At 400,000, Australia has the largest feral horse population in the world. We have more feral horses than the combined population of all our platypuses and koalas put together.
The science also shows that feral horses threaten 34 Australian species that are in danger of extinction. Platypuses are threatened by the horses, which degrade the riverbanks needed for their homes. So as feral horse numbers in our alpine region explode, our platypus numbers there are declining.
The romance and mythology surrounding The Man from Snowy River is clearly a part of Australia's culture. But logically, if culture is used as a reason to protect brumbies, then it must also be a reason to protect our Australian species. The brumbies don't have a monopoly on our protection.
Like so many Australian native species, platypuses are an integral part of our identity. Found nowhere else on Earth, they appear in children's stories and cartoons and were a Sydney 2000 Olympics mascot. They are also important for our First Nations. According to the D'harawal story passed down by my family, the platypus is known as Dayari and its Dreaming is about forbidden love.
As Australia's first threatened species commissioner, I saw first-hand the damage feral horses do in Kosciuszko's fragile environment. Degraded wetlands, eroded stream banks, overgrazed grasslands and weeds - the impacts are severe. The number of horses in the park has tripled over the past 20 years. Good science estimates that number at over 14,000, and each breeding season their population grows by another fifth.
Trapping and rehoming have failed to control feral horses in Kosciuszko. Their population is simply too large compared to opportunities to take them in. Most trapped horses have sadly ended up at the knackery. Protecting Australian species is not a picnic. Looking at the problem honestly, it is clear that professional shooting is a more effective, justifiable and humane solution.
The ACT is leading the way on protecting its part of the Australian alps. It gets the job done safeguarding the natural landscapes that are part of our Australian culture, and the water catchments that Canberra depends upon. Precision shooting like that conducted by the ACT's government, with rigorous animal welfare standards and operating procedures, is endorsed by the RSPCA.
South of the border, the story is different. Unfortunately, NSW has ruled out aerial culling, eliminating an essential tool for fixing the problem.
Pro-brumby lobbyists often argue "it's not the horses' fault". Of course it isn't. None of the feral animals in Australia arrived here by choice But laying blame is a convenient distraction. Quite simply, the fault is ours - we introduced the horses, and we have failed to arrest their damage. It is thus our responsibility to act to stop the damage and fix the problem.
Kosciuszko is in crisis, and requires urgent action. But the solution doesn't have to be an absolute choice between brumbies and nature. We can be smart, take emotions and politics out of the equation, and have our cake and eat it too. The feral horse population must be dramatically reduced to protect our unique alpine wildlife and landscapes. Humane lethal control is essential, but trapping and rehoming can play some part. Brumby culture can be maintained if we choose additional measures that allow for a middle ground.
Establishing a wild horse reserve on less ecologically sensitive lands outside of the national park but in the Snowy Mountains region, for example, should be actively considered.
To date, political games, indecision and delay have escalated and complicated the problem. The longer we've left it, the worse it has become. More feral horses have meant more damage, and more pressure on the unique Australian animals, plants and landscapes that define us.
When we lose Australian species to extinction, we lose a part of what it means to be Australian, a part of our culture. We can't lose our incredible platypus or the adorable corroboree frogs. So now is the time to act. And it doesn't have to be a zero-sum game.
- Gregory Andrews is a former threatened species commissioner, and a former Australian high commissioner to Ghana. Twitter: @Gregory4Climate