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Taiwan rushes to contain sudden cane toad invasion

With flashlights in hand and shielded by protective gloves, dozens of volunteers from the Taiwan Amphibian Conservation Society worked through the night searching rice fields and vegetable plots for their quarry -- the cane toad. There should be no reason for these large and highly toxic amphibians to exist in Chaotun, a township in the foothills of Taiwan's central mountain range. Cane toads are indigenous to South and Central America and while they have wrought a famously destructive path through places like Australia and the Philippines they had not been recorded in Taiwan. That was until a few weeks ago when a local resident discovered some large amphibians hanging out in her community vegetable garden and uploaded a photograph online, a move that sparked an immediate toadhunt. Soon after the photo was uploaded Yang Yi-ju, an expert at National Dong Hwa University, sent a group of volunteers from the Amphibian Conservation Society to investigate. They arrived at the vegetable garden and were shocked to find 27 toads in the immediate vicinity. She quickly identified the interlopers as rhinella marina thanks to the tell-tale large partoid glands behind the ears where cane toads secrete a dangerous poison. Cane toads are a dangerous invasive species for three key reasons. They are voracious predators, they are hugely successful at breeding and they are poisonous. That latter quality, a defence mechanism, is especially dangerous to dogs who might lick or bite one. Local farmers told conservationists they had noticed the arrival of these burly toads but never reported it. Conservation officials and environmental volunteers have been working non-stop to do a painstaking search. The search perimeter has since been expanded to a 4-kilometer radius. So far more than 200 marine toads of various sizes have been captured and housed at the Endemic Species Research Institute. Cane toads are among the world's '100 Invasive Alien Species' list compiled by the Invasive Species Specialist Group (ISSG), an international advisory body of scientists and policy experts. Also known as marine toads, their most common English name came from the fact that it was used in sugar plantations to hunt cane beetles. They were introduced into plantations in Australia, the Philippines, Japan, the Caribbean as well as Florida and Hawaii where they have caused damage to the local ecosystems. Despite their warty appearance, toads are a symbol of wealth, longevity and good luck in Chinese culture. They are also used in Chinese medicine and their totems are common in feng shui to ward off bad luck. Until 2016 it was legal to import cane toads into Taiwan as pets where they can fetch between NT$3000 to NT$4000 ( US$107-US$142). Conservationists believe since imports were banned, people have started breeding cane toads locally and some have since escaped or abandoned by their masters. So far there have been no other reported sightings in Taiwan and Yang is cautiously optimistic about stopping the spread.