper together we find that although both the encounter between a community group and scientists and government representatives on the one hand, and the practices of that community group on the other, embody the tension of two logics of engagement, they do so very differently. While in the former the two logics figure almost as mutually exclusive, amplifying an already great gulf, in the latter they appear as mutually inclusive, in an unfinished productive tension.

Lastly, these tensions amount to situating KTB in an awkward scientific borderland. Such a position is effected firstly by the TAP in its mobilisation of scientific knowledge and the logic of engagement that it expresses, as it enacts a sharp divide and connects to science and excludes KTB. Secondly, this borderland position comes as an effect of certain facets of the practices and concerns of the KTB. Undoubtedly shared by many community groups, these pertain to a fundamental commitment to intervention and to practices through which the case at hand emerges as one that resists simple categorisation and goes beyond division into natural and cultural domains.

  1. 1

    Kay Milton (2000), for example, writes about the conservationist's paradox while Tsing's (1995) reading of race relations into beekeeping practices, Comaroff and Comaroff's (2001) analysis of how nature stands for nationhood, Smith's (2006) approach to animals as totemic and Franklin's (2006) broadly Durkheimian approach to animals in Australia all exemplify the latter, namely, seeing disputes about animals and the environment as primarily part of social or political concerns. In the last couple of decades, there has been an increasing focus on the importance of taking seriously what the people we study say and do, not in epistemological terms as different viewpoints of the same reality, but rather in ontological terms (see for example Viveiros de Castro 2003; Pedersen 2011; Holbraad 2012), thus not explaining apparent contradiction away as a proxy for something else. What follows is that if informants do not experience any contradiction of protecting nature by unnatural means, it is the analyst's concept of nature that needs to be destabilised and re-thought.

  2. 2
  3. 3

    This was indeed a recognisable trajectory among my informants. There was talk about the ‘Queensland syndrome’, referring to the fact that people in Queensland have become complacent about toads. One informant summarised the toads' range in three models: The Queensland model, where the toads are a non-issue, the Darwin model, where the toads are an urban issue (i.e. people looking after their backyard), and the WA model where (so far at least) the toads have been an environmental issue. Another informant connected the trajectory with what happens before the toads arrive, explaining that what has often been seen is that the concern is great before arrival, builds up until arrival, and then goes down quite rapidly. However, for some the significance of this recognisable trajectory was to assert that the Kimberley-case might, and should, be different.

  4. 4

    Names have been changed for all KTB volunteers to ensure their anonymity.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Not Quite a ‘Hybrid Forum’
  4. ‘When It's Toads You're Talking About, Nothing is Ever Stable’
  5. References
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