Kachana 2020: More fire or more herbivores?

Chris Henggeler, January 2020

This is the question Kachana Pastoral Company continues to face.


3rd May 2018 a cull-intention letter signed by Mike Shaw as Chairman of the Kimberley group for biosecurity took us to a cross-roads. We responded with a letter to Mike and fellow land managers. Our work with the donkeys has been put on hold and discussions have continued ever since.

Increasingly it has become apparent that there are critical knowledge-gaps in a number of areas.

In recent decades, donkeys have become considered to be a pest-species in the Kimberley.

Much public and industry funding has been put to use to all but drive them to extinction.

Every now and then donkeys are granted local media-attention.

Donkeys have also captured the attention of people further afield, and opinions vary.

BUT how much do we actually know about these “beasts of burden”?

  • What first-hand information do we have? (How much of it is of site-specific or context-specific relevance?)
  • Are donkeys an actual biosecurity risk? (If so, then in which locations and in what way?)
  • What contexts have been studied? (Locally, in other arid high-rainfall regions)
  • What does the science say? (What are the interpretations?)
  • What are the options other than to potentially help drive a species to extinction?
  • Can financial values be established for ecological services that these animals are/could/should be providing?
  • ..

Not only has Kachana Pastoral Company been putting these animals to good use since 1992, but there is sufficient reason to believe that at landscape levels, an increase in wild-fire damage in recent years may be directly correlated to the decline in large herbivore numbers in the area.

With the targeted use of large herbivores as a landscape management-tool Kachana Pastoral Company

has been able to get some encouraging levels of carbon sequestration over a 25-year period.

Philipp Nauer has prepared a preliminary analysis on some ‘Kachana Carbon.


Louise Edmonds of Intuit Earth did the maths on the Kachana Carbon for her AgHack Presentation in Perth, July 2018. These figures caught the attention of the Minister for Agriculture.


16th October 2018, at the bidding of the Minister, Chris was invited to present to members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee at the DPIRD Headquarters in Perth:

Donkeys were introduced to the ecology of the Kimberley long before anyone of us alive today was even born. They were certainly a part of Kachana before we arrived. Like the land, the dingos, marsupials, birds and vegetation, they do not actually belong to us. Each species plays roles in the eco-system processes that we, as custodians of the land, do our best to manage. Ultimately, we do this for the benefit of those who come after us. Gathered from observation, experience and cutting-edge science, it is our opinion that removal of the Kachana donkey population at this point in time would be a bad idea.


Context matters.


Reactive management tends to be beset with pitfalls. Therefore, if action is important, but no longer urgent, why not on a case by case basis, explore optimal solutions that will remain relevant in the broader context? In this case: Will the action improve the productive capacity of the landscapes affected?


“Culling” is an operational activity and “cull decisions” are an operational issue. (I note that data supplied by the Kimberley group for biosecurity supports such operational activities.)

It remains important however, that strategic and tactical considerations are also taken in account. (For such discussions we need more management-information rather than the data currently being advertised by the Kimberley group for biosecurity.)


I do not question the competence of those whose role it is to kill things. A swift painless death is something we all wish for, even for ourselves; few would rather see starving disease-ridden animals or thirsty animals bogged in the mud. Neither of these however have been an issue in the vicinity of Kachana in the 30+ years that I have been here.

Rather, I draw attention to (largely unrecognised) unintended consequences of removing large herbivores in unmanaged areas with moderately high reliable rainfall.


There are other options out there waiting to be explored.

There are knowledge gaps to be filled.

There are informed discussions to be held… and there may be a whole lot of new options that have not yet even been considered.

At the end of the day a ministerial decision can still determine what path is to be pursued.


On Kachana we have no intention to stand in the way of bullets, but we say this with a caveat:

We would hold accountable all persons involved in a decision which can be predicted to have detrimental ecological flow-on effects.


New fire, flood and drought patterns unfolding in other parts of the country highlight the need for accountable decision-making in the face of unprecedented weather-related challenges.


In the above context we draw attention to the following Memorandum:

From the Australian Institute of Company Directors

Climate Change & Directors’ Duties – Legal Opinion

Mr Noel Hutley SC

In Mr Hutley’s view: “It is likely to be only a matter of time before we see litigation against a director who has failed to perceive, disclose or take steps in relation to a foreseeable climate-related risk that can be demonstrated to have caused harm to a company.”


Implications for company directors

“Mr Hutley's opinion clearly confirms that, from an evidentiary perspective, risks associated with climate change have evolved from an 'ethical environmental' to material financial issues, and that directors who fail to grapple with them are legally exposed. There is simply no substitute for a proactive, robust governance of the impacts of relevant climate risks in the unique circumstances of each business. As a starting point to the exercise of due care and diligence, directors should inform they are adequately formed in relation to the scientific and economic issues, inquire of experts where appropriate, and critically evaluate the impact of these risks and their company's strategic response.”


Allow me to paraphrase from the above:

There is simply no substitute for a proactive, robust governance of the impacts of relevant climate risks in the unique circumstances of each decision that impacts on a landscape.


October 2019, I penned three blogs that might encourage fellow Australians to consider looking for constructive solutions to challenges that confront us:

  1. Reinventing Landscape-Management through Regenerative Pastoral Practices
  2. Pastoralists to the rescue - Part 1. New Millennium, New Challenges
  3. Pastoralists to the rescue – Part 2. When Alarm Bells Ring 

It is January 2020 as I write. Not only on Kachana, but nationally the consequences of fires, floods and droughts lead us to a fundamental choice: More fire or more herbivores

As a conclusion I quote Peter Andrews:

Move away from plants and water, and you will experience the sun's heat. Move even further away from plants and water, and you will find the sun's heat unbearable. 

“When there are no plants to manage heat and water, the sun's energy destroys everything. It creates cycles of extremes. Do we realise that fire is the sun’s energy packaged up by plants?”