9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired

These are some of the worst examples of policy measures made by humans to help protect the environment that actually backfired spectacularly.
Christopher McFadden
Sometimes doing nothing is better than something.
Sometimes doing nothing is better than something.

NirutiStock/iStock 

  • Humans often make attempts to improve the natural world around them.
  • Sometimes, the results can be completely unexpected.
  • In fact, they can make things much, much worse.

We human beings have a habit of acting before fully considering the full potential ramifications of our actions. While some actions are taken for personal gain or profit, others are made out of a well-intentioned desire to do something about a perceived problem, whether true or not.

Often, all-too-often, wide-ranging policies of this nature either fail spectacularly or turn out to make the problem even worse.

What are some of the worst examples of failed environmental protection policies?

Just like the famous saying goes, "the road to hell is paved with good intentions," so are some of the worst examples of policies made in good faith that only made things worse for the natural world.

Sadly, there are many other examples, and they all go to show that, very often, there are no solutions to a problem, only compromises.

1. The cane toad introduction into Australia was a complete ball up

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Adult male can toad.

During the 1930s in Queensland, Australia, sugar cane fields were being destroyed by insect predators on a devastating scale. Farmers heard about a toad that had a penchant for eating the culprit insects and decided to use them to provide a way to limit the pests in the years before the use of agricultural chemicals became widespread.

The toad in question, the now infamous "cane toad," can grow up to 4.5 lb (2 kg) in weight and can consume large numbers of insects in short order. Completely natural and theoretically sustainable, the use of toads seemed like the perfect solution to the farmer's growing problem.

To this end, 102 toads made the journey from Puerto Rico to Australia in two special suitcases in 1935. After some initial success, the toads, which had no specific predators or diseases to control them in Australia, soon began to explode in numbers and roamed far and wide from the original sugar cane fields into which they were released.

Today there are more than 1.5 billion of them living throughout more than 386,000 square miles of the continent. This was a complete disaster for predatory native species, as the toads have glands behind their eyes that emit lethal toxins. The poison they produce is so potent that, if eaten, it can bring down humans and even some crocodiles in very short order. Adult cane toads also compete with native animals for food and shelter.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Young cane toad.

The toad also consumes large amounts of native plants, as well as other insect-eating native creatures. The toads are also very hardy and can live, for a time, in even the driest regions of Australia if pushed to do so.

They have fat reserves for energy, a body that expands and retains water to prevent dehydration on lengthy treks, and long legs that have evolved to make them faster and better at spreading. For this reason, the toad is now ranked among the top 100 invasive species in the world and can spread at a rate of roughly 30 miles per year due to its high rate of reproduction and chemical defense system.

In an attempt to counter the own goal that was the introduction of the toads, a practice known as "toad bashing" takes place among the population, but it must be done humanely. Other measures have also been introduced, including a project to try and train predators to avoid eating deadly larger cane toads by feeding them smaller and less lethal cane toads, which makes them ill but does not kill them.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Cane toad in the Phillippines.

But the battle is ongoing. According to research from the website CaneToadsinOz, even if 98 out of 100 toads are killed, the remaining two can produce 30,000 new spawns in a week, even if many tadpoles die.

The unstoppable amphibian has since also appeared in the Caribbean, the Philippines, Fiji, New Guinea, and the USA, in addition to Australia!

2. The Chinese Communist Party almost destroyed Chinese agriculture thanks to its "Four Pests" policy

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
The Eurasian treee sparrow.

This next entry is the perfect example of how top-down policy without proper planning can be incredibly disastrous.

The People's Republic of China's founding father, communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, believed it was a great idea to launch a cleanliness campaign in 1958 to eradicate the pests that were "transmitting plague and sickness." Called "The Four Pests," mosquitoes (that spread malaria), rodents (responsible for plagues), flies (blamed for the general spread of disease), and Eurasian tree sparrows (as they eat grain, fruit, and seeds) were the pests put on the hit list.

People attempted to eradicate the sparrows after the government stated that "birds are public animals of capitalism." Because residents made a lot of noise and wouldn't allow the birds to rest on trees, the birds would drop from the sky and pass away from exhaustion.

Eggs, chicks, and nests were all destroyed. Additionally, people shot sparrows out of the sky. Prizes were awarded to individuals who brought in the most dead sparrows, mosquitoes, flies, and rat tails in competitions.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Example of a poster from the campaign.

When naturalist Tso-Hsin Cheng pointed out in April 1960 that sparrows didn't simply eat grain, they also ate insects, and because of their dwindling rice harvests, the birds were on the verge of extinction. Mao put an end to the anti-bird campaign. However, because there were so few sparrows left, the number of locusts increased tremendously, and food crops were devastated.

The "Four Pests" campaign is today recognized as having contributed to the Great Chinese Famine, which resulted in the starvation deaths of 20–45 million people. A truly horrific, unnecessary, and frankly unforgivable, backfiring if ever we saw one.

3. The mosquitofish was introduced to help save lives but ended up becoming just another pest

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Adult male mosquitofish.

The mosquitofish is native to the Mississippi River and commonly found in the southern regions of the US states of Illinois and Indiana. The tiny animal was purposely introduced into a number of areas around the world with high concentrations of, you've guessed it, mosquitoes, in order to reduce the number of bugs by devouring their eggs. They are normally found in shallow water away from larger fish and consume mosquitoes at all stages of their life cycle.

However, native fish in some of the introduction areas were already adept at providing "maximum control" of mosquitoes, and, therefore, the introduction of the mosquitofish to areas outside of their native habitat has been shown to be harmful to aquatic species and ecosystems.

Due to the fish's aggression, mosquitofish harm or even kill other small fish. They can also take over the natural habitat of indigenous fish, and in many cases, there is little evidence that they have controlled mosquito populations or the rates of mosquito-borne diseases.

The fish are called "noxious pests" in Australia and pose a threat to local fish and frogs. Additionally, there is no proof that they have helped to reduce the mosquito population there.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
The fish eat mosquito larvae.

But, historically, they have served a purpose. The mosquitofish helped put an end to the malaria epidemic in South America, southern Russia, and Ukraine between the 1920s and the 1950s. They were raised in some aquariums in California and Clark County, Nevada in 2008 so that the fish could be added to stillwater pools of water to lower the prevalence of West Nile virus.

4. The kudzu vine was introduced to stabilize soil but introduced new problems

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Kudzu smothering trees in Atlanta, Georgia, U.S.

The kudzu vine, a climbing perennial vine, which is native to Japan and south-east China, was first introduced to the United States in 1876 at the Centennial International Exhibition, the first official World's Fair to be held in the U.S. This fair was held to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia.

Although it was once considered a superb forage and aesthetic plant due to its delicious blossoms, leaves, roots, and beautiful foliage, the Soil Conservation Service pushed it between the 1930s and 1950s as a tool to reduce soil erosion, and as a result, it was mass-planted throughout the south.

Things rapidly spun out of control, however. Kudzu, popularly known as the "mile-a-minute plant," can grow up to 11.8 inches (30 cm) a day once it is established, and mature vines can reach up to 98.5 feet (30 meters) long. Anything in its path is overtaken and overgrown, and the shadowing it produces kills other plants and foliage.

Kudzu invasion results in altered decomposition processes and a reduction in leaf litter, as well as a 28% decrease in soil carbon stores. As a result, the vine's proliferation may have an impact on global warming as well as plaguing native ecosystems.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Kudzu in Almendares Park in Havana, circa 1983.

Along with the southeast of the United States, kudzu has also been found in Canada, northern Italy, and the northeastern part of Australia. When the US Armed Forces introduced the vine to Vanuatu and Fiji to use as camouflage during World War II, it quickly became a nuisance weed there as well. Kudzu was listed as an "unwanted organism" on the Biosecurity New Zealand register in 2002.

The United States Forest Service calculated, in 2015, that kudzu spreads at a pace of 2,500 acres (1,000 hectares) each year. The plant can be weakened through continuous mowing and grazing by goats and cattle. However, certain pesticides can also control kudzu.

5. These animal activists attempted to save one species but ended up killing many others

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
An American mink.

In the United Kingdom in 1998, animal rights activists famously released thousands of minks into the countryside to spare them from being turned into fur coats. However, the action, taken with the best of intentions, ended up being completely disastrous for the local ecosystem.

The activists, including undercover police officers who had infiltrated the group, raided a farm that held the minks and released thousands of the furry creatures into the wild. It was later revealed that the group responsible for the raid on the Crow Hill farm in Ringwood on August 8, 1998, was called the Animal Liberation Front. The minks were released by severing wire and wrecking cages.

However, mink are voracious predators and as an imported species have few real predators in the UK. The release threatened the survival of rare birds and fish in the sensitive ecosystem of the New Forest national park, and, understandably, angered local residents who called the police for help.

Animal rights organizations also denounced the release of the minks and warned that it could have a negative impact on the environment and wildlife.

Numerous mink were run over on roadways, shot by local farmers, or trapped in traps. Residents allegedly beat several of them to death with shovels, hockey clubs, and watering cans in an effort to stop them from murdering farm animals and pets.

A "mink desk" helpline was also established by Hampshire police to handle complaints from locals. It was also later found that the police had covered up information about undercover officers taking part in the raid in an attempt to "save face."

6. Australia accidentally created a rabbit population explosion

While not technically a failed environmental protection measure, Australia once introduced a few dozen rabbits to their lands to help settlers feel more at home.

About 24 rabbits were released on Christmas Day of 1859 by the Victoria Acclimatisation Society. However, this Christmas present turned into a nightmare pretty quickly.

The rabbit population soon exploded, causing excessive damage to crops, as well as irrecoverably damaging the natural habitat.

The reason for this is that it turns out that rabbits are very adept at destroying the seedlings of woody shrubs and trees as well as stripping meadows bare. Rabbits have the ability to entirely stop several significant woody species from recovering, even in relatively small populations.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
You'll never trust a rabbit again.

The mulga woodlands, which occupy extensive swaths of rural inland Australia, were heavily impacted. By damaging seedlings, rabbit populations as low as one animal per hectare can effectively halt the replacement of old trees.

As bad as this was, and still is, importantly, much of the environmental harm that rabbits bring about can be repaired.

Rabbit numbers were reduced by up to 95% in the 1990s by the use of the rabbit hemorrhagic disease virus (previously known as calicivirus). Mulga and other native species blossomed for the first time in many regions in 100 years after the introduction of the virus.

Numerous other investigations have reported abrupt increases in plant growth following the introduction of disease - or the use of intensive conventional control methods led to declines in rabbit populations.

7. Poor forest management led to some of the worst forest fires in recent years

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Forest fires are terrifying events.

Forest fires are a completely natural part of any forest's existence, but when humans meddle in the cycle it can be disastrous. One prime example came in 2020 with some of the worst forest fires that the United States had ever seen.

That year, the Western United States endured yet another devastating fire year, with more than 4.1 million acres scorched in California alone, leaving at least 31 people dead and hundreds of others forced to flee their homes.

Wildland fires are increasingly following a now-familiar pattern: bigger, hotter, and more destructive. A recent Los Angeles Times headline declaring 2020 to be "The worst fire season. Again" illustrated some of the frustration residents feel over the state's fire strategy.

The cause? Well, for decades, federal, state, and local agencies have prioritized fire suppression over prevention, pouring billions of dollars into hiring and training firefighters, buying and maintaining firefighting equipment, and educating the public on fire safety.

But, this may appear to be a case of putting the cart before the horse, better forest management is key.

"Fires have always been part of our ecosystem," Mike Rogers told NBC News in October of 2020, a former Angeles National Forest supervisor and board member of the National Association of Forest Service Retirees. "Forest management is a lot like gardening. You have to keep the forest open and thin."

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
iStock-1417892654.jpg

Federal forest management dates back to the 1870s when Congress created an office within the U.S. Department of Agriculture tasked with assessing the quality and conditions of forests. In 1905, President Theodore Roosevelt oversaw the birth of the U.S. Forest Service, which manages around 193 million acres of public land across the country.

Historically, management included the use of controlled fires to remove dead and dry scrub from forests in order to prevent larger, more serious fires. However, in 1910, the focus started to shift away from forest management and steer toward fire suppression, after "The Big Burn" ravaged 3 million acres across Washington, Idaho, and Montana, killing at least 85 people and reshaping U.S. fire policy for years to come.

In 1935, the U.S. Forest Service ordered that all wildland fires be extinguished as soon as possible, eventually settling on the so-called 10 a.m. policy, which emphasized suppressing fires by the morning after they started. Other federal land management agencies quickly followed, and the new policy attempted to eliminate fire from the landscape.

The state's policy to stop fires as soon as they ignite resulted in a backlog of trees in forests now choked with brush and other dry fuels.

This policy began to change in the 1970s, following scientific research on the positive role fire played in forest ecology. Forest Service policy was adapted to let fires burn when and where appropriate. However, since around 1990, forest management has had to return to fire suppression due to the massive amount of exurban sprawl into the wildland-urban interface.

According to the U.S. Forest Service, one researcher studying the Stanislaus National Forest in Northern California found records from 1911 showing just 19 trees per acre in one section of the forest. More than a century later, the researcher and his team counted 260 trees per acre.

Quite literally a tinder box waiting to go up.

8. This proposed environmental measure could devastate the oceans

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Fossil bed from the period.

So far, we've covered historical environmental protection efforts that have turned ugly in very short order. But, this next one, if ever actually implemented, could lead to one of the biggest environmental disasters in recorded history.

In August of 2022, a group of researchers proposed "fertilizing" the oceans with iron to help fight "climate change." This, the idea goes, would promote the growth of phytoplanktonic blooms which would act as a kind of natural "carbon sink" to reduce the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide and, therefore, help curb rising global temperatures.

This policy sounds reasonable on the surface, except history has something to say about just this sort of thing. Let us introduce you to a period of time known as "the Great Dying."

This event occurred 252 million years ago and is regarded as the deadliest period in the history of life on Earth since at least 80% of all life disappeared in a geological instant (a few million years or less). The end-Permian extinction was the worst of the five known mass extinctions, and many iconic marine animals from the era, including ammonites, trilobites, and crinoids, saw a sharp decline in their numbers or went extinct.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
Almost 80% of all life was wiped out.

But death wasn't the only aspect of the end-Permian extinction. It was also about life, namely a massive bloom of plankton that is believed to have developed when the chemistry of the water became out of control.

Large volumes of minerals like sulfur and iron and phosphates were dumped into the oceans, likely due to catastrophic volcanic eruptions. This eventually resulted in a runaway greenhouse effect, an increase in ocean temperatures, and ocean acidification. The increase in phosphates was good for life in the short term because the extra nutrients supported plankton growth in the oceans and the growth of animals that fed on plankton. But the increase in plankton also meant a further decrease in the concentration of oxygen, leading, eventually, to widespread ecosystem collapse.

So, it might not be a good idea to mess with the amount of plankton.

9. CFCs were invented to provide a less toxic refrigerant, except they almost destroyed the ozone layer

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
CFCs are not the best things for the planet.

And finally, one of the best, well worst, examples of attempts to help the planet is the case of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).

Thomas Midgley Jr. developed a method for synthesizing the first CFC ("Freon") in the late 1920s and spearheaded the initiative to employ CFCs as a refrigerant in place of the hazardous but widely used ammonia (NH3), chloromethane (CH3Cl), and sulfur dioxide (SO2).

Midgley, by the way, also developed leaded gasoline.

Minimal boiling point, low toxicity, and general non-reactivity were criteria used in the hunt for a novel refrigerant, and CFCs hit all the right notes. Midgley flamboyantly demonstrated that his CFC had all these qualities in a demonstration for the American Chemical Society in 1930 by inhaling a breath of the gas and using it to extinguish a candle.

9 worst natural world protection measures that completely backfired
CFCs were used in various things including spray cans.

It seemed like the perfect solution.

However, CFCs, it turned out, were not the kindest substances for the ozone layer. The gases, along with halons and hydrochlorofluorocarbons cause significant damage to the ozone layer, which protects the planet from damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays from the Sun.

Additionally, they can warm the Earth's lower atmosphere. Because of this, CFCs and similar substances were banned under the Montreal Protocol in the late-1990s. However, their use for so many decades put completely unnecessary strain on the natural world at large.

And that is your lot for today.

These are but some of the worst decisions made by well-intentioned human beings to help the wider world or their fellows. Unfortunately, each one backfired spectacularly.

Hopefully, policymakers of the future will take heed and not act without considering all ramifications of their intentions.

message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron